Yale Professor Will Lead U.S. Delegation to International Meeting On Women in Physics

A Yale professor will lead the United States delegation to the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) meeting on Women in Physics, which will be held in Paris March 7-9.

A Yale professor will lead the United States delegation to the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) meeting on Women in Physics, which will be held in Paris March 7-9.

The delegation was formed under the auspices of The American Physical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Physics.

The leader of the U.S. delegation, Meg Urry, professor of physics and director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, said the primary purpose of the conference is to understand the underrepresentation of women in physics worldwide and to develop strategies to increase their participation.

In a presentation to be delivered at the meeting, Urry and her group noted that although women in the U.S. have made great progress in expanding their participation in male-dominated professions, the progress has been much more limited in physics than in many other fields.

“The physics community in the U.S. has made slow progress in enrolling and rewarding women in physics compared to other professional communities, due in part to the belief that because science is an ‘objective’ pursuit, the underrepresentation of women is simply an indication of their lack of interest or ability in the field, rather than an indication of discrimination or exclusion,” the group said in their prepared statement.

They noted that there have always been exceptional women physicists, but that in the U.S. they did not thrive at the same rate or to the same extent as men. Many did not marry or have children. Prior to the 1960s, most remained research associates, and, if they taught at all, taught at women’s colleges.

The American Institute of Physics reported two years ago that women earn fewer than 20 percent of the bachelor’s degrees and fewer than 12 percent of the Ph.Ds, and that only 20 physics departments graduate five or more women physics majors each year.

“This means that in most universities women students are still an unusual occurrence, reinforcing stereotypical views among senior physicists and the women’s peers that women still can’t or won’t do physics,” the delegation said.

Efforts to correct this problem, they said, have focused on the “culture” of physics, which they said encourages a hyper-competitive, masculinized, and almost monastic approach to science; generates work-life conflicts that penalize young people who have working partners and children, and leads to instances where the women physicists are either not taken seriously by professors, employers or colleagues, or are openly discouraged and disliked.

“There is the fairness issue, but along with that there is a pressing need for talent in physics, wherever it may be found,” the group said. “The socialization of women and their adult roles cause them to bring fresh perspectives to the selection of research problems, to the organizing of research groups, to the teaching of physics, and to the work of physics itself.”

Among the topics to be discussed at the conference are attracting girls into physics; launching a successful physics career; getting women into the physics leadership structure nationally and internationally; improving the institutional climate for women in physics; learning from regional differences, and balancing family and career.

The IUPAP’s Working Group on Women in Physics is undertaking an international benchmarking study on issues concerning women in physics. Demographic information on education and career attainment is being collected from countries in all parts of the world and will be analyzed by professional statisticians, discussed at the conference, published, and made available freely on the Internet.

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