Chandralekha Singh Reflects on Fifth International Conference on Women in Physics

  • By Workstudy User
  • 27 April 2015

This month's APS Back Page features PQI faculty Chandralekha Singh who describes the Fifth International Conference on Women in Physics with participation from 49 countries around the world: 

In August 2014, I attended the 5th IUPAP International Conference on Women in Physics (ICWIP 2014) in Waterloo, Canada as part of the U.S. delegation. The conference was attended by approximately 215 female physicists and a few male physicists, all from 49 different countries. There were research talks, panels, workshops, breakout sessions and posters on issues related to women in physics.

A major focus of the conference was how to address the many barriers that uniquely affect the advancement of women in physics worldwide. Barriers that were listed in the country reports included societal biases affecting women and accumulating over time from an early age, unconscious gender bias, and the effects of stereotypes. Also contributing are family responsibilities, unfriendly and unsupportive environments in physics departments, lack of mentoring, lack of a critical number of women in physics and lack of role models. 

In the conference workshops, we learned what social scientists have ascertained about how girls are influenced as they grow up with regard to pursuing science and mathematics. In the workshop, “Equity and education: Examining gendered stigma in science,” we learned that, while most girls are interested in science and math when they are in early grades, in countries like the U.S. many tend to step away, often because they unwittingly conform to societal gender stereotypes. Women in some countries like the U.S. are often victims of gender stereotypes from very early on, and some women are impacted so much that they even start questioning their own ability to ever be equal to or better than men in STEM fields.

Societal biases related to women not being smart enough to pursue careers in male-dominated STEM fields can impact women’s beliefs about their own capability and negatively influence whether women pursue STEM majors and how they perform in STEM courses. If women underperform, they are often likely to blame themselves and feel that they do not have the talent necessary for excelling in the subject in which their male counterparts seem to have an edge. 

Stereotype threat, e.g., directly or indirectly being reminded that women cannot do physics, can exacerbate the situation. Writing her gender can act as a stereotype threat because women are already aware of the societal stereotype that women are not supposed to do as well as men in math and science. Such a threat often undermines a woman’s ability to score high on tests or other standard measures of academic achievement. 

Discrimination that women physicists face in the workplace is overt in some countries and in some cases subtle, and the differences are caused by how each culture views women. Women in physics in many countries are still often made to feel that they have chosen a wrong career path. Their success is overlooked. Their opinions are often dismissed even if they are worthy of further discussions. 

Women physicists, especially, from some African countries, noted that taking an interest in physics is also perceived to diminish their feminine attributes. In fact, even in the U.S., the stereotyped portrayal of female scientists by popular media (e.g., the TV show “The Big Bang Theory”) which make them look unattractive, does not help in encouraging more young girls to pursue physics. Eileen Pollack, who wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times (October 13, 2013) about why there are so few women in science, attended this ICWIP 2014 conference as a panelist and raised the point that the paucity of women going into physics is exacerbated by the stereotyped portrayal of female scientists.

Even in western countries female physicists face challenges. The German contingent discussed data suggesting that female physicists’ professional competence and accomplishments are less appreciated, and that parenthood affects their education and career distinctly more strongly than those of their male counterparts. Physicists from Finland (where the first female professor of physics was hired in 2004 at the University of Helsinki) noted that cultural reasons were central for understanding the gendered-career-segregation processes. For example, they noted that many major decisions are made in men-only saunas, which automatically excludes women physicists.

The good news is that in many countries, in the science and engineering departments where women are underrepresented, there is more awareness that there may be implicit and explicit biases that partly account for the underrepresentation of women. There is also more awareness that more effort should be devoted to recruit and retain talented women to ensure that everybody has an opportunity to contribute to the vitality of these disciplines."

Read the full article here.