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Women Physicists and Chemists are Making Slow Progress in Academe

By Valerie J. Kuck

January 2002

Valerie Kuck is a chemist who recently retired after a 34-year career at Bell Laboratories,
Lucent Technologies. She has been active in the American Chemical Society holding leadership
positions at both the national and local level and has received several awards for her activities.
This article was given as a talk at the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics
meeting in Washington D.C. on May 1, 2001.

 

SINCE THE MID 1960s, there has been a steady rise in the number of women seeking and achieving
doctorates in the physical sciences. In spite of their success in reaching this level of accomplishment,
women are still very underrepresented in the ranks of faculty members in the physical sciences at leading institutions. Even in the 1990s, a decade when many people have argued that gender discrimination has been
successfully attacked, this situation continued. Today the representation of tenured or
tenure-track women faculty at Ph.D. granting institutions in the physical sciences remains
woefully below the doctorates awarded to women.


The progress that women physicists have made in attaining tenured positions has been
well documented by Ivie, Stowe and Czujko of the American Institute of Physics (http://
www.aip.org/ statistics/trends/highlite/women/ women.htm). Similar studies on chemists have
been conducted through the years by the staff of the American Chemical Society (ACS), with
Jordan (Women Chemists 2000 published by the ACS) and Long (Chemical and Engineering News,
Sept. 25, 2000) addressing this matter recently.

Since comparisons of hiring practices in physics and chemistry based on the composition of the entire faculty would be biased towards the past, this study focuses on recent hiring at the assistant professor level. For the physics departments, Schabel of Bell Laboratories, Lucent Technologies directly contacted each
school by phone and/or ascertained the information on the Internet. Long’s faculty
analysis by gender was used for chemistry.


Preliminary work using the ACS 1999 Directory of Graduate Research for the top
twenty-five Ph.D. granting institutions in chemistry showed that a significant number of the
faculty members had received their doctorates from a small number of schools, about half
having received their degrees from one in the top ten. (The 1995 National Research Council
rankings were used.) At the top ten universities, 70% of the faculty members had obtained their
Ph.D. degrees from that elite group of schools. Strikingly, nearly 80% of recent hires, the
assistant and associate professors, had doctorate degrees from that same group of schools. Since
these ten universities had such a great impact, we concentrated on the hiring practices in the
chemistry and physics departments at these same institutions.


As a conservative approximation for the candidate pool used in filling these assistant
professor positions in 2000, the gender distribution of the doctorates awarded by the top ten schools
between 1988-92 was provided by Joan Burrelli at the National Science Foundation.


In physics, the percentage of women assistant professors hired at the top ten schools was
higher than their representation in the candidate pool (see Figure 1). In chemistry, even though
the pool of women was more than 2.5 times larger, the percentage of women hired was
smaller than for physics, and substantially smaller than their representation in the candidate pool.


Considering the total number of tenured or tenure-track women faculty members at the top
ten institutions, the representation of female physics faculty members was 9.1% of the total in
the year 2000, giving an average of 3.5 women per school. In chemistry the average was 2.8
(9.0%). For all Ph.D. granting universities, the number of tenured and tenure-track female faculty
members is about the same for physics and chemistry. This is striking because four times as many women
have earned Ph.D.’s in chemistry since 1966.


These findings bring into serious question the validity of the often-voiced statements justifying
the low number of women faculty members in the physical sciences at these institutions on the
small size of the available pool of women. Currently, for all Ph.D. granting institutions,
female faculty members are about 6% in physics and 11% in chemistry. The challenge of having
faculties mirror the female composition of the graduate student population (14% for physics
and 32% for chemistry), requires that dramatic changes be made in the hiring, retention, and
mentoring of women.


The Ph.D. attainment rate for men and women in graduate school was also examined.
The yield of women scientists for a school was determined by dividing the number of doctorates
earned by women between the years 1994-98 by the number of full-time female graduate students
enrolled between 1988-92. The data used in these calculations were also obtained from the
National Science Foundation. Corresponding yield values were determined for men, and
a parity index was then calculated by dividing the yield for women by that for men.


At the top ten ranked universities, the yield for women physicists was somewhat greater than
that for chemists. In both disciplines women graduate students were slightly less successful
than men in achieving a doctorate (see Figure 2). Expanding the study to the top twenty-five
universities, female doctorate yields changed slightly, decreasing for chemistry and increasing for physics; in
both fields, women continue to lag behind men in receiving a Ph.D. At the 11-25 ranked universities,
female graduate students in chemistry fared more poorly than their male counterparts.

An unexpected but significant finding from this study of graduate school performance
was the wide variation in female Ph.D. yields. In physics, the doctoral yield at the top 25
universities for women varied from 108% to 13.3% (see Appendix 1), while in chemistry the
yield ranged from 85.3 to 28.7%. (The greater than 100% yield can be attributed to the transfer
of small number of women into a physics department after the first year, or to women completing
their doctoral studies in less than five years.)


The wide range in yields within a discipline suggests that institutional environments play a
significant role in women’s decisions to complete a Ph.D. Coupled with the parity index analysis, it
suggests that women receive varying degrees of support and/or encouragement in obtaining a
doctorate. It would be interesting to see whether there are initiatives that can affect the yield, such as
the American Physical Society site visit program administered by the Committee on the Status of Women
in Physics. There is no such program in chemistry.


All of the above data reiterates the point that gender discrimination continues to persist in
academic physics and chemistry. It is past the time to eliminate such unfair treatment.

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