There are more women in the sciences than ever before. They hold leading faculty and administrative positions while their representation in fields such as biology, sociology and psychology has increased. Yet the physical sciences are woefully behind when it comes to the number of women at all levels.
“Physics and engineering both have big gender divides,” says Eric Brewe, a physics education researcher at Florida International University in Miami.
This persistent problem prompted a special issue of the journal Physical Review Physics Education Research, with 17 papers and an editorial on gender issues in physics, published on 1 August. Brewe was one of two guest editors for the issue.
Recent scandals involving sexual harassment in astrophysics departments at US universities and allegations of gender segregation in an undergraduate physics class in Ohio have underscored the issues that women continue to face in the physical sciences.
The special issue addresses the reasons why relatively few women enter the field of physics, as well as the factors that deter them from completing their degrees. They include a lack of role models, entrenched stereotypes and an undervaluing of their abilities. Many authors also highlighted the fact that women are — usually inadvertently — made to feel like they don’t fit in1.
Women comprise between 49% and 58% of undergraduates and graduates in the social and life sciences at US universities. By contrast, only about 20% of US undergraduate and graduate students in physics are women, according to the US National Science Foundation. That gap has persisted over the past decade.
“Women in physics don’t have a lot of role models,” says Paula Stephan, an economist at Georgia State University in Atlanta. …