“ It was really nice to meet with the larger women physicist community at Aspen by having lunch at Bernice Durand's. This was most enjoyable, and we discussed many issues facing women physicists coming to the center, and what could make it easier.”

Aspen Focal Week on Women in Physics

Article reprinted with permission from CSWP Gazette summer 1995
by Katherine Freese (Univ. of Michigan), Catherine Kallin (McMaster Univ.), Elizabeth Simmons (Boston University).


Women still make up only a small fraction of professional physicists – and the fraction has not increased much in the last decade. The reasons for this, and the means for changing it, have recently been the subject of much discussion at the local and national levels, in the news media, and on the internet. The anomalously low participation of women in physics and the high attrition rates at every level from high school student to senior scientist are often attributed to cultural forces that are deeply rooted in both society at large and in the society of physicists.

The Aspen Center for Physics

The Aspen Center for Physics (ACP), located in Aspen, Colorado, is a microcosm of the U.S. community of theoretical physicists. Each summer, the ACP runs a 15–week research program that includes 8–10 overlapping workshops on topics of current interest. More than 400 physicists (from over 700 applicants) are invited to spend three to five weeks at the Center, participating in the workshops and doing research unhampered by the distractions and responsibilities of their usual working environments. During an average week, two workshops are in progress and 85 scientists are in residence. The Center is run largely through the volunteer efforts of physicists; the summer programs are supported by grants from the NSF and NASA.

The Center is known for its informal atmosphere, which is conducive to both solitary and collaborative work. Many new collaborations are formed there, and useful interactions are as likely to take place on the picnic benches outside the offices as on the numerous hiking trails in the area. For young physicists, a stay at Aspen, where they meet, hear, question, and hike with physicists formerly known only from article bylines, can confer a unique sense of belonging in the field. For many women scientists, this sense of belonging is particularly hard to acquire and, correspondingly, valuable.

Because participation in the research program at the ACP is such an important means of integrating new physicists into the mainstream, the Center is particularly well–suited for reaching out to those traditionally kept at the edges. Accordingly, we applied in 1993 for permission to organize a workshop on women in physics at the Center during the summer of 1994. While no one workshop could resolve all the issues surrounding the 'problem' of women in physics, we felt that because of the Center's influence on the physics community, a workshop held there could have a relatively wide impact. The Scientific Advisory Board of the ACP approved our proposal, and a year later, the Focal Week on Women in Physics took place at the Aspen Center for Physics during July 4–10, 1994.

Focal Week Objectives

The formal objectives of the workshop were the following:

1. To introduce a large number of women (about 25) to the ACP at the same time (typically only five to six women have been present in a given week);
2. To increase the number of women involved in ACP scientific workshops in 1994;
3. To give women physicists the opportunity to meet each other and to experience a physics environment where they are not a negligible minority; similarly to afford men physicists the experience of such an environment;
4. To generate concrete proposals for effecting a long–term increase in the number of women who apply to, are accepted to, attend, and organize scientific workshops at the ACP;
5. More generally, to explore some of the reasons for the traditionally low participation by women in physics.

Focal Week on Women in Physics

The Focal Week was integrated into the existing structure developed over the years for the ACP summer workshops. Applicants were evaluated by the Center's admissions committee according to the usual scientific criteria; those admitted were accorded the standard amenities such as office space and housing assistance. The Focal Week was deliberately timed to overlap with the beginning and end of several scientific workshops so that the Focal Week participants could stay longer than the one week and benefit from the scientific activities at the ACP.

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, Gretchen Klein (NSF), Bernard Sadoulet (U.C. Berkeley), Londa Schiebinger (Penn. State) and Sheila Tobias (Research Corp.). In addition, a small number of people from the Aspen area and some high school physics teachers, who were attending an AAPT meeting in Aspen, also participated in the Focal Week activities.

The formally organized activities included four lectures, one colloquium, four open discussions on specific topics (each moderated by a discussion leader), and three working groups whose role was to generate concrete suggestions for the ACP. In addition, there was a get–acquainted session, a reception (hosted by Bernice and Loyal Durand) for all Focal Week participants, and a spontaneous discussion of 'Tips for Success' for job candidates and new faculty members. During the Focal Week, one of the participants, Katherine Benson, completed work on a list of “Funding Sources for Women in Physics.” Toward the end of the program, the women participants generated a questionnaire asking about early interest in science, support from peers/family/teachers, career paths, the work/family balancing act, strategies for recruiting/ retaining women, and perceptions of the Focal Week; the (anonymous) responses were typed and circulated to all of the women.

The lectures and colloquia held at the Center were each attended by 50 or more people; the Heinz R. Pagels Memorial Lecture by Londa Schiebinger, which was held in the Paepcke Auditorium at the Aspen Institute and was open to the general public, was attended by over 100 people. The lectures by Tobias and Schiebinger connected the anomalously low participation of women in physics with historical and cultural forces deeply rooted in society at large and in the society of physicists. Sadoulet's lecture presented a physicist's view of the current society of physicists, as well as arguments as to how physics could benefit by “constructing a more humane and supportive environment and a more pluralist community.” Klein presented recent data on the status of women in physics and also described the NSF Visiting Professorship Program for Women. Each of the lectures stimulated considerable discussion, often longer than the lecture itself, and brought out the diversity of opinions held by the participants. The lectures were also an excellent stimulus for the open discussions that followed.

Open–Discussion Topics

The open discussions addressed the following diverse topics:
  • “Macho–ness” and the culture of physics
  • What works and what doesn't – how institutions can increase women's participation
  • Family and work – balancing family and career, access to childcare, specific problems encountered by two–career couples
  • How women affect physics – the changes women have brought to the physics community and, more controversially, whether they might alter the way that science itself is done

  • Toward the end of each open discussion session, four to eight participants volunteered to form a related working group to generate specific suggestions for the ACP. On the last morning of the workshop, all participants met to discuss the recommendations of the working groups.

    The Focal Week ended on Friday afternoon, with a lively colloquium by Sheila Tobias on the topic of how introductory college physics is taught and received. Having spent a week considering the relationship of women physicists to the physics community, it was refreshing to step back and look at the relationship between the physics community and the wider academic world.


    All of the objectives of the Focal Week were satisfied. During the Focal Week, women composed almost 30 percent of the physicists in attendance at the Center. Feedback from the participants suggest that this, in itself, was an overwhelmingly positive experience, allowing many young women physicists to meet an additional 10–20 other women physicists for the first time. It was interesting to learn from each other and to see such a talented group struggling with the difficult and nebulous 'problem' of women in physics. Furthermore, the majority of women at the Focal Week took advantage of the opportunity to participate in the overlapping or adjacent scientific workshops.


    Perhaps the most concrete outcome of the Focal Week was a list of 21 recommendations as to how the Aspen Center for Physics can increase the number of women who apply to, are accepted to, attend, and organize the programs at the ACP. These recommendations fall into the general categories of childcare, physics couples, culture or atmosphere, workshop/conference organization, and admissions. Nearly all have already been implemented. We are optimistic that the ACP will continue to make the effort required to increase the participation by women in all future ACP activities. We believe the ACP can play an important leadership role in this regard since a successful visit to the ACP by a young physicist can foster valuable contacts as well as excellent physics.

    Individual members of the Center (as well as outside organizations such as the NSF) can also contribute to solving what was agreed to be the most important obstacle to the integration of women in physics: the insufficient number of women in faculty and long–term industrial research positions. One clear message that came through was that the small number of women who do hold such positions carry a heavy burden. In addition to their normal duties, they are in continual demand as mentors and role models for high school girls, women undergraduate and graduate students, and all other women physicists less senior than themselves. Similarly, their presence is seen as necessary and as fulfilling a special need on committees at all levels, and they are much more likely than their male counterparts to be approached by students who have experienced sexual harassment or who need “personal” support or help. The burden of all these “additional” demands, which arise naturally in the lives of professional women physicists, can only be mitigated by hiring more women into these positions.

    Clearly, the ACP cannot, by itself, succeed in increasing the number of women faculty and industrial scientists in the U.S. The main responsibility for doing this lies with universities and companies and with government organizations. In this regard, the discussion of “What works and what doesn't” touched on a number of programs (e.g. those at Penn State and at the University of Wisconsin at Madison) whereby universities are taking a comprehensive, top–down approach to the problem of increasing the representation of women faculty in science and engineering. Also discussed was the Canadian (NSERC) program of Women's Faculty Awards, which provides bridge funding for positions for women faculty in Science and Engineering and which, over the past five years, has led to the hiring of over 50 new women into tenure stream positions. It was suggested that the NSF could be playing a more active role, along these lines, in the U.S.

    At the same time, it was noted that nearly all of the women Focal Week participants were sensitive to the not infrequently expressed opinions of male colleagues that they had only been hired because they were women. Such opinions seem to be widespread, even in the absence of effective “affirmative action” hiring programs. Both the universality of this experience and the intensity of its effect on the morale of women scientists, suggest that considerably greater efforts are warranted in the education of both men and women scientists on the important role that exists for women in science and engineering.

    We are pleased with the outcome of the Focal Week and are grateful for having the opportunity to organize such a worthwhile venture. We thank the management of the ACP both for providing this opportunity and for their support and encouragement over the past year. We are also grateful to Sally Mencimer and all of the Aspen staff for their invaluable and enthusiastic assistance. We give special thanks to John Berlinsky and Bernice Durand for always helping out when help was needed. Finally we thank Rose Sergeant, Bernard Sadoulet and the Berkeley Center for Particle Astrophysics for financial support which allowed us to bring in the high–profile, non–physicist speakers who were such an essential ingredient in the success of the Focal Week.

    17 Improvement Suggestions Made to the ACP Board