“ I came to Aspen from an institute with no other female postdocs or faculty in the field of astronomy. Although I felt very happy and comfortable at my home institute, I appreciated being in an environment with a high concentration of accomplished female scientists.”

Focal Week on Women in Physics Questionnaire

The Focal Week participants included 25 women physicists and astrophysicists who were formally admitted to the ACP, a number of the men physicists in attendance at the ACP that week (including most of the senior officers of the ACP), some physicists who were otherwise participating in a conference running concurrently at Snowmass, and the invited speakers. In addition, a small number of people from the Aspen area and some high school physics teachers, who were in Aspen for another meeting, also participated in the Focal Week activities.

The women physicist attending the Focal Week filled out questionnaires at the end of the week. These women are all PhD physicists; most are employed in academe rather than industry; they are roughly evenly split between astrophysics, particle physics and condensed matter physics; they range from postdocs to full professors, with more being at the junior end of the ladder. Their written responses yield the following profile of their experiences.

  • When they developed an interest in physics/science
    • 1/3 always felt that way
    • 1/2 during primary/secondary education
    • 1/6 in college
  • Parental support of their scientific interest
    • most had some support (but a few parents supported only engineering)
    • 2/3 strong support
    • 1/3 some support or only 1 parent supportive
    • few no support
  • Sources of support of their scientific interest in high-school – most cited at least one source
    • teachers
    • individualized study program
    • extracurricular science activity/program
  • Support or lack thereof in college
    • equal incidence of support and discouragement from faculty and advisors reported
    • many mention support from study groups, peers, working in a lab
  • Support or lack thereof in graduate school
    • again equal reporting of support/non-support from advisors and faculty
    • about 1/3 cite other women or peers as supportive
  • Summary of support of scientific interest
    • most had at least one supportive teacher or professor
    • many had supportive family members/significant others
    • many cite helpful encounters with other women scientists
    • or male peers and collaborators
  • Difficulties experienced – about 2/3 mentioned something in this category
    • harassment
    • family/career conflicts
    • extreme discouragement/disparagement
  • While some common threads are visible here in aggregate, the individual reports differed greatly. Each question elicited the full spectrum of answers.

General Problems

Comments by the participants during the Focal Week and in the questionnaires identified several distinct aspects of 'the problem of women in physics.'
  • There are too few women at all levels, from student to senior scientist.
  • Women are not taken as seriously as men, and are undervalued, overlooked, and made to feel invisible. The 'macho' environment in many physics establishments discourages women's participation. Women don't self–promote as much or as effectively and act less self–confident.
  • Women are still discouraged, discriminated against, not expected to attain technical or scientific proficiency.
  • There is a perceived stigma against women who are hired as professional scientists (e.g. oft–heard comments that women were hired on the basis of gender alone and are not qualified). There is a perceived backlash against women scientists due to resentment of advantages supposedly accruing to them from affirmative action programs – even in the absence of such programs at a given institution!
  • A disproportionate burden of mentoring all less senior women, providing female presence on many committees, and helping students who need personal support is placed on the few women who are in faculty positions.
  • The need to balance career and family weighs more heavily on women.