Sunday, January 18, 2015

Women in Physics

This past weekend a couple other Hendrix students and I headed to Ole Miss for the Southern Undergraduate Women in Physics conference. ((Think that's a mouthful? Try the acronym! SUWiP. Yeah. Catchy.))

Having a conference solely for women in physics might sound a bit odd, until you look at the numbers. Recently a university emailed me to check out their physics graduate program. They boasted a relatively large number of female students-- almost 20%!

20%. That means the student body is 80% male. And that's supposed a number that they want to brag about? That describes, in a nutshell, why there is an entire conference whose purpose is to encourage women to study physics.

There are cautionary tales of sexism women face in pursuit of the sciences. Personally, while I have been told I'm unable to do plenty of things because I'm a woman, physics has never been on the list.

However, physics is still lagging far behind the other sciences, which are getting closer to the 50%-50% gender ratio.

I've never cared or really noticed that I was in the minority in my physics classes, being a woman. Though that tells you sometime-- I've come to fully expect to be in male-dominated classes, so it is no surprise when that is true. The only instance where I've ever been really frustrated with the lack of other female students was when I was trying to make assertations about the way society views female physics students.

You see, whenever I tell a stranger that I'm a physics major they typically respond with two emotions: shock and awe. Awe is too strong of a word, but you get the idea, right? Here's a typical interaction.

Them : "So what do you study?"
Me: "Oh I'm a physics major."
Them: "Wow! Physics! Man, I could never do that. It's so hard. You must be so smart!"

Which is not true, but that's a topic for another post. Anyway, it was only after a couple years that I began to really analyze the typical response. While there is the whole "you must be super smart" which, once again, needs to be delegated to its own personal post about societal perceptions of science, there is always an element of surprise.

As a scientist-- or rather, as a rational human being-- I can't just jump to any conclusions. I can't declare 'oh they must be so surprised because I'm a woman! They must not expect me to be into the sciences'. While this might be true, there are too many other plausible answers. Perhaps they don't meet many physics majors-- and would respond with the same level of shock if a guy told them he was a physics major.

To try and ascertain if my gender actually did play a role in peoples' responses, I turned to other female physics majors.

Oh wait.

 There's only one in my grade besides me-- and she's a physics/English double major, which skews the results. Peoples' response could be due to the duel major or just the English part-- I have no way of knowing how people perceive just her role in physics.

Out of the eight senior physics majors, two are female. Could be worse, but it could be better. There are three female physics majors in the class below me, but there are also a lot more male physics majors.

The purpose of the conference was to encourage those still on the fence about physics, hoping to trickle the numbers so that eventually schools will be graduating a physics class that is half male, half female. Of course, we really need to talk about science education starting even younger than college freshman-- somewhere in elementary school girls start dropping out of the sciences.

But that's a topic for another time! I've already put off application work long enough. I only have two more graduate schools to apply to but I need to go and actually apply.

Thanks for reading! :)


  1. I am a guy who is studying for a PhD in mathematics, and I get similar responses. Some people even say that they hate math and wonder why anyone else would want to study more of it. Don't we already have all the math we need to know? "No," I say, "There is always more math to learn." Math is a world of discovery in and of itself.

    However, my ability to do math has never been questioned. There is a gender-gap in math also, and I would love to see more women in math. However, I think that it is becoming better. I have known several women who have gone through the graduate math program at my local university, and I saw a balanced mix of men and women at a geometry-conference once. I have only known one colleague who explicitly held sexist views against women in math. Otherwise, the social atmosphere has been positive for women in math as far as I can tell.

    Where are you doing graduate physics? I have a brother who is also applying for graduate studies in Physics; he really wants to go to McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He went there once for French studies, and he has been conspiring to go back since then.

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