Boost in the number of US female physicists and astronomers taking faculty positions – Physics World


Around 40% of new astronomy faculty in US universities are women, while a quarter of new physics faculty recruits are female. That is according to data from a recent report by the American Institute of Physics (AIP), which also finds an increase in female representation at postgraduate levels as well as a boost in the proportion of Hispanic women taking physics.

The report — Women in Physics and Astronomy, 2019 — is based on several different surveys that were conducted at physics and astronomy departments across the US. The report finds that, at postgraduate level, the percentage of physics and astronomy doctorates earned by women has risen in the past decade, with 20% of physics and 40% of astronomy doctoral degrees awarded to women in 2017 — up from 18% and 28% in 2007, respectively.

There have also been increases among those employed in physics and astronomy departments. In 2014, some 16% of physics and 19% of astronomy faculty members were female, compared to just 10% in 2002 and 14% in 2003, respectively. Yet, of the 567 new faculty members hired in physics departments in 2016, 26% were women while 10 of the 25 new faculty positions hired in astronomy were female — for both fields, the greatest number of women were hired into tenure-track positions.

No leaky pipe

African-American and Hispanic women, however, remain under-represented in both physics and astronomy, the report says. According to the latest census data, 13% of women in the US are African-American and 16% are Hispanic, but in 2016 they were awarded just 4% and 7% of bachelor degrees in physics, and 3% and 13% of such degrees in astronomy, respectively.

The AIP finds, however, that the representation of Hispanic women has grown rapidly in recent years, with a doubling of bachelor degrees and increases in female Hispanic faculty members. In contrast, there has been no improvement among African-American women, with the report authors stating that furthers interventions are needed to encourage and retain their participation.

Despite the report noting the overall increase in the number of people taking physics, the proportion of female physics undergraduates in the US has stalled over the past decade, with women earning 21% of US physics bachelor degrees in 2017 — exactly the same percentage as a decade earlier. Indeed, the situation has worsened in astronomy, with just 33% of bachelor degrees in the US awarded to women, down from 40% in 2007.

The AIP’s report found little evidence of women leaving physics between undergraduate education and faculty employment. “Our pipeline analysis was done based on percentages of women at each academic career stage — undergraduate degree, graduate degree, faculty employment – and we found that there was no attrition in the percentage of women,” Anne Marie Porter, a survey scientist at the AIP told Physics World. “Some women and men may change careers, go into industry, or drop-out for other reasons, but we found no gender difference…men and women who leave physics seem to be doing it at the same rate.”

Sapna Cheryan, a psychologist at the University of Washington in the US who was not involved in the study, says that the conclusions about female retention are consistent with what she has seen in the data. She is unsure, however, that the increase in female doctorates will translate into an increase at faculty level. “[I am] curious whether women in physics in faculty positions are retained at the same rate as men,” adds Chervan. “My overall sense is that we probably need to do more than just wait for the increase to happen to make many of the department cultures fully welcoming to women.”


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