Ask Dr. Tech: Support women in physics, science fields

Dr. Jon Dorbolo

My first impression on entering the room was immediate awareness of the ample collective brain power.

The room was LaSells Stewart Center on January 16-17, the event was a Conference on Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWIP) and the participants included more than 100 physicists from the Northwest.

The attendees gathered to learn about opportunities in the professions of physics, discuss their research and share experiences about the opportunities and challenges of navigating through a discipline long dominated by men.

The atmosphere was markedly optimistic and collegial; sentiments that I shared at the vision of so many bright minds setting forth to change our world.

After the conference I met with some of the Oregon State University organizers: Janet Tate, professor of physics, Allison Gicking third-year Ph.D. student in biophysics, and Kelby Peterson, first-year Ph.D. student in solid state materials physics.

They were tired, because running a successful conference is a massive undertaking, and I appreciate their generosity in time and thoughts.

There are about 20,000 professional physicists in the U.S., and Dr. Tate told me that about 20 percent of them are women.

From the OSU Physics Department page I see that there are 17 tenure-line faculty members, five of whom are women, which is 30 percent.

This is problematic because employment in physics typically requires a PhD or beyond and the number of women pursuing physics degrees is nearly equal to men doing the same.

Gender equity is working among students in higher education. Yet if the employment numbers stay as they are, the majority of women with physics degrees will end up in careers different from their degree focus.

It is not the case that success with a physics degree leads solely to working at a University or Federal lab. There is growing demand for physics majors in sectors working with energy technology, medicine, information technology, semiconductors, space, environmental technology, among other applied research-and-development fields.

The key question is not “what can I do with a physics degree?” but rather “what can I do with a mind that is capable of succeeding at a physics degree?”

It is not that women are less interested in science than men.

Women are entering and completing degree programs at all levels across the sciences including physics.

Dr. Tate hypothesizes that the cultures of physics departments and research organizations work against women who have had or plan to have children.

Gicking and Peterson point out that the rarity of female role models in professional physics is a barrier to women entering the field.

These explanations are supported by a 2013 Nature article by Helen Shen titled “Inequality quantified: Mind the gender gap.” Search for that article on the web, because the interactive data presentation there is fascinating and tells the story in ways that my words cannot.

For one, the physics of reality, such as gravity, does not differentiate between genders. There is one physics for us all, so bringing diverse perspectives to a common topic increases the potential for shared knowledge. As Gicking put it: “The domain of the unknown is getting smaller.”

My observation is that the domain of ignorance may not be getting smaller, and many people are increasingly distant from the world of science.

Human knowledge need not be scientific, but it should not be anti-scientific. The more our population understands science, the better it is for our culture.

Making way for more women who like science, including those who are able to pass that on to their kids, to participate professionally confers a general benefit.

The corollary is that it would be beneficial for more men to maintain an interest in the sciences. I am a philosopher and I read something about physics and other sciences every day. That’s one way to keep current with our fast changing world.

The human species currently faces some very large-scale wicked problems including environmental shift and social fragmentation.

A “wicked problem” is one that is hard to solve because of its extreme complexity and dynamic requirements.

Traditional approaches to problem solving may not be adequate to these big issues.

Dr. Tate notes that a benefit to more women working as professional physicists is an increase in collaborative modes of research.

Gicking and Peterson observed that women in physics often seek an interdisciplinary focus and that “interdisciplinary science is the way of the future.”

I hypothesize that the human species has a kind of group intelligence that manifests as social change in response to large-scale pressures.

Rats do this—when they overpopulate an area, the individuals spontaneously stop mating.

Pressure on the whole population results in modifications of individual behaviors.

Perhaps the recent influx of women into science through education and the professions is our species’ intelligence transforming the way that we construct knowledge and approach issues in ways more appropriate to the wicked problems. Note: those who dislike “intelligence” may just as readily read this as a bottom-up evolutionary process.

It is good for women to want to be in physics and it is good for plenty of professional scientists to be women. Our institutions should reciprocate this movement by developing family supportive policies including maternity leave, family leave and daycare.

Some physicists are taking the lead in making the change happen.

This is the 11th year of CUWIP sessions and the first time the conference has been held at OSU, thanks to Dr. Janet Tate, Allison Gicking, Kelby Peterson, and a group of dedicated students on the conference-planning group.

This is how intentional change happens my friends, and I urge you to seek out further opportunities to increase awareness and participation within this amazing place that is our academic home.

The opinions expressed in Dorbolo’s column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Barometer Staff.

Dr. Tech’s blog: