The diversity problem in physics Navigating academia is difficult, but navigating academia as a woman, much less a woman of colour, is nearly impossible

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By Sabrina Macklai

On Oct 2. 2018, Donna Strickland became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in physics in 55 years. Strickland graduated McMaster University in 1981 with a degree in engineering physics and has since been responsible for greatly advancing the field of laser physics while at the University of Waterloo.

She won the prize for introducing the technique of chirped pulse amplification, which has broad-spectrum applications in laser microsurgery and micromachinery. Prior to Strickland, Maria Goeppert-Mayer received the prize in 1963 for generating evidence in support of the nuclear shell model – which today is still the most widely used and accepted theoretical model of the atomic nucleus. The only other woman to ever win the Nobel Prize in physics is Marie Curie in 1903, for the discovery of radioactivity.

While surely women have come a long way since 1903, the fact remains that women in academia, especially in the male-dominated field of physics, are at a serious disadvantage. Since 1901, the Nobel Prize in physics has been awarded 112 times to over 200 individual recipients. The fact that only three women have won this prize out of the 200 recipients is alarming.

Gender bias in science is not a new concept. Goeppert-Mayer spent most of her career largely unpaid, despite holding the title of a Nobel Prize laureate. According to the American Institute of Physics, while women earn around 20 per cent of all bachelor degrees in physics, women earn less than 10 per cent of doctorates in physics. Among physics faculty members, women are only represented by 15 per cent.   

There are many reasons for the lack of women that have little to do with a lack of interest. Navigating academia is difficult. There is a large disparity between the number of doctoral graduates who aspire to become professors versus the number of available positions. The likelihood of becoming a professor varies depending on the field of study, but in general, less than 10 per cent of all doctoral graduates actually continue in academia. And of those few who remain, the chance of obtaining a tenure-track position is even slimmer.

Women who dare to enter academia often face discrimination in addition to the above limitations. They may hold their doctorate degree and contribute greatly to their field, but still be overlooked for tenure and other ways to advance their careers in comparison to their male counterparts. While this is true of almost all academic fields, women in physics seem to be at an even greater disadvantage. In comparison to other physical sciences like chemistry, which have near-equal representation of men and women at the undergraduate level, there is something about physics that leads it to having one of the worst gender gaps.

The lack of women in physics is only one problem. It’s no secret that being male and being white is characteristic of physics majors. Being a person of colour, particularly being Black, adds a whole new layer of systematic barriers against success in the field.  

There is growth, however small. The American Institute of Physics reports that in the United States between 2003 and 2013, the number of bachelor degrees in physics earned by Black, Indigenous and Hispanic women increased by 40 per cent. This number is significantly lower than the 59 per cent total increase in bachelor degrees in physics. It is also much lower than the 65 per cent increase in total number of bachelor degrees achieved by Black, Indigenous and Hispanic women. For whatever reason, women and minorities continue to be underrepresented in physics.

How do we move forward from here? I don’t know. What I do know is that the issue of diversity in physics is a problem of the system and thus requires those with the power to change the system to act accordingly. Create support networks for minorities in physics. Acknowledge harmful departmental climates. Have selection committees that are truly representative of the population. Consciously work towards to creating equal employment and advancement opportunities.

Women and minorities have so much to contribute to their fields, including physics. Their advancements could very well lead to novel solutions for problems that seemed out of reach. By not addressing the systematic barriers against these groups, we all sit at a disadvantage.   


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Author: Sabrina Macklai

Sabrina Macklai is the Opinion Editor for Volume 89. A fourth-year Integrated Science student completing her thesis in analytical chemistry, she is a wearer of many hats - so long as the hat sparkles! Since she was a child, she’s had a love for the written word and has been involved in several publications including scientific journals and creative writing magazines. She firmly believes that everyone has a story to tell and it is her ambition to help as many as possible share theirs with the world.