Leaky Pipelines, Or Locked Doors?

Tim left this comment over at Uncertain Principles on Chad's post The Pipeline Problem:

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.

  1. It takes time for women to move through the pipeline.
  2. Therefore there will be more women in lower-ranked positions.
  3. All people in higher-ranked positions will tend to be older.
  4. Women are over-represented in the younger cohort and under-represented in the older cohort.
  5. Therefore women will predominantly be found in lower-ranked positions.
  6. PhD-granting institutions have proportionately more full professors.
  7. Therefore they have proportionately older faculty.
  8. 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

  1. PhD-granting institutions are less likely to seek out and hire women;
  2. PhD-granting institutions are less likely to have family-friendly employee policies; and
  3. 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.)

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I am one of those who leaked out of the pipeline. My high school physics class had more women than men. In college, the major classes in physics were almost half women. In graduate school, I was in the minority as a woman as well as a 'domestic' student. I spoke English so I could teach undergraduate labs and recitations while the non-English speaking students were given research assistantships. When I did a good job of teaching, I was considered to be 'unsuited' to research and never offered a research assistantship even though I actively pursued them. I was pulled aside and told that I could get an MS degree and teach at a community college or even skip the graduate degree and teach at a high school as I was better suited, 'as all women are,' to teaching.

I also remember numerous instances of overt harrassment and abuse. Everything from being told 'blondes shouldn't be physicists' to chastising me in front of the entire class for asking a question on an 'obvious to the most casual observer' derivation. I have been attacked/groped/fondled by a male graduate student during a lab and when I yelled was told that the student, who did not speak English as a first language, must have misunderstood me in some manner. I finished my degree and moved on to something else.

As far as the statistics, have any of you noticed that the adjunct, instructor, and non-tenure track positions are occupied disproportionalty by trailing spouses? These positions have little to no room for advancement. In some cases, one can't apply for research grants as chief PI due to the position you hold. So, your resume continues to suffer (publish or perish) and you are less marketable as time goes by. Therefore you never do get a tenure-track position, let alone reach full professor. Academic science is very unforgiving of periods of 'lower' productivity such as when raising a family or caring for ill parents or both. But maybe you are one of those superwomen who can do it all. You write the grants, spend 80+ hours per week working, and keeping your home running smoothly only to wake up one day and realize you hate your job. Maybe you are forced into this realization by your ever-declining health (blood pressure of 208/123 isn't good for you).

For me, I hated the constant 'begging' required each and every day to justify the basic things I needed in order to do my job. Everything from lab space to supplies to an appointment to see my advisor required a negotiation and justification that I really did 'need/deserve' these things.

The powers that be made it clear that there were very few academic slots open in physics and they should only go to the 'best and brightest' which translated to the white men in the ranks who received all the attention. I left as I saw no future in staying in Physics.

By SuzyQueue (not verified) on 18 Sep 2006 #permalink

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.

I think you might equally well conclude that he's got a point. As I commented on Chad's post, what data we have (insert appropriate caveats!) indicate that the single worst identifiable leak[1] is between high school and college -- that is, in the choice to take college physics at all. Where Chad teaches, women seem to take advanced classes at about the same rate that they take intro classes. This indicates to me that Chad's department is retaining women who choose to enter it, at least through undergrad.

That fewer women than men choose to take college physics is certainly due in part to colleges discouraging women in various subtle and not-so-subtle ways. But isn't it also true that if high school physics was a worse experience for women than for men (and I bet it is), then fewer women would choose college physics unless they were very, very strongly recruited? Even colleges that go somewhat out of their way to encourage women to take physics would find themselves "inheriting" the K-12 problem. (And in such colleges, we might well find male faculty who are a bit peevish about being blamed for it...)

I'm not, mind, arguing that women should not be more strongly recruited into science and tech fields -- or that such recruitment should be considered a fix for whatever problems exist at the high school level. The problem should be addressed at every level. I'm just saying that I think both factors ("high school physics sucked", and "college physics looks like it will suck") combine to push women away from college physics.

[1]Come to think of it, the disparity at the faculty level is probably worse, and the whole "worst leak" metaphor is decidedly unhelpful. But the rest of my argument stands. :-)

SuzyQueue's experience seems contrary to my interpretation of the data (which, it must be continually pointed out, suffers badly from the small sample size). SuzyQueue, any comments? Am I way off in thinking that high school physics is worse for women?

My high school Physics was taught by an openly gay man who kept his distance from the women in class when helping them. He did lean over too close and touched men on the back as he helped them so they did not want to ask for help. Basically, the men in the class found the climate to be quite chilly and yes this is opposite of the stories I've heard. I found the class easy and Physics as an enjoyable subject, even taking the upper level class that had few men in it as it wasn't required. The men took the upper level Biology class which was taught by one of the football coaches. Very few women were in those classes as the climate was chilly for them but not for the men. I personally hated the required Biology class and never took another class.

In the college I chose, there was a family atmosphere where all the students were known by name by all the faculty. I was quite comfortable there. There was also a tenured female faculty member who I had as an instructor although we always kidded about the class being "Sesame Street meets Einstein." Graduate school was a big culture shock. I learned to hate Physics there.

By SuzyQueue (not verified) on 18 Sep 2006 #permalink

I learned not to even think about physics in High School. Granted, my high school had a large number of coexisting factors (extremely underfunded, even more extremely underperforming when I started [about the 18th percentile, my first year; the entire four years was spent to push us up to "somewhere near the national average!"], massive issues with teacher training and retention, huge non-english-speaking population in a state prohibiting bilingual education, etc.), so it was largely the luck of the draw that I got the inept, idealistic new teacher with abysmally low expectations, rather than the brilliant-by-all-accounts, idealistic, new teacher with high expectations and a lot of training.

The first teacher had a shiny degree from a very good school. He was given the "honors/AP" course. Unfortunately, due to population problems, there weren't enough of us to make a whole separate class, so half of the students weren't honors/AP at all, and hadn't had the preparation or motvation to do honors/AP work. Despite promising us early on that he would "teach everyone as if they were honors/AP students," we spent that semester (I refused to take it for more than a semester) making cars out of mousetraps, chairs out of pizza boxes, and consistently proving him wrong on the most basic things ("it's physically impossible to suck water up a straw longer than 5 feet long" "even a flimsy handmade catapult should be able to launch a ball 90 meters" etc.). Our homework was nonexistent, the teaching shoddy, classroom discipline uneven, and I learned nothing except that I really, really didn't like physics.

(The other teacher, on the other hand, didn't have as impressive credentials, but was a Teach For America grad, well trained, and apparently good at what he did. The non-honors classes worked hard, learned new things, and often came away enthusiastic. They also never took the AP test or had anything to show for it when it was over.)

I stopped taking physics after that semester. I switched to "independent study" with my school counselor, taking an online phsyics course. I didn't learn that way either (my counselor had 800 students to counsel, and although she's an excellent teacher when she has time, is a biologist by trade and degree, not a physicist by any stretch of the imagination). As part of the deal (for letting me out of the class) I had to take the AP anyway; I didn't even know most of the words, and got a 1 (for those not in high school recently, the AP scores range from 1-5, and are normed for the population taking them. The people who score the best out of the testing population get 5s, and those who score worst get 1s, with a presumably bell-shaped distribution of scores in the middle). As did every single other person who had stayed in the course, with the single exception of my absurdly driven friend who studied on his own every day, and managed a 2.

Even though my school offered a "Physics for Poets" course (which was the only science course for non-majors, and was discontinued in my junior year anyway), I just couldn't bring myself to take it again. I took Chemistry (about which I have a similarly depressing story, but in which I at least performed well on my own) in my senior year, and struggled a lot, but it was worth it not to take physics.

My story doesn't have much on the surface to do with the fact that I'm female, or a minority. All of us suffered.

But in the one science course that was taught well (AP Biology, of course. Taught by a woman teacher, of course, where the math and physics teachers were all male), only two girls (out of 15 students) started, and only one finished. Same thing with Trig/Pre-calc. By the time I got to calculus (which was, incidentally, the highest math available and only taught intermittently because there weren't usually enough qualified students), I was the only girl, the only black person (and I'm mixed and don't primarily identify that way), and the only non-senior.

(For reference, my school's demographics at the time: 55% Hispanic, 30% Black/African-American, 6% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 12%white. It's now an IB corridor school, and the demographics have shifted enormously. I don't have exact numbers any more, as I no longer work for the counselors)

Just getting there was a pain. My mother had to fight with the principal of my Jr. High for a year to get him to take me out of remedial courses, because they took one look at me (a minority girl going to a predominately white private school at the time) and thought that I couldn't do math. By the time they changed it, I'd decided I didn't care. And so on and so forth. I have educational horror stories for every grade.

I suppose that's a fairly long-winded way to say that "leak" is an understatement. I didn't go to tiny schools in the middle of nowhere. There are hundreds of stories like mine, and worse than mine, in the biggest school districts of the wealthiest states.

So yes, we do need to look earlier. But that in no way invalidates the fact that there are huge issues in the academy at the undergraduate and graduate levels both.

By Periphrasis (not verified) on 18 Sep 2006 #permalink