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Dreaming of a more diverse physics community

Posted by Melissa on January 29, 2009

Natalie Angier’s article in last week’s New York Times has once again served as a reminder that in the sciences, and particularly in physics, we still have a long way to go before we achieve gender equity. I’ve had a number of conversations in the past week prompted by Angier’s article. In the various conversations, three questions about the current situation and future possibilities for women in physics came up repeatedly so I’ve included a few thoughts on those questions here.

Do you introduce students to the issues that women in science face or do you let students travel their own paths and meet challenges as they come to them?

I think this is a tough question. I don’t want to demoralize students or induce worries about issues that some women may not encounter. However, it is also helpful for women to be aware of the forces out of their control that impact their progress in school and in their careers, and how they might work to counteract negative influences.

My eyes were opened early, and I think it made a difference in how I made decisions. My mother was active in AAUW in the early 1990s when AAUW published its widely discussed report “How Schools Shortchange Girls.” We talked about that report around the dinner table when I was in about 9th grade, and I was never able to be ignorant in my education again. I suddenly noticed that teachers did indeed give different feedback to boys and girls in my classes. From then on, I realized that while I could control aspects of my performance/involvement in the classroom, there were environmental elements in my learning that I could never control. I learned that I had to monitor my experience, and that I had to make sure that my decisions and feelings were based on my own internal beliefs and preferences and not simply a reaction to environmental influences.

Are you optimistic about the situation of women in physics?

I have become less optimistic the longer I have persisted in physics. Initially, I imagined there existed a few old guards resistant to change, but that the attitudes and actions that hindered women in physics were on their way out. Yet I have had physicists of my generation say appalling things to me, and I continue to be disappointed in the complacency of people who claim to be allies.

What does make me optimistic is that women who have had 30+ year careers say that they have seen improvement over the course of their careers. However, now that the blatant discrimination is gone, the challenges are more insidious. For that reason, I think Virginia Valian’s book, Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women, might make good required reading for scientists. She explores “women’s lack of achievement in situations where nothing seems to be wrong.” Just because things look good on the surface does not mean that everything is good. Gender schemas are more powerful than many acknowledge.

What would you like to see in the future?

I’ve come to accept that there are so many factors at play in the issue of increasing women’s participation in physics that the solution is beyond simple prescriptions. Although we face challenges today, I dream about the future (with apologies to one famous dreamer).

  • I have a dream that one day my physics classroom will reflect the demographic make-up of the college at which I teach and the demographics of the college at which I teach will more closely reflect the demographics of the nation as a whole.

  • I have a dream that one day all future physicists will be taught by teachers who enjoy teaching physics, advised by advisors who support them regardless of their personal and professional goals, and welcomed by colleagues who want the physics community to be vibrant and diverse, not static and exclusive.

  • I have a dream that one day physics faculty will be judged not just by the quantity of publications or the numbers on student evaluations, but by the quality of the range of contributions they have made to the community as a whole, and that these contributions can be made through meaningful part-time or full-time work.

  • I have a dream that one day women won’t have to be the primary advocates for change, but that the status quo will be confronted by a broad based coalition of men and women, who want to lead balanced lives with time for paid work in a profession, unpaid work at home or in the community, and leisure. (I find myself inspired by the discussion Robert Drago presents in his book Striking a Balance: Work, Family, Life.)

  • Most of all, I have a dream that by the end of my professional career posts like these will seem extremely dated. We’ll see…

3 Responses to “Dreaming of a more diverse physics community”

  1. Alex said

    I have a dream that one day physics faculty will be judged not just by the quantity of publications or the numbers on student evaluations, but by the quality of the range of contributions they have made to the community as a whole, and that these contributions can be made through meaningful part-time or full-time work.

    Can you expand on this? I’m not sure what you mean. I can think of several different types of community service that a school might reward:

    1) Service to the scientific community (review panels, editorial boards, conference organizing, etc.) is already counted as professional development, although the weight it gets will depend on the school.
    2) Service to the campus community via committees is part of the tenure process, although since it’s not a particularly fun part of the job most people would rather not see expanded expectations for this sort of service.
    3) Service to the campus community through work with student organizations and campus life may be counted at some schools, although the extent to which it matters varies greatly. (I suspect that small residential liberal arts schools give it somewhat greater weight.)
    4) Service to the wider community is generally not a big part of the evaluation process, although volunteer work with an academic component (e.g. judge a science fair, participate in outreach, tutor) or a student life component (e.g. you do volunteer work and bring students along or help a student organization with its community service activities) may get significant credit at some schools.

    I’m guessing you’re referring to number 4. A strong argument could be made for giving it greater weight, but if it doesn’t have a significant student component it’s hard to see why the school should be expecting people to devote significant time to it. (One might also say the same of item 1, however.)

    I’m also not sure how rewarding volunteer work other than scientific outreach would lead to a more diverse physics community. An expanded range of responsibilities would probably be greeted with dismay by most physics faculty of any gender or ethnicity. However, I’ve seen this idea advanced on other blogs, so I’d like to hear the argument for it, so I can understand it better.

  2. meblen said

    I’m not advocating for an expansion of the faculty role to include more service but rather the option to choose to include meaningful service (of various combinations of the four types you mention above) as part of the role in lieu other factors IF a faculty member so desires. Although teaching, research, and service are the three legs of the stool of faculty evaluation, I have heard of very few places where service is evaluated in a manner that is proportionate with the amount of time that some faculty end up dedicating to it. For example, faculty who participate in an institution’s science enrichment program for K-12 students during the school year or the summer often do not get any reduction in workload for what can be significant increase in time commitment and responsibilities. Likewise, faculty of color and women faculty are often disproportionately called on to serve on committees at the institution, or they are approached more often by students for mentoring and advising student groups, and asked by professional societies for helping in activities related to diversity. Some faculty members value service and outreach as a part of their professional lives, and acknowledging these enhanced service roles and the corresponding decrease in time available for other activities can help ensure that faculty who wish to play such a service role may choose to do so without being penalized for having fewer contributions in other areas. At the same time, a faculty member should feel no obligation to participate, and may just as well choose to decline these opportunities if he or she is not interested in such activities.

    All faculty would still need to meet the basic level of teaching and research obligations, but there would be some flexibility in the evaluation of these contributions in light of the contributions being made either through activities on campus that supported student and faculty diversity or through the contributions to science outreach activities beyond the university. For public institutions, I think one can make a strong argument that their funding via the state makes science outreach to the broader community a relevant mission of the institution. For private institutions, justifying science outreach if it does not include student involvement may be harder to do, but such outreach activities can increase goodwill towards the institution and may lead to matriculation of the student participants when they are older.

  3. Every few weeks I’ll look around me and ask myself: why, at a college with rough gender/sex parity and somewhere around 15% students of color, are the majority of majors white males? I wonder if there’s a contribution due to student culture as well; if maybe we as majors aren’t as welcoming and inclusive as we could be to promote everyone’s ability to… just do what they enjoy (and who doesn’t enjoy physics? ;-)). And if we’re facing a problem of interest–if, say, potential female majors have had negative experiences in their earlier schooling that discouraged them from pursuing physics at Carleton, how can we (both as students and faculty) help compensate for that bias?

    Melissa, I don’t know if you’ve talked to Deanna in the math department, but she’s made it a point in some of her major-track courses to discuss the issues facing women in mathematics, as well as more general discussion of the math community and how graduate programs work. I really appreciated hearing a frank perspective on the state of the culture, as it were. Maybe it would be worth having these sorts of discussions–even just a half hour or so–in class.

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