CSWA Logo AAS Logo

The Status of Women in Physics - What, Why, and How to Change

By Aparna Venkatesan and Meg Urry

A Summary of the IUPAP Meeting of March 2002 in Paris, France

June 2002

Meg Urry and Aparna Venkatesan sharing a ride to the top of the Eiffel Tower.


Aparna Venkatesan is a Research Associate and NSA Fellow at the University of Colorado, Boulder,
in the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy in the Department of Astrophysical and
Planetary Sciences. Meg Urry is a Professor of Physics and the Director of the Yale Center for
Astronomy & Astrophysics. Dr. Urry led the U.S. delegation to the IUPAP Conference on Women
in Physics held in March 2002 in Paris, France.


THE NUMBER of women in physics is low, in the U.S. and globally, and has been increasing only very slowly. The best physics demands the best brains from more than just half of humanity; excluding women weakens physics and all of science. Just as important, women deserve the same opportunities as men to have stimulating and rewarding careers in physics. Also, a more scientifically literate public — one that includes girls and women educated in physics — will lead to more public support of science. For all these
reasons, the dearth of women in physics is an urgent concern.

On March 7-9, 2002, the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) held an International
Conference on Women in Physics at the UNESCO headquarters building in Paris, France. This meeting, the first of its kind, was organized with two major purposes in mind: (1) to understand the severe under-representation of women in physics and related fields worldwide, and (2) to develop and implement strategies to increase the participation and representation of women in physics.

Poster from the IUPAP meeting in Paris, March 2002.

The conference was motivated by the fact that the global scientific workforce is underutilizing
a large percentage of the available talent pool. Although the situation differs widely from
country to country, there is a remarkable consistency in one sobering pattern: the percentage
of women in physics decreases markedly with each step up the academic ladder or with each
level of promotion in industrial and government laboratories. The presence of women physicists
in the upper echelons is critical for the health and diversity of the field. Since a number of
physics faculty positions should be coming open as faculty hired in the sixties and seventies retire,
it was especially timely and important to have an international forum to address the underrepresentation
of women in physics.

More than 300 participants in delegations from 67 countries attended the conference. The
delegates came from academic institutions, national laboratories, industry, and other sectors.
The U.S. delegation was organized under the auspices of the American Physical Society and
selected by the APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics (see Table 1 on page 3).

The format of the IUPAP conference included significant input and feedback from the participants,
who brought an enormous diversity of backgrounds and issues to be addressed at the meeting.
As an introduction to the status of women in their countries, each delegation submitted a
2-page contribution for the proceedings, as well as a poster on the topics concerning women in
physics in their country. The conference itself included plenary sessions with invited speakers
and small group discussions on the following specific topics:

  • Attracting Girls into Physics
  • Launching a Successful Physics Career
  • Getting Women into the Physics Leadership Structure Nationally and Internationally
  • • Improving the Institutional Climate for Women in Physics
  • Learning from Regional Differences
  • Balancing Family and Career

The discussion groups generated many ideas for improving the status and representation of
women in physics. These were distilled into set of resolutions ratified by the conference, plus an
additional set of more detailed recommendations for use in participants’ home countries as
appropriate. Specific resolutions were directed at individuals, schools, universities, research
institutes, industry and industrial employers, scientific and professional societies, national
governments, granting agencies, and the IUPAP itself. These consensus guidelines will be used by
individual delegations to stimulate change in their own countries, with the exact language
modified according to the culture and conditions of each country.

The resolutions and recommendations represent one of the key results from the IUPAP
conference. IUPAP also plans to provide extensive online resources related to women in physics,
including the materials from the conference, a database of women physicists worldwide,
opportunities for global exchange and collaboration, and links to international
organizations for women in physics and science, as well as to other international institutes and
conferences on related topics.

Further information may be found at: www.if.ufrgs.br/~barbosa/conference.html


Findings, Results, and Highlights

Prior to the conference, the IUPAP Working Group on Women in Physics, in collaboration
with the Statistical Research Center of the American Institute of Physics, undertook an
international benchmark study on women in physics. They collected demographic information
from more than 800 women in 50 countries. The data included individual experiences and
concerns as well as education and employment histories. Results were presented at the conference
and are available online (Ivie, Czujko, and Stowe, http://www.aip.org/statistics).

Two-thirds of the women surveyed had Ph.D.s or higher degrees. Three out of four
respondents said that they would choose the path of physics again, although the same fraction
of women felt the situation for women physicists in their country must be improved. By its very
nature, the survey did not include women who left physics, or those who never pursued it.
Thus, it is worth noting that we do not have data concerning the very women who must be
brought into and/or retained in the profession if the numbers are to change significantly.

Statistics show that women around the world face similar barriers to their success in physics.
Even in countries where it is as common for girls to study physics as for boys, the number of
women physicists drops sharply with advancing level. At the top of the profession — senior
faculty and directors of research institutions — women are typically only a few percent or less
of the total. This cannot be explained entirely by history (i.e., the lower numbers of women studying
physics in past years), since women continue to leak out of the profession at every level even
today. To a large extent, the absence of women from physics is not commonly discussed in the
international physics community, and few resources are devoted to improving the situation.

The large variations from country to country, and, in particular, the 50/50 mix of young men
and women at the undergraduate level in many countries, indicate that there are no intrinsic
intellectual barriers to women’s participation in physics. Rather, the barriers must somehow be
cultural, i.e., related to societal norms and educational practices in the individual countries.

The conference identified some critical factors leading to the low representation of
women in physics throughout the world. First, societal and individual family pressures often
dissuade women from becoming or staying involved in physics careers. Both the survey data
and the conference discussions made clear that support from women’s families, husbands, teachers,
advisors, and colleagues is crucial in attracting women to physics and keeping them in the field.

Second, the long apprenticeship period in some countries encourages the disproportionate
attrition of women in going from undergraduate and graduate studies to permanent positions in
their sub-fields of physics. In particular, the“post-postdoc” phase appears to be the leakiest
stage of the pipeline. Many delegates speculated that this was because of the overlap of the earlycareer
years with the peak marriage/childbearing years and because of the requirements for
frequent relocation and travel.

Third, two serious concerns for women in physics across almost all nations were the dual
career or trailing spouse problem (because most women physicists are married to other physicists
or scientists), and balancing career and family. These issues tend to affect women’s careers far
more than men’s, with women physicists reporting broken or commuting marriages, and deferred or
no childbearing. (From the AIP report, two-fifths of respondents had no children, with one-fifth
of those older than 45 years having had no children). Many conference participants emphasized
the importance of choosing one’s spouse to ensure mutual understanding and support of
each other’s careers, and equal participation in family duties.

It is worth noting, however, that family issues cannot be the major barrier to success for
women already in physics. Women without children do not appear to have more success in
physics than women with children. Countries with strong family support systems (daycare and
maternity leave), like some Scandinavian countries, have, in fact, some of the lowest representations
of women physicists. Finally, women are present in higher numbers in biology, medicine, chemistry,
mathematics and other very demanding professions — there is nothing specific to physics
about the conflict between work and family. At least one study (in Germany) showed that men
in physics with children tend to have more influential and well-paid jobs than men with no
children, whereas the exact opposite is true for women physicists, showing that male physicists
are directly rewarded for factors for which their female counterparts are penalized.

Fourth, women have little exposure to physics early in life; many societies believe that
physics is not for “normal” people, and if for anyone, then for men. In addition, there is a
general lack of appreciation of the usefulness of physics and a lack of awareness of the excellent
job prospects for physicists and specifically for women. These issues, complicated by the fact
that young women lack role models and female peer groups in physics, lower the numbers of
women in physics in very early stages of education and begin to explain why physics has fewer
women than sciences with similarly demanding lifestyles, such as biology or medicine.

Fifth, nepotism (the support of one’s own students) and “cloning” (the selection and
nurturing of students who resemble the professor) lead to the exclusion of women in male-dominated
environments, of which physics is one of the most extreme examples.

Sixth, the lack of transparency in recruitment and hiring processes tends to work against
women. Shifting or poorly articulated standards for hiring and promotion lead to uneven reviews,
which are particularly detrimental to those without strong advocates within the system. These inequities can also serve as deterrents, making science far less attractive for women.

Seventh, sexual harassment and overt discrimination strongly discourage women from
pursuing physics and related fields. While perhaps rare, such events are devastating when they occur.

Together these issues begin to explain the dramatic under-representation of women in
physics relative to other scientific fields. At the IUPAP conference, much attention was paid to
concerns about balancing career and family, including childbearing and the two-body problem,
but it was also noted that these issues are common to women pursuing any demanding career. So
why are women better represented in other scientific and technical fields than in physics?
A closer examination of those factors that are particular to physics must be undertaken. Both
the structure of physics education and the “chilly climate” for women in physics may be contributing
factors, and indeed may be coupled. Simply increasing the number of women in the physics
educational pipeline will not improve the professional situation if women continue to leave the field at
a high rate at each juncture in their careers.

When women are represented at all levels of the decision making, many of these issues are
effectively addressed, a point made decisively by U.S. professor of biology Nancy Hopkins about
her institution, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Sustained cultural change occurs
when women are fully integrated at all levels in an institution. This appeared to be the case in
France, for example, where representation of women is much better than in the U.S., and
where the presence of women in leadership roles is seen as commonplace. When women are
marginalized and when a culture is not under pressure to change, the aggressive, competitive,
non-collaborative atmosphere that some call “combat physics” can prevail.

Across Many Nations

The IUPAP conference revealed regional differences arising from social, cultural, and
economic considerations. Although there were no clear pan-national solutions, an ambitious
first step in that direction was the identification of common deterrent factors, as well as of the
differing needs of women physicists around the world. For example, marriage and childbirth
occurred far earlier in developing than developed countries. From the AIP report, about
one-third (one-fifth) of women physicists in developed (developing) countries are not married,
with about 38 percent (60 percent) of marriages occurring during their education. There were
also significant differences in the timing of having children. The percentage of women
physicists in developed (developing) nations who made the decision to have their first child in
school, after their final degree, or to have no children was respectively 13, 34, and 53 percent
(40, 32, and 28 percent).

There were some socio-statistical surprises. Scandinavian countries, whose employment
systems reduce some of the family-related barriers to women, nevertheless have some of the lowest
female physics Ph.D. rates. Several countries stand out as having large undergraduate enrollments in
physics, notably India, Iran, and Italy. In India there are roughly equal numbers of men and
women physics students through the Master of Science level. Iran had the highest percentage
of female college-level enrollment in physics, whereas Sweden was almost last in the world. In
several developing nations, women were free to use their maiden name on their publications but,
perhaps surprisingly, in a well-developed country like Belgium, women physicists are required to use
their husband’s last name on their publications. It was also found that developing nations often
led developed ones in providing flexible working hours and state support for couples trying to
balance the needs of family and career.


A primary focus of the conference was to articulate ways to create a better future for
women in physics — a future in which the physics culture is more inclusive of difference,
whether it is gender, race, or class. Some proposed steps to achieve this future are listed here.

(These are meant as possibilities rather than a complete set of recommendations, and they are
not expected to be applicable in all situations).

  1. Recognize the positive benefits of a diversity of perspectives to physics as a discipline.
  2. Include women in the power structure to help make the decisions that shape the field.
  3. Ensure that key decision-making processes are transparent — i.e., policies are well-known and outcomes are clearly reported. Key decisions include those related to hiring, salary, promotion, resource allocation, peer review, and speaker selection.
  4. Work for the positive portrayal of physics and physicists. Increase the visibility of women physicists in the media and press and in the next generation of physics textbooks.
  5. Ensure a grant system and academic path that do not discriminate against women. In regions or sub-fields where the numbers of women are particularly low, institute special incentive
    scholarships for girls and awards or prizes for women.
  6. Abolish a source of age discrimination by using academic age (years since Ph.D.) rather than biological age in competitions for prizes, positions, and grants/fellowships.
  7. Recruit more women into national and international collaborations.
  8. Emphasize the value of doing physics early in science education. Improve physics teaching and provide talented enthusiastic physics teachers for schools.
  9. Encourage interaction between universities/labs and schools.
  10. Provide mentoring programs for young girls in physics. Counsel parents, teachers, and career counselors to encourage girls to pursue physics.
  11. Establish flexible career paths from thePh.D. through the tenure phase in order to integrate the demands of family and career more easily. Provide an option to stop the career clock while women (or men) are preoccupied with family. Organize flexible grant structures that can adjust to non-traditional career
    paths. Possibly offer permanent positions earlier to women.
  12. Provide convenient and affordable day care. Make work-related travel easier during the years when children are young.

Summary and Conclusions

In addition to the highly informative and eye-opening aspects of the conference, the
IUPAP delegates shared a sense of excitement and solidarity, generated by the presence of so
many outstanding women physicists. Many delegates, both men and women, described how
empowering it was to have an international forum in which to discuss the integration of their
love for physics with their values and goals as human beings and as members of society. Despite
the fact that most of the women had overcome severe obstacles in order to reach their present
positions, they communicated a sense of hope and a positive vision of the future, with a shared
message of “Let us do physics: as women!”

Back to June 2002 Contents

Back to STATUS Table of Contents