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Steve Nahn | USLHC | USA

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Women in Physics

Well, I am a bit leery of this potentially inflammatory subject, but this issue has been popping up with considerable frequency lately, including  Colette’s comment to new blogger Vivian (Hi Viv), a NYT article from some weeks ago, and a Physics division all hands meeting to try to brainstorm about what we can do to increase diversity within our ranks.  Yes indeed, the gender ratio of bloggers is not representative of the field.  I suppose this is true for all jobs which aren’t “9-5″, but in Physics it is apparently more pronounced.

Now, for fairly obvious reasons I do not feel like I have a reasonable appreciation for what creates this disparity.    There are some common reasons I think I at least can rationalize:

  • the pipeline: that culturally we have unconsciously swayed young women away from the hard sciences at a young age, so there just aren’t as many female candidates for advanced degrees and academic positions in Physics.  There is truth to this, but some inconsistencies too, mentioned in the NYT article.
  • the critical mass: potentially excellent female physicists are dissuaded from the field because they don’t want to be the only woman among coworkers-it is always lonely in the minority.
  • an MIT specialty- the firehose: success in this field is quite demanding, like drinking from a firehose, there is a deluge of things to deal with in a very short time – many hoops to jump through, lots of long hours, very little time for non-work pursuits, none of which is particularly conducive to family life, although I do not understand why this should have a gender specific effect.

There are probably others, but as I am not female, I am not really in a position to speculate.   I welcome suggestions.

If I think about my own situation, it is definitely true that my (wonderful) wife does the lion’s share of the child rearing tasks these days, and being away at CERN for multiple weeks at a time is not something I could do if she weren’t so flexible.  This seems to be the case for (almost?) all of my male peers with children- the spouses are typically at home or have flexible working hours and do most of the heavy lifting in terms of child care.    For married female peers, first, there aren’t a lot of statistics, that’s the point of this blog.  I know a few who have  solved the “two body” problem and have husbands also working a strenuous schedule, even some who work in different cities/states, but they do not have kids, and arrange to fly a lot to be together when schedules allow, etc.  I know less that do have children, and depend on a nanny/daycare for child care.  Still, those options require someone to be home at the end of the day and on weekends, which is not always possible for the aspiring physicist.

But here’s the real kicker, I guess: I cannot think of a single example of the opposite of my situation- the wife is working the time consuming job and the husband has the flexible job and does the child rearing.   Maybe there’s another “critical mass” which is lacking, and that is the “stay at home” Dad, so a woman is forced to choose between a less time consuming career and having kids, or going for that time consuming career and either finding that rare partner who takes on the role of primary child rearer, or ending up without kids.  (Note I am not saying there is anything wrong with not having kids, but my impression is that most of us have the expectation that we’ll have offspring at some point.)  It is certainly true that physicists tend to have kids late, (perhaps post-tenure? there’s  study for someone) – I know because I am the exception, with a 13 and 11 year old- the vast majority of my peers have kids ~5-8 years younger than mine, or more, and maybe that delay while the biological clock is still ticking plays a role as well?

I do know that both at MIT and in the field as a whole we are trying to do something about it.  The American Physics Society has a Committee on the Status of Women in Physics and a  Women in Physics program, which offers site visits to improve the climate for fostering women (and other minorities) in your department, and the results of a survey titled “Is your Graduate Department in Physics Female Friendly?” which 168 insitutions (including MIT) have responded to.  At MIT, the Physics Dept. supports both graduate women in physics and undergraduate women in physics groups, and in my own division 2 of the last 3 hires were women (who are also excellent physicists).  My point is that there is desire and effort to improve the situation, but exactly how to do that is not particularly clear, at least to me- part of the meeting today was to raise awareness and brainstorm a bit, so that was the straw that broke the camel’s back for writing this blog- you are invited to share your opinions (although we will censor with a conservative fist lest this turn into “the battle of the sexes“).


9 Responses to “Women in Physics”

  1. Seth Zenz says:

    Don’t forget discrimination in hiring! Although I don’t have any specific examples to give — anything clear-cut would be blatantly illegal, after all — the conventional wisdom is that women applying for faculty positions have to be careful to avoid implying that they might take time off to start a family. I guess the idea is that the hiring committees, consciously or unconsciously, are disinclined to pick people who they suspect might not devote 150% time to the “firehose” phase of being an academic.

  2. Thomas Goddard says:

    Perhaps adding more shoes to the program would create interest. I’m joking. My physics classes have a couple of very smart woman in them but neither of them seem very interested in the subject, except perhaps for GPA reasons. I get together with my male friends and have pizza parties to talk about physics and to help understand it better.

    Throwing money at the problem just doesn’t seem like a very honest and fair strategy. This will simply breed mediocrity into a field where true excellence comes from the hearts and minds of those willing to spend their life dedicated to understanding the core mathematical language of the universe.

    Creating passion for woman has been a long drawn out mystery for most men ;) . Many men enter physics because of their deep passion for the universe and what role the real matrix plays in it.

    To understand the programming language of nature is to understand the mind of god. Happy Valentines Day.

  3. Peter Martel says:

    On a sabbatical in France I noted that there were many prominent women physicists in my lab (the Leon Brillouin Lab, at Saclay) near Paris. These ladies were first class scientists. Very often their husbands were physicists as well. Some names that come to mind are Marianne Lambert, co-director of the lab, M. C. Bellisient-Funel, Fernande Moussa and last but not least, Martine Hennion, with whom I share a paper in Phys Rev A. Martine had four children, one of whom became an assistent to Bernard Kouchner, a co-founder of Doctors Without Borders and the present minister of foreign affairs for France.

    I don’t know if this would help more women to pursue a time-consuming job like physics but in France there is no school on Wednesday afternoons. Furthermore, the French have an excellent chidcare system called the “maternelle”.

  4. Åka says:

    Why is it necessary that physicists work so many hours per week? I think this must be a local work culture thing. I’m not sure if it’s the same way all over the world, but I know that it’s easy to be scared away by this implicit requirement. I understand that teaching takes a lot of effort if you want to do it well, but I also think there is something a bit wrong with the system if a job requires 80 hour work weeks if you want to stay in the game at all.

    I’m a physicist. I have a child, and another one coming. I go home early the days of the week that it’s my turn to pick up the little one from day care. I don’t work very much on weekends. I love my job, and we’ll see how long I can stay in physics if I also want a life. I hope a while longer!

    Don’t forget that men are parents too, and should have a right to be with their kids as they grow up. If women cannot work because of kids, men with kids should also be allowed to take it slower.

    Many people tell me that I should not be afraid, and that physicists don’t have to be workaholics. The professors around me tell me that it’s possible to balance work and life, and that I should look at the good role models instead of those who work around the clock and never sleep. But still, I see this kind of posts, and I’m afraid that I will not live up to the expectations.

    Well, I’m going to Europe and not to the US. We’ll see how things work out.

    To Thomas Goddard: do you realize that your post reads as if women are not people? I have worked in a lab where I hoped to gather experience, but when someone talked to me at all it was usually about clothes and stuff I’m not interested in at all. I know you don’t mean it that way, but I think that women will feel excluded from the men’s pizza parties as long as they are considered to be mysterious and strange. I love physics, but because of attitudes like yours I have been very reluctant to talk to some of my class mates — if I didn’t seem smart and interested enough in *the right way* with the right manners it was so easy to feel dismissed as “a girl”. You know, that’s very uninspiring.

    (I hope I will not regret writing this very personal comment…)

  5. Steve says:

    Feedback is good! I will try to encourage:

    Seth: Indeed, there is discrimination in hiring as well – there have been studies of which I do not know the details at all – eg. Wenneras and Wold (1997) in Nature, 387, 341-43 that show that a candidate with the same credentials but different gender will receive different reviews of competency, women having to work 2.5 times harder (don’t ask how they quantify) to get the the same level as men. But I think this is something we can consciously deal with.

    Thomas: Well, not much help there – I don’t know why you thought throwing money at the problem was a proposed solution, I don’t see how that might help either, except perhaps into programs to fix the pipeline problem by finding out why it is happening and then addressing programs which encourage women to see the hard sciences as “for them”. You also seem to have crossed a line with Aka, but this is a touchy subject (ask Larry Summers)- we are trying to discuss an observed difference between the genders but without (subjectively negative) stereotyping the genders, and it can get tricky so perhaps some of your lighthearted remarks were not seen as such. It’s all very well and fine to wax poetic on the beauty of understanding Nature, but that is not all there is to life, nor is it gender specific. Seems to me Aka’s complaint also speaks to the “critical mass” issue – the scarcity of women in physics makes their presence somewhat of a novelty, i.e. “strange”.

    I am somewhat stymied by Aka’s larger point- why is it that physics appears to encourage one to put work priorities so far ahead of family priorities, and as a Dad whose kids are not going anywhere this week during their winter break because of his work, I am feeling this rather acutely. It certainly isn’t situation independent: I am untenured at one of the more prestigious universities in physics, so it may very well be that I exacerbated the issue and there are better attempts at work-life balance than my own; but, it is a competitive field, and while there is high respect for people setting aside time for family, I find that just the many many things that I have to do, that even I expect of myself to do, eats most of the time up. Certainly it is also the market – few positions, many applicants, so one feels the need to sacrifice everything to stand out. I guess we’d have to change the mindset considerably – make the climate, the hiring/retention criteria, etc less susceptible to triggering the balance to shift so much towards work, although the way it is now has enormous inertia so this would take some rather drastic shifts I think from way high up.

    But this is me brainstorming, so I’ll stop now and let someone set me straight…

  6. Thomas Goddard says:


    Feedback is good. I was not trying to imply that you mentioned anything about throwing money at the problem. I was simply referring to some of the efforts going on globally.

    My post was all a bit satiric actually so I am glad you caught that. We all kind of joke about it light heatedly and in no way intend to make it seem as though we don’t care. Aka, I know it’s a touchy subject and I am sorry you feel so touchy about the subject. We do try to get our female friends involved, believe me!!! I am not a physicist in any right so I don’t really know about the whole philosophical motivation or any of that and I wasn’t trying to sound like I was speaking for all. I just have a lot of respect for the people that look at physics and nature objectively and probably come off as only looking at those folks. I can’t help it :)

    As for working long hours… It’s really bad in so many areas and not just physics. It might just be competition. Keep your heads up!!! I for one, really appreciate the dedication and passion you guys have for your work.

  7. Lauren says:

    I’m a bit late to this post, but i wanted to point out that there was a study of the affects of child rearing and other family care on women and men academics in the U of California system, with a specific emphasis on Berkeley. Its a fascinating read (and somewhat depressing as a woman scientist). Part one is here: http://www.grad.berkeley.edu/deans/mason/Babies%20Matter1.pdf and part two is: http://ucfamilyedge.berkeley.edu/babies%20matterII.pdf. Making academia more family friendly would go a long way towards increasing the number of women in physics. You could do this through instituting “stopping the tenure clock” for childbirth or family care (which many institutions have done, but not many people take advantage of), building maternity leave into grants, having available, affordable on campus childcare, etc. Problems such as bias in hiring can be helped by simply reminding the committees to consider minority applicants since the bias is largely unconscious. Luckily, departments such as yours are cognizant of the problems and are taking steps to help!

  8. Ramni says:

    By chance I am here! Reading the enteries. When I was searching the web for the facts there were no enetries.

    I was and am really interested in this topic and it really need a debate discussion mending and many things Its not easy to get the answers but is also not difficult only if we all accept that “WE ARE ACTUALLY NOT LIVING OUR LIVE”. I am talking about all the physicists. Saying it that living with physics problems and enjoying the work is Life is just a justification to fool onself. We have become machines.

    Dear all I would like to reinitiate the discussion on this topic if theres some interest from any of you. Pl do write at my email address

    Do write

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