College Guide


July 23, 2013 2:46 PM No Women in Physics? No Bias

By Daniel Luzer

The dearth of women in the science professions has been very well documented.

Only 28 percent of full-time science and engineering faculty positions are held by women. What’s more, it turns out that more than a third of American physics departments have no women at all.

According to new report by the American Institute of Physics, however, there’s no evidence of discrimination:

The sex composition of a physics department is the result of a multitude of events, some recent and some that go back many years. Based on these simulation results, though, we should not accept the absence of women among professorial-rank faculty in a single department to be prima facie evidence of a bias against women.

The bigger problem, the report suggests, is simply that there just aren’t that many female physics PhDs. Even physics departments that have women generally don’t have too many of them. A whole lot of the two-thirds of departments with female physicists likely have only one of them.

In addition, as the report points out, the number of women in physics departments has increased in the last few decades, so much so that that there are now a higher percentage of female physics faculty than there are women among recent PhD graduates. This is “further evidence that there is no systematic bias against hiring women.”

Well yes, though it still doesn’t indicate that the profession is exactly welcoming to women, or that there’s no problem in how physics departments work. Gender equity advocates would likely argue that the lack of women in any profession is a problem for women, no matter how the profession hires new staff.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • mikeyes on July 23, 2013 4:32 PM:

    When it comes to candidates for Physics Ph.D.s, you are looking at the tail of the bell shaped curve as far as ability and interest goes. At this end of the curve there appear to be more men than women and it includes a large number of Asperger candidates.

    My son's class at Rice University, a geek school if there ever was one, had only had six or seven physics majors in his class of 675 students. Over half of his class was women and over half were national merit scholars (and almost every one was the validictorian of his or her class.) The interest was simply not there in that group even though the ability was.

    In addition, getting a Ph.D in physics is hard work. Half of his graduate class at UNM in Physics did not get their Ph.D. Instead they dropped out for a variety of reasons.

    Only a small percentage of an already intellectually elite group of students finally get the Ph.D. in Physics. I doublt that there are many fields that have such a small candidate field to start and the ones that do are all in sciences and math.

    It's not surprising that very smart women are not flocking to Physics, after all virtually no one is.

  • Erinn on July 24, 2013 10:42 AM:

    Bravo on your last paragraph, Daniel! :-) Research has actually shown that there is still hiring bias against women, but the bias is often unconscious. Scientists pride themselves on not having bias (bias would ruin research, for sure, scientists must purely observe data, and not insert their biases), but as it turns out, when it comes to social things, they actually do have bias like everyone else. Which isn't to point a finger at physicists specifically, but it's to say that bias does exist amongst all scientists and that some healthy self-reflection could indicate that. We wrote a little blog post on this and discuss the research on it too