Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

Code Like A Girl

Gender Equality in Physics

Wooing Women Into STEM-focused Programs

Dr. Raphael Guerrero and a student doing a laser experiment — Physics Department Ateneo de Manila University

Where are all the women willing to work on a Physics, Mathematics, or Computer Science project? This question was recently asked of me by a college-age friend of mine, Dan Woller.

Dan is a student at University of Central Florida (UCF). He is trying to find people to participate in a research project he is leading. When I posted a link to a recent Code Like a Girl article, Dan asked me if I had any ideas on how to find women willing to participate in his research project.

Dan’s looking for undergraduate students in good standing to study non-equilibrium phase transitions in a dynamic Mott transition and a spin system. The students must be a declared major in either the Physics, Mathematics, or Computer Science program.

As of last Friday, Dan had filled 18 of the 25 slots for the study. But only males signed up; even though there are women that could represent any one of the three majors. There are women who need study hours. There are women interested in the project, so why haven’t they signed up?

Dan didn’t know how to get women involved. As Dan and I chatted, it became obvious that this issue needed to be addressed. Dan has worked with several organizations within UCF to try and find people to sign up for the project. To quote him, he has made sure the information was shared online in “… UCF forums, STEM groups, and paper copies at several buildings (mainly the CREOL building).”

The more I heard from Dan, the more confused I became. Here was someone running a study who wanted participation from women in STEM programs— someone who had reached out to where women should be — yet he was getting no responses.

Dan isn’t the first person to bring this to my attention. Several people have talked with me about the lack of women going after degrees in physics and who are willing to contribute to research projects. Although Dan is looking for undergraduates in Computer Science, Physics, or Mathematics, for this article, I am concentrating on women in physics.

I decided to do some research into who participates most in these projects and whose work gets credited the most. I wondered if the gender breakdown Dan ran into was local to his school (and the other schools where I had anecdotal evidence of the same kind of split).

I started with the American Physical Society publications website. I looked at the authors of the most recent 51 papers published by APS between July 2016 and April 2017. Surprisingly, the gender split of the authors was close to 50/50 — for the authors whose gender could be identified by the name used on the papers.

That told me that women are participating in research in these fields — and that APS is publishing the research without a gender bias. In fact, as I was to learn, the APS works hard to ensure women ARE published.

I dug into the programs at physics departments at four specific colleges hoping I would see this same gender neutrality. I looked ate UCLA, UMBC, UCF, and McMurry — Texas. The programs did not share the same gender neutrality of the APS. Of the 10 most recent projects at McMurry, none of them were authored by females. Of the 15 most recent projects at UMBC, two were authored by females. Publication lists at both UCLA and UCF, while an order of magnitude larger than McMurry and UMBC, showed less than 15% of the projects were authored by females.

Up to this point, I was feeling very uncomfortable with the results I was finding. It seemed that Dan was not alone in having problems getting non-male contributors for his project. I wondered if the results had anything to do with the instructional staff at the schools. Using data found on the APS website, I looked up the gender split of tenured professors, graduate students, and post doctoral instructors (post doc)for each of the four schools. APS makes it easy to access the NSF data — They have a list of gender breakdowns for 156 physics programs on their website. The results?

For those wondering… I scanned the data for about another third of the schools. The breakdowns were close to the same as the four listed above.

I knew the STEM numbers were still skewed towards men. I didn’t realize the number of female physics professors, graduate students, and post docs was so low.

How does this lead back to Dan’s project? Dan’s looking for female research participants. If we figure that the number of female undergrads in physics at UCF is even twice the number of females listed above, we can see that the issue isn’t whether women are signing up for any particular research project or study, the issue is that there aren’t enough women in the departments to cover a third of the open spots across the various projects.

And that’s a theory that is backed up by the National Science Foundation (NSF) data on how many males and females are enrolled in the various STEM programs across the U.S. The NSF data can be downloaded from the APS website. The basic conclusion? While women who have earned bachelor degrees in STEM programs are approaching 40%, women who have earned bachelor degrees in physics is less than 20%.

What’s more concerning is that the percentage of women getting bachelor’s degrees in physics has fallen between 2003 and 2013. According to the NSF data, the actual number of female physics graduates per year has increased by 400 graduates. In the same time, the male physics graduates per years has increased by over 2200 graduates. In fact, the percentage of female physics and engineering graduates still sits at about 20%. For the other degrees represented in the NSF data (mathematics and statistics, chemistry, earth sciences, and biology), women make up almost 40% of the graduating population.

Until we can find a way to drastically increase the number of women signing up for physics degrees, people like Dan will continue to struggle to maintain gender equality for STEM-focused projects.