I thought the data was pretty clear about this: past high school, the [physics] pipeline is no more leaky for women than it is for men…here’s the
Read it for yourselves.
Examination of the academic “pipeline” reveals that women disproportionately leave physics between taking it in high school and earning a bachelor’s degree. While almost half of high school physics students are girls, less that one-fourth of bachelor’s degrees in physics are earned by women. After this initial “leak” in the pipeline, women are represented at about the levels we would expect based on degree production in the past. There appears to be no leak in the pipeline at the faculty level in either physics or astronomy.
Estimates of the retention rates for physics graduate students show only small differences in the dropout rate for male and female students.
Well, this all sounds cheery enough, doesn’t it? Tim did, of course, cherry-pick the most positive quote he could find from the AIP report – actually, the executive summary. Here are some others he could have picked:
At the high school level, half of all physics students are girls, although fewer girls take AP physics [they make up about 25% of calculus-based AP physics classes].
African American and Hispanic women earn very few of the physics degrees in the US.
In fact, the report tells us that between 1976 to 2003, just 35 African American women and 57 Hispanic women earned PhDs in physics. Between 1997-2003, approximately 1100 physics PhDs per year were awarded; on average less than three went to African American women and less than 3 went to Hispanic women. For African American women, this 0.3% share of the PhDs is less than would be expected given their 1.5% share of the bachelor’s degrees. Granted, the statistics of small numbers are tricky. But the small numbers themselves paint a dismal enough picture. And they also tell us something important we need to keep in mind: when we say “women” we are usually, unconsciously, thinking “white” at the same time. When we force ourselves to think about race and sex at the same time, and disaggregate the data, often the picture painted by the data is much more complex than the picture for “women”. When we disaggregate the data, I don’t think we can feel as quite comfortably complacent about it anymore.
Even when working in the same sector for the same number of years, women’s salaries are lower than men’s in physics and related fields.
Despite years of continued growth, women’s participation in physics remains among the lowest of any scientific field…Women’s participation in physics is increasing, although slowly, and the rate of increase has not kept pace with other fields. [Physics is comparable to engineering in this widening gap with the biological sciences, chemistry, and mathematics.]
Just looking at the percentages, or looking at the field in isolation from the rest of society, does not give the whole picture.
At the college and university level, degree-granting physics departments had just 10% female faculty members in 2002…However, there are differences by rank and by type of institution, with larger percentages of women in the lower ranks and at departments that do not grant graduate degrees. While only 5% of full professors of physics are female, 16% of assistant professors are female. Similarly, 16% of adjuncts and instructors are women…Women are also more highly represented at physics departments that grant only bachelors degrees [14% of the faculty]…At departments that grant PhDs in physics, just 7% of faculty members are women.
The report makes a number of assumptions to explain away the data on distribution of women faculty.
- It takes time for women to move through the pipeline.
- Therefore there will be more women in lower-ranked positions.
- All people in higher-ranked positions will tend to be older.
- Women are over-represented in the younger cohort and under-represented in the older cohort.
- Therefore women will predominantly be found in lower-ranked positions.
- PhD-granting institutions have proportionately more full professors.
- Therefore they have proportionately older faculty.
- Therefore they will have proportionately fewer women.
This seems reasonable, and convenient. However, it is also true, as the report notes, that new female hires are more likely to be hired as adjuncts, instructors, or visiting professors than into tenure-track positions. I’m thinking another possible explanation might be that
- PhD-granting institutions are less likely to seek out and hire women;
- PhD-granting institutions are less likely to have family-friendly employee policies; and
- At PhD-granting institutions, women spend more time at each rank, advancing more slowly up the career ladder, and have a harder time obtaining tenure.
There’s some evidence for these possibilities, as the infamous MIT report has shown.
Another quote Tim didn’t pick regards the data on how many physics departments have zero women on the faculty. More than 20% of PhD-granting institutions, and fifty percent of all physics departments have zero women on the faculty.
It is true that the AIP report states that the data seem to show that women are present at “expected” percentages at each point along the so-called pipeline. They make this statement cautiously and with several large caveats about the quality of the data they are using, the data they are missing, and the assumptions they are making. It’s also true that the AIP report ends with this statement:
Another issue of concern (about which we have no data in this report) is the effect of the climate for women in physics, which in some departments is very chilly. The climate speaks to the everyday worklife of female physicists, who are often still told, through actions if not words, that physics is a man’s world. Although many departments do not have chilly climates and are working to improve the conditions for faculty and students, better data are needed to document the conditions so that effective practices may be established to correct unwelcoming climates where they exist. As women continue to progress up the academic ladder in physics and astronomy, we will no doubt see many corrective actions and much progress in this area.
Well, I hope so. It seems to me that there is still plenty of work to be done at the college level. In fact, if you consider, as the report says, that half of all physics students in high school are girls, you might be tempted to conclude that Chad’s original argument about the pipeline is, well, wrong. The problem isn’t in K-12. After all, the girls are taking physics in high school. Why aren’t they being recruited into first-year physics majors? How do you get the boys there? By default? Well, you can’t wait for the girls to just show up on your doorstep. It’s instructive in this regard to look at how the Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science transformed itself, increasing its enrollment of women from 7% to 42% in a span of 5 years. (See Unlocking the Clubhouse by Margolis and Fisher.)