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Women In Physics

  1. Jun 25, 2010 #1
    Hello all!

    I'm currently entering my sophomore year as a physics major at a uni with a pretty good program. Right now (and has been for quite some time) I have plans on studying astrophysics and am working towards a B.S in Physics and Astronomy (yes my university has a degree to allow the distinction from this to regular physics). I am one of seven girls out of the approx 40 total physics and physics and astronomy majors for my class year. The male to female ratio (although climbing in recent years) is no stranger to the people on these forums. There are few things I was hoping people with more experience could possibly clear up. Thus far I have heard a wide ranging amount of supposed and frankly some contradictory truths when it comes to women attempting to attain a seat in graduate school for physics. There is always the "some male teachers are sexist" to "because there are less girls you have a better chance of getting into grad school" or "you will get more scholarship money if you are a girl" or my favorite "ha good luck, girls in physics like oil in water" - and yes I unfortunately was told this once by a mean spirited and awfully bitter grad student/TA. Now online, I can find only the stats to how many female's were accepted into a grad program vs total applicants, and the proportion was if not exact but very similar to the male's (I believe I looked at Michigan's stats to be exact?).

    So would anyone here care to share their experiences or perhaps any insight they have gained as to the truth behind the "differences" from male to to female when it comes to attaining a job/PhD in physics? I know there will always be that one professor (but then again professors can have a plethora of other "faults" as well at times), but what about grad school acceptance? Or even research opportunities, such as REU's? In this new modern age there are there no differences, advantages, or disadvantages to being a girl physics major? Or are they still there?

    My curiosity stems from not only being a female physics major, but also one who is quite nervous about whether she will make it or not. And would love to know what world I am desperately trying to step into, and whether this world will have me fighting to the very end to prove my worth! (haha alas must be that rotten ole female nature of mine taking those emotions and running away with them ; P ).

    Thank-You all in advance - any thoughts would be greatly appreciated!

  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 25, 2010 #2
    The problem isn't that you are being treated unfairly, at least not until you start talking about the tenure track positions. The major thing is that women somehow don't last as long as men, they tend to drop off from the academic ladder and do other things in larger proportions than men. Some believes that this have to do with how women are treated, others that women have more interests outside of physics and thus would be more reluctant to forsake a stable job with good pay in favor of following your dream career in academia.

    It is true that women are at least subconsciously treated as they are being inferior. Men who do well are assumed to be smart while women who do well are assumed to be hard working, teachers don't expect women to handle as hard problems etc. It is not like you will really notice much of these in class, it is just statistics, but all of these unconscious signals are hypothesized to make women feel like they aren't good enough to stay.

    Of course there are some cases which are really sexist (even women, there is no real difference) but those are few so hopefully you can rely on the rest.

    As for advantages, the universities are pushed to try to hire more females to even out the statistics so I wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't an advantage to being a female in some situations but I guess that it depends a lot on who is making the decision.
  4. Jun 25, 2010 #3
    I really think sex is not an issue here, if you do well on your exams and not make silly mistakes like I do (check out my thread...), you will be fine.
  5. Jun 25, 2010 #4


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    My friends kept telling me being a woman in physics was an advantage, but frankly I don't see it. About 20-40% of the graduate classes in physics at my school and others I know of are women. Some departments are known for being sexist (avoid Montana State) but for the most part they got over that years ago.

    I was recently talking to a few (male) professors from large southern schools, neither of which had a woman in their astronomy departments. Both schools wanted to hire one so they would have someone to mentor female students, but they can't exactly advertise for a woman only. So maybe it will help us when applying for a job, but I haven't seen the effects yet myself (going for a postdoc first anyway).
  6. Jun 25, 2010 #5
    Frankly, from my personal experience, the fact that 20-40% of your graduate classes are made up of women speaks to how being a woman does help. I don't know of any statistics for the average makeup of a class on the undergrad level, but I know in my classes the percentages do not reach those levels. I'm not saying there's any affirmative action going on where a better qualified male is chosen over a less qualified female, but at that level when everybody is so talented, they may be more willing to go with the female. Also REUs say they want to increase diversity which does help minorities and women.

    On the other hand, women may face more discrimination when it comes to jobs if some jackass doesn't think a female is as good at math as a guy, but I don't have any evidence either way for that. The current domination by males for faculty position may or may not be a generational thing (given the average ages of the professors and such)
  7. Jun 25, 2010 #6
    Much thanks for your wisdom folks! And eri, from the likes of it - I hope to one day stand in your position! Good luck with finding a good post-doc. Oh and I found it interesting that your forum name is consequently the first 3 letters of my name :eek:
  8. Jun 25, 2010 #7


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    Sexism is still alive but slowly disappearing (especially overt sexism). But you can't forget that it's just not as simple as that when it comes to discrimination of any sort. There are systemic issues, the subtle ingrained ways of things that work against women in academia without necessarily being the result of conscious sexism.

    To begin with there's attitudes/image. A female biologist is hardly noteworthy today, a female chemist only a bit more so, but a female physicist still is. At my old university, there was a 50-50 gender ratio among chemistry undergrads, which interestingly turned into a female majority in biochem, about equal in organic chem, and a minority in phys chem. In other words, the distribution went from that of biology to that of physics even within the chemistry subject itself! I can't think of a reason beyond attitudes, really.

    But to give a more specific systemic effect, women are still the ones who have to give birth, and who most often end up putting their careers on hold for kids. (If for no other reason than economic - because women usually earn less. Which itself may be only because they're more often younger than their partner. See how the deck can stack itself against one group without any malice at all?)

    Having kids often ends up happening right in that critical point between a PhD and Post-Doc. And post-doccing, moving around a lot, doesn't work as well with kids either. It's not uncommon that the man can leave for a year while the woman stays behind with the kid, but the opposite is! In any case, we lose women every step of the academic tenure track, fewer women in grad studies than in undergrad, fewer women with PhDs, fewer female post-docs, fewer female profs.

    Affirmative action won't solve these problems. I think what we need, what will happen (and what must happen) is simply a cultural shift towards more shared responsibility of kids and household, rather than the current situation of women largely ending up shouldering both. And as a guy who intends to have kids one day, I want to have my share of time with them, too!
  9. Jun 25, 2010 #8
    Alxm, the points you raise are points I have heard as well- and heavy and important points at that. I am fortunate for although I am a first generation American (my family is from Greece) - I live in a household where my mother carrys us financially, and my father was around more.

    I think what is important is that one not only finds a husband who will deal with my job, but celebrate it. Also a lot of the woman in my family (and I have quite a large family) have had their first child in their mid thirties and more healthy children after that! (I suppose we are of fertile stock haha). So perhaps living in a family where our normalcy does not always coincide with what the stats show, I will have a bit of an advantage in that respect. The one thing I cannot predict is the spontaneity and those "surprises" that pervades everyone's lives. The point is, I am a true believer that if there is a will then there is a way. It seems a little precocious to even be thinking about the prospective age I will have (or even want lol) children, but in attempts to address the issues you have raised I find that it may not be easy but it is doable (I really really hope so).
  10. Jun 25, 2010 #9
    Just a few weeks ago there was a program on CNN about women engineers. A few women engineers were telling about how they had to change their behavior to be more successful like being more assertive when presenting their own work.

    Now, from my own experience, I have noted this too. This affects both men and women, but my experience is that women fall more frequently in the category of people who are a bit shy, who in group meeting will not interrupt others, who when giving presentations will discuss the potential problems about their results far more than most others do etc. etc.

    My Ph.D. supervisor actually made similar comments about me (I'm not a woman). A draft version of an article was not ok. because I was too honest about the results in the introduction. When giving presentations this is even more important. In some cases you really have to lie to the audience. E.g. you may have to say that you obtained the results using a particular method giving some details about how that works, when in fact you did not do that at all. The reason for lying is that the real method you used is too complicated to explain; attempting to do that would raise to many irrelevant objections that will distract too much from the results.
  11. Jun 25, 2010 #10
    OK, this is just my personal experiences, so you shouldn't take it as representative of the physics community. And I'm a guy (who accidentally chose a user name he didn't realize sounded effeminate), so I'm sort of observing this from a third person perspective.

    I've noticed that for grad school admissions at my school, there's a bit of a bias in favor of women, but it's not much. The department will always make sure that offers are made to women, and in spite of this very few women actually accept said offers. But the real bias I've seen is at the faculty level. In the past couple years, my school did something like three searches for new faculty. In the high energy search, an offer was made to a girl candidate who had only done one postdoc. I've seen professors come in here after only two or sometimes three postdocs, so this surprises me. Of course this girl ended up getting an offer from Yale, so obviously we didn't get her. I think that position ended up going to another girl, but this had more to do with the fact that she was the wife of a guy who got a professorship here that year. There was also an astrophysics seach, and again the first offer was made to a girl, even though there were other equally qualified candidates (not to imply that she was in any way a substandard physicist). This one took the offer.

    When I go drinking with the professors, they say things which imply to me that they favor women. I guess it's sort of a gender-based affirmative action. So it seems to me that there's a bias in favor of women. As for discrimination against women, I've never seen anything of the sort. Mostly physicists tend to just discriminate against stupid people. Anyway, that's just my personal experiences, so take them for what they're worth.
  12. Jun 26, 2010 #11
    Ignore the statistics(statistics cannot account for individual cases), just focus on learning and doing as well as you can. Underrepresented groups may exist for reasons beyond discrimination such as culture(which can also influence interests and career choice) and genetic proclivity toward certain behaviors. If anything, being part of an underrepresented group works to your advantage for several reasons: 1) You can take advantage of affirmative action and 2) expectations will not be as high so your success will be like sweet icing on a cake. Do the work expected of any human being(female, male, or other) in your situation and you will be amazed with the results.
  13. Jun 26, 2010 #12


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    Absolutely. I'd recommend ignoring stats and just go for it.

    When I started in physics 35 years ago, probably about 10% of the class were women, and that decreased to about 5% in the senior levels. One of two women was specializing in astrophysics.

    Physics, and science in general, is genderless. Nature doesn't care who is observing.

    Hopefully, one will find one or more good mentors, and in turn one will mentor the next generation in time.
  14. Jun 26, 2010 #13
    I agree that you can't really say whether it will benefit you or disadvantage you because it might benefit you in some situations and disadvantage you in others. I agree it might actually be an advantage in getting hired. However, maybe (and only maybe) it might be a bit awkward sometimes dealing with the mostly male culture while you're actually at work.

    Personally, I've only noticed this at the postdoc level (and it might just be in my head or for other reasons) because I'm the only woman in my research group and the way the group works is very informal. There's not a lot of meetings or seminars so people just meet informally and I don't feel particularly included. But I don't really think this is because I'm a woman - maybe more because I'm shy, or maybe because I'm not as smart as the others, or there's something wrong with me somehow. It's a touchy subject for me.

    But anyway, I think there are much more important factors for your success as a physicist than your gender, and a lot of these you can control. You sound like a smart confident person, so I think you have a good shot.

    I would recommend that, aside from the obvious things like studying hard and learning as much physics as you can, that you try to find some people - male or female, it doesn't really matter - who can play some sort of mentor role. I'm not sure how you do this, because I didn't really. They might be helpful during transitional stages in your career where often you need to assess yourself and decided which grants or whatever are appropriate for you.

    Also, one area where I failed and maybe you can learn from my failure is the following - when I was studying for my bachelors degree I was very shy and usually worked through my assignments on my own while the other students worked together. I missed out on an important opportunity there, because I never really practiced talking to people about math and physics enough and now I'm still shy about it and have to get to know people before I feel confident asking naive questions. I think it helps to start from the very beginning talking in a confident manner. It's not something you can just start to do automatically once you know 'enough' because maybe you never really know enough. Perhaps you already do this, and if so then you are better off than me. :)
  15. Jun 26, 2010 #14
    Yeah, this is really important, never saying anything unless you are completely sure what you are talking about is a bad habit. The worst thing that can happen is that you are wrong in which case you learned something, just make sure that it doesn't happen too often and everyone will be ok with it.

    This way you can learn more, seem smarter and act more confident without any other loss than having to swallow your pride now and then.
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