One of the things that ends up bothering me about the discussion of how to get more women in science is that it tends to focus on the college and professional elvel. Everybody seems to have an anecdote about a creepy physics professor, or an unpleasant graduate student, or a sexist post-doc.
This bugs me for a couple of reasons. The obvious one being that I’m a college physics professor, and I’m not that guy. I’m not fool enough to try to deny that unreconstructed sexist pigs exist in the profession, but I’m not one of them, and neither are my immediate colleagues, and sweeping statements that lump us in with the pigs of the world bother me.
The bigger problem, though, is that the focus on the college level really misses the point. The real problem happens earlier, and by the time students get to college, all we can do is damage control. (More below the fold.)
We teach a “First-Year Seminar” class every fall, in which five faculty each spend two weeks lecturing about a topic related to our research. I do a two-week module on laser cooling, other colleagues talk about the quark structure of matter, or black holes and cosmology, or quantum measurement. The idea is to expose new students to some of the really interesting ideas in the field, in the hopes that they’ll be inspired to be physics majors.
I’m teaching it for the fourth time this year, bringing the total number of students I’ve seen in the class to 64. 14 of those students have been women, or just under 22%.
The situation isn’t much different in our calculus-based introductory class for science and engineering majors, which I’ve taught eight times. 35 of the 141 students I’ve had have been women, or just under 25%.
Now, maybe we could do a better job of keeping the women who take those classes in the major program (only 25% of the women in the seminar class go on to be physics majors, compared to about 36% of the men (the numbers are small, though, so the statistical uncertainty is large). For reference, a total of 5/141 (all male) from the regular intro class have become majors, or a whopping 3.5%…), but even if we were so brilliantly inspiring that every student in the class became a physics major, the best female:male ratio we could possibly hope for would be about 1:4. I suppose we could improve things by actively discouraging male students, but that’s a little problematic…
If you want to improve the gender balance in physics, beating up college professors isn’t the answer. We can’t be responsible for driving women out of the field if they never take our classes in the first place. The problem starts somewhere before college, and that’s where the effort to fix it needs to be directed.