Women, despite systematic gender discrimination and bias, continue to prove that they can be equally as successful as and even more successful than men. They have triumphantly led fields, companies, and industries, empowering more women along the way. This is huge progress considering how women used to be treated worldwide. Today, they enjoy more rights because of long years of protests and campaigns. However, against this backdrop of female success, there remain areas in which women are significantly underrepresented.
Gender Gap in Physics
While there are more women in the sciences nowadays than ever before, previous studies reveal that girls are still less likely to take science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) subjects than boys. They are also more likely to leave the said fields although they have already spent years, even decades, just to get there. “Physics and engineering both have big gender divides,” Eric Brewe, a physics education researcher at Florida International University in Miami, said.
Given the current rate of progress, experts revealed that closing in physics would take hundreds of years. A 2018 study conducted by researchers from the University of Melbourne found out that 87 of the 115 disciplines studied had women authors only in 45% of papers although they make up 40% of the global workforce in science and medicine as a whole. While physics, computer science, mathematics, surgery, and chemistry had the fewest women, it is physics that has the most striking gender gap with just 13% women in senior positions.
Thus, the researchers predict that it will take 258 years to close it. According to BBC, an operational business division of the British Broadcasting Corporation responsible for the gathering and broadcasting of news and current affairs, it will take 320 years to see gender parity in nursing; 280 years in computer science, and 60 years in mathematics. “Of the gender-biased disciplines, almost all are moving towards parity, though some are predicted to take decades or even centuries to reach it,” Dr. Cindy Hauser from the university’s School of Biosciences said.
The researchers also found out that men are estimated to be invited to submit papers to journals at about double the rate of women. Senior researchers are more likely to be men, while junior researchers are more likely to be women. The good news is that while about 13% of the last authors in physics were women, the figure is currently increasing at a rate of 0.1% per year. This is progress, but it isn't enough.
Patricia Rankin, chair of the American Physical Society’s committee on the status of women in physics, said that the lack of a consistent style for authors’ names could have affected the quality of the analysis, with many only providing initials. According to Physics World, the membership magazine of the Institute of Physics, Rankin also cautioned against assuming that the last author on a paper is the most senior.
“The meaning of paper order can vary from field to field, in high-energy physics, for example, its often just alphabetical. The 258 years to parity also assumes no change in the current conditions but I think we are getting much more focused on understanding why the participation of women in physics is low – and in designing evidence-based interventions,” she said.
A paper published in the journal Physical Review Physics Education Research mentioned several factors that deter women from completing their STEM degrees. This includes a lack of role models, entrenched stereotypes, and an undervaluing of their abilities. They are usually inadvertently made to feel like they don’t fit in these fields. “Women in physics don’t have a lot of role models,” Paula Stephan, an economist at Georgia State University in Atlanta, said.
While there’s between 49% and 58% of women undergraduates and graduates in the social and life sciences at US universities, respectively, only about 20% of US undergraduate and graduate students in physics are women. This gap, unfortunately, has persisted over the past decade. According to Nature.com, a weekly international journal publishing the finest peer-reviewed research in all fields of science and technology, about 8% of US universities with PhD-granting departments don’t have any women on their physics faculty while only an average of 11% of the professors are women.
Closing the Gap
The researchers from the University of Melbourne said that practical measures are already known that could help close the gap. This includes reforming publishing; ensuring women receive equal resources at work; better access to parental leave and career breaks; greater recognition of demands outside the workplace that traditionally falls on women when assessing achievements, and equal access to informal professional networks.
"The solutions are out there but it's difficult to bring about change and get people to act on them. We haven't acted on them enough because it's difficult to change the way that people have always done things and it's maybe not afforded as high a priority as it should be by people in positions of power in the scientific industry and academia,” co-author Dr. Luke Holman said.
A recent report from the National Academy of Sciences provided a series of concrete actions that scientific institutions can take to fix the lack of women in various fields—for good. These recommendations all lead up to ultimately changing the culture of science. For instance, starting to talk openly about difficult issues like sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia in meetings. "If you don't have those conversations, you don't get things on the table, and you can't discuss them at all,” Patricia Rankin, one of the authors of the report, said.
According to Phys.org, an internet news portal that provides the latest news on science, the recommendations include everything from making spaces available for employees to pump breast milk in the workplace to ensuring that all scientists receive living wages. "I think this is a report that smart people will be paying attention to, as a start. I am hoping that future discussions will highlight the role of leadership and accountability in changing the situation,” Rankin said.
Experts also suggested striving to have a more equal gender ratio of speakers at conferences, providing better parental leave and career break provisions to women, and recognizing the extra demands outside of the workplace that tend to fall on women to close the gender gap.