Women in physics: AIP survey

Following a discussion with a friend on the subject of women in science, and in physics in particular, I have looked up some recent data from the American Institute of Physics, specifically their 2005 survey of “more than 1350 women physicists from more than 70 countries […] cover[ing] women physicists’ experiences in education and careers”.
There is one thing about this study that I find odd. I assume that one of its aims was to address gender inequities in physics careers; however, no comparison is attempted of corresponding data for women and men, which renders the scope of the study limited, and the interpretation of some of the data ambiguous.

For example, Table 14 shows percentages of women physicists who express dissatisfaction with some specific aspects of their profession (availability of funding for research and travel, office and lab space, equipment and clerical support); data are broken down by geography (developing versus developed countries) but it would have been interesting to compare them to those for men (which I would expect to be available). Without such a comparison, assessing the significance of these percentages vis-a-vis gender is problematic.
Anecdotal evidence is presented, regarding discriminatory attitudes toward women, 65% of whom identify “discrimination”, and 80% “attitude toward women” as aspects that need improvement (Table 18 [0]).
On the other hand, 43% of women surveyed identify “climate for women” as one of the reason for being “discouraged” about physics (Table 17); the interesting aspect here is that this is the only woman-specific reason cited in the table, and is not ranked highest. All the other reasons (interaction with colleagues, family obligations, personal life, research and funding) affect men as well, for whom, again, similar data are not reported.
Moreover, 78% of women report either an “excellent” or “good” relationship with their advisors (Table 6); this would seem a fairly high percentage in any case, but again it loses much of its significance without a comparison of percentages reported by men.

[0] Here, it is not clear to what extent these percentages are peculiar of physics, i.e., whether similar percentages may be found in other professional sectors.

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One Response to “Women in physics: AIP survey”

  1. mareserinitatis Says:

    I agree that it would have been useful to have a comparison against men in the field. (In the report, the authors noted that they received responses from some men, but they apparently didn’t want to include them.)

    As far as the percentages who have experienced discrimination, it may be (as has been most of my experience) that there may be one or two individuals with a bad attitude with whom the respondents have regular contact. These people may or may not have a direct impact on the woman’s career. (And if the women are fairly astute, they’ll make a point of avoiding getting involved with people who have that sort of attitude.)

    I really didn’t like the wording of the questions in this report, and your comment about being discouraged was a key point. I assume it means they aren’t personally discouraged, but it contrasts with another statistic given later where they said 91% of the respondents said the situation for women in physics needed to change in their countries or that 80% said societal attitudes need to be changed. If the respondents took this as being discouraged on a personal level, it could be misleading to someone who thinks that this means “the overall state of physics.”

    While the intent of this report may have been to look at women who had succeeded in physics, it also gives no indication as to why women “dropped out” along the way. A comparison with that group would also be extremely useful. I would guess you’d see different answers. The ones who did respond may have had more persistence or may simply have been lucky to have encountered a more supportive environment (or both).

    On a more anecdotal level, FWIW, the reality of family obligations is that they tend to hit women a lot more than men. So while you’re right that they can affect men as well, my experience leads me to believe that they often do not either because the men are not married or simply do not feel the same obligation to family life as the women. I’ve seen tons of women drop out entirely, quit after an MS or take jobs they didn’t want because of their spouses. I can only recall one man who did that.

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