Considerable progress has been made in attracting more women to careers in physics, but more needs to be done at universities to continue this trend, according to Institute Professor Mildred Dresselhaus and two other women scientists who are studying the issue at 15 schools nationwide.
Professor Dresselhaus, who holds appointments in electrical engineering and computer science and in physics, is co-author of a paper entitled "Interventions to Increase the Participation of Women in Physics" published in the March 11 issue of Science. Her co-authors and collaborators on the study of universities are Professor Judy R. Franz of the University of Alabama at Huntsville (a recent president of the American Association of Physics Teachers and soon to be executive officer of the American Physical Society) and Professor Bunny C. Clark of Ohio State University. In addition to her scientific contributions, Professor Dresselhaus is a former president of the APS who is nationally known for her work in developing wider opportunities for women in science and engineering.
Of 20 countries surveyed for another paper cited by the authors, the United States was tied with Korea for the lowest percentage of women in physics faculties, at three percent, they noted. In contrast, 47 percent of physics faculty members in Hungary and 30 percent in the former USSR are women. In addition, only nine percent of US physics doctorates went to women during the period studied, though that figure was 21 percent for France, 31 percent for Brazil and 60 percent for the Philippines. Within America, some universities have made more progress than others in increasing the numbers of women in physics; "the variations from one school to another are enormous," Professor Dresselhaus observed.
In 1992-93, MIT awarded three PhDs in physics to women out of a total of 61 doctorates in that field, for a proportion of just under five percent. Thirteen of 59 undergraduate physics degrees, or 22 percent, went to women in the same year. Of 68 physics professors and associate professors at MIT, three (or 4.5 percent) are women.
"The comparison with other countries gives me courage that there's nothing innate about this," Professor Dresselhaus said, referring to aptitude in physics. "By putting in a reasonable amount of effort, we should be able to double the number of women in physics" in the United States.
To aid in this effort, Professors Dresselhaus, Franz and Clark have been visiting universities at the invitation of physics department heads. They have been talking to faculty, students and administrators to gather information about the status of women physics students and faculty, including any problems women may be having in pursuing studies or careers in physics on an equal basis with men. Their work had its origins at the 1990 meeting of the Physics Department Chairs, who passed a resolution that the APS and the American Association of Physics Teachers should take action to improve the climate for female physicists. The women's committees of the two organizations subsequently proposed the program of site visits by invitation.
The program, as well as a national survey of undergraduate and graduate students on the academic and general atmosphere of physics departments, is being funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. After the visits conclude by the end of this year, the authors will produce a report that will help other physics departments foster a more supportive environment for women both as students and as professionals. The program could also be applicable to other areas of science and engineering.
As a result of the site visits and information-gathering, it is hoped that the universities will make changes such as recruiting more female faculty and increasing communication between women students and the department heads as well as among the women students themselves.
Thus far, the authors wrote, "factors that appear. to be most important for creating a favorable climate for women include the commitment of the department chair and key faculty to the success of women physics students, the presence of more than one senior woman physics faculty member, the effectiveness of communication between students and between students and faculty, the availability of day care, and a safe environment."
A version of this article appeared in the April 6, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 28).