Why the shortage of women in physics? They are hindered not by lack of talent, but biases and outmoded structures, says Chicago astrophysicist

"Gender bias in science is not a women's issue -- it's a science issue," said University of Chicago astrophysicist Evalyn Gates, speaking in Kaufmann Auditorium April 23. "This is a problem that affects all of us, and it's not going to fix itself."

The academic community has long realized that there are too few women in science, Gates said in her talk, sponsored by Cornell's Graduate Women in Physics and the Cornell Women's Resource Center.

The low numbers of women in physics, she said, are especially shocking: Women in the United States hold less than 5 percent of full professor positions and make up only 22 percent of the undergraduate majors and 16 percent of the doctoral candidates. At Cornell, women comprise 17 percent of physics graduate students.

Gates urged scientists to think of the problem as a physics experiment, in which humans are the detectors, albeit biased detectors. As such, scientists must acknowledge that "men and women respond to and evaluate male and female students/candidates differently."

She said that the scientific community also needs to approach this problem like any other: "First identify the problem, review what's already known, analyze the data, account for biases and backgrounds and then experiment to improve the next generation."

That's a revolutionary approach, considering that many physicists think the discrepancy is simply generational, and that time itself will even out the gender imbalance, she said.

"They're in denial. Meritocracy is a deeply cherished belief -- it's in everyone's best interest to believe that the brightest and most motivated students will succeed," said Gates. The data show, however, that merit is not what is keeping women out of physics.

According to a 2006 National Academy of Sciences report, "it is not lack of talent, but unintentional biases and outmoded institutional structures that are hindering the access and advancement of women."

Gates showed that the percentage of women in physics plummets most dramatically during college for unknown reasons, yet nearly 50 percent of undergraduate math and chemistry majors today are women. There's something different about the field of physics, she said.

"Physics has a unique history in academia," Gates pointed out in an interview after her talk. The largest numbers of physics faculty hires, exclusively men, were made in the 1960s after Sputnik. When this generation began to retire in the 1990s, the percentages of female faculty members went up by only 4 percent. "I'd been hearing since the 1970s that there'd be these mass retirements and then things would change, but they haven't," Gates said.

The slides used in her talk will be posted online at http://pages.physics.cornell.edu/gwp/.

Graduate student Melissa Rice is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.

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