What Works for Women in Undergraduate Physics?
by Barbara L. Whitten, Suzanne R. Foster, and Margaret L. Duncombe
The following article is reproduced with permission of
Physics Today where it appeared in September 2003.
In 1998, women received about 40% of the
bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and chemistry,
but only 19% of the bachelor’s in physics. That
underrepresentation worsens at higher levels: The
same year, women constituted 13% of physics PhD
recipients and 8% of physics faculty members.(1)
According to NSF, the community of working PhDlevel
physicists in 2000 was 84% white and 93%
male.(2) What accounts for such stark numbers?
A “leaky pipeline” explains part of the problem.
Judging from figure 1, women opt out of physics at
every step up the academic ladder. Pacific University
physicist Mary Fehrs and Roman Czujko, director of
the Statistical Research Center of the American
Institute of Physics, found that those women who
chose not to remain in physics had performed on a
par with their male colleagues who stayed in the
field. (See Physics Today, August 1992, page 33.)
Elaine Seymour and Nancy Hewitt, both sociologists
at the University of Colorado at Boulder, confirmed
that finding.(3) It implies a loss of talent, which the
physics community can ill afford. To investigate the
climate for women in graduate physics departments,
the American Physical Society’s Committee on the
Status of Women in Physics (CSWP) began conducting
a program of visits to physics departments in 1990.
On the basis of those and continuing visits, the
committee has recommended changes to make the
departments more comfortable for women faculty
The biggest leak in the pipeline, though, appears
in the college years following high school. If physics
departments could learn how to persuade more of
the girls who take high-school physics to major in
physics in college, they would greatly increase the
pool of women who might become professional
To complement the APS work on graduate
programs, a team was formed to focus on undergraduate
physics programs, taking as a starting point
the fact that participation of women in different
college physics departments varies widely. Some
departments are successful at recruiting and retaining
women as majors. We asked ourselves: What sets
those successful departments apart? To answer the
question, we’ve let the men and women speak for
themselves, and have assembled a set of best practices
or common features found in departments where
women are thriving. But teasing out clear genderrelated
distinctions is difficult—what works for
women will often work for men as well.
We conducted site visits to nine undergraduate
physics departments. Five of those graduate a high
percentage of female majors1—typically about
40%—and four graduate a percentage of female
majors near the national average—typically 15–19%.
We designated the first type as “successful,” and the
second as “typical.” In other respects, we chose
schools that were as diverse as possible: some public,
some private, some religious, some secular, some
liberal-arts based, some small
universities, some predominantly
white, some historically black.
The schools also varied significantly
in cost and selectivity.
Two or three female physicists
from our eight person team spent
two full days on each campus.We
interviewed male and female faculty
and students, the department
chair, and the academic dean
responsible for natural sciences.
We observed classes and labs and
toured the departments. The
youngest of us (Foster, BA in physics,
class of 2001) interviewed all of the
students. We felt that students would be
more candid talking to a contemporary.
While we were working on this project,
friends and colleagues would frequently
ask, “What have you found out?” They
were expecting a quick answer and a
couple of silver bullets that would transform
a male-dominated department into one
in which women thrive. What we found
was very different, more akin to many
small threads that interweave to form a
friendly and inclusive department culture.
We developed the weaving metaphor,
pictured in figure 2, to portray the different elements in a successful department: The loom itself
represents institutional support for the faculty; the
faculty form the warp, long taut threads that support
the fabric and provide continuity; and the student
culture weaves itself onto the structure like the weft
of the fabric.
The loom: Recruiting diverse faculty
We are different individuals and we do things
differently but we know how to work together
to get things done…We have different interests,
we have different personalities, we have different
teaching styles, so there is a bit of diversity in
this very tiny department. (Male professor)
The most effective departmental cultures found
at successful schools fit this professor’s characterization.
Working as a team does not mean that everyone
must be the same and contribute equally to everything.
Rather, faculty should recognize and respect each
others’ strengths, weaknesses, and approaches to
teaching. Those differing styles and strengths can
combine to create a rich and dynamic department.
It would be nice to see some really good female
professors who are supportive of females going
through the science program, just to know that
you can get somewhere. (Female student)
This student explains clearly why female role
models are so important for other women. Elizabeth
Tidball, a professor of physiology at George
Washington University, has shown that the presence
of female faculty is strongly correlated with the
number of female students who become scientists.(6)
Seeing how different women with different family
situations arrange their lives helps newer female
students see how they might balance a career in
science with a satisfying personal life. And there are
some issues that female students are reluctant to raise
with even the most sympathetic male adviser.
However, despite their influence, female faculty
are not absolutely essential for a female-friendly
department. Three of our five successful schools had
an all-male faculty. Clearly, men can be very effective
mentors and supporters of female students; faculty
need not wait to hire a woman to make their department
female-friendly in other ways.
To bolster their appeal, departments can take
steps to attract talented women. Family issues typically
are a critical part of the career decisions female faculty
make. Sue Rosser, dean of Ivan Allen College at the
Georgia Institute of Technology and former chief of
women’s programs at NSF, and E. O’Neil Lane, of
the Georgia Tech Research Corp, interviewed female
NSF-grant recipients about the most significant
career challenges facing female scientists today.(7) By
far the most common response, occurring more than
twice as often as any other, was “balancing work with
family responsibilities (children, elderly relatives, etc.).”
Yet at every school we visited, including the
successful ones, deans and department chairs seemed
unaware of any connection between family policies
and the recruiting of female faculty. Although a
department may want diversity in its faculty ranks, a
person’s dilemma of choosing a job where his or her
partner also has good prospects is often viewed as
simply a burden couples have to work out on their
own. The issue does make it hard for colleges to hire
new faculty, especially women. A full complement of
family-friendly policies, will support different kinds
of families at different life stages.
None of the schools we visited had all of the listed
family-friendly policies in place. College administrations
often resist such policies because they are too expesive.
But failed searches are expensive, too, as is losing a
new faculty member after spending money for startup
equipment. Losses of a new hire are costly to faculty
morale as well. We visited departments in which the
faculty were exhausted and demoralized by search
after failed search, and were making do with
inexperienced temporary teachers. In one small,
isolated department, the faculty seemed almost in
shock because of the sudden and unexpected departure
of a dynamic professor whose wife had found a job
elsewhere. The costs of family-friendly policies need
to be balanced by the benefits of recruiting and
retaining a dynamic, diverse, and committed faculty.
In that respect, educational institutions lag far behind
[Professor----] is a person who is genuinely
concerned and loving toward students, but he’ll
worry you to death--you know how your mom
is always bugging you? That’s [him]. He’ll call
you every day if he has something on his
mind—drives me batty. (Female student)
Institutional support for personal lives is healthy
for students as well as faculty. In an atmosphere of
excessive devotion to students, faculty can become
overly parental. That annoys students. More important, it deprives them of responsibility. Faculty who prefer
to spend time in their offices can be poor role models
for students, particularly students who are wondering
how they might combine their interest in physics
with their desire for a family. A warm and active
department culture is an important part of a female friendly
department, but it should not supersede
commitments to family and friends outside the
department. Margaret Eisenhart, professor in the
school of education at the University of Colorado at
Boulder, and Elizabeth Finkel, a science teacher at
Noble High School, a public school in Maine, argue
that fields like physics are “greedy,” demanding too
much time and energy, and driving away women
who would like a rich and satisfying personal life in
addition to their career.(8)
Essential Family-Friendly Polocies
Solutions to the “two-body problem”. Institutions can encourage both the hiring
of faculty partners and networking with other institutions. Laurie McNeil and
Marc Sher offer recommendations for couples and schools (see their article in
PHYSICS TODAY July 1999, page 32).
Generous and inclusive family leave. Family leave policies should be designed
for different kinds of families at different stages of life. Administrators should
ensure that employees will not face repercussions for taking family leave.
Childcare. Childcare should be offered on-site and be partially subsidized.
Coordination of school breaks with public school vacations may help working parents.
Family-friendly atmosphere. In such an environment, faculty children are welcome in the
department: Administrators should be tolerant of family demands on the faculty.
The warp: The introductory course
How many times can you sit there and solve
problems like “how fast is the block sliding
down the incline?”…If you took physics in
high school it was a lot of the same stuff. (Male
Each school we visited follows a traditional
approach to the curriculum, even at the introductory
level. That accords with the results of the SPIN-UP
project (Strategic Programs for Innovations in
Undergraduate Physics—see Bob Hilborn and Ruth
Howe, Physics Today, Sept. 2003, page 38), which
also found a remarkable uniformity in the physicsmajor
curriculum. Our conversations with students
suggest that faculty should consider more innovative
subjects and interactive pedagogy in the introductory
course. Both male and female students frequently
described the traditional introductory course as
boring and repetitive of high-school physics.
Cookbook labs that emphasize error analysis rather
than concept development received poor student
reviews. Students spoke highly of open-ended, project
-based labs, even if they were more time-consuming
than traditional labs. Courses designed for nonmajors
(astronomy and conceptual-physics classes, for
instance) also received more positive reviews.
[The physics course for elementary education
majors included] a lot more examples and
demos and real life situations—a lot less math.
Things that anyone would be interested in
knowing, like Bernoulli’s principle is when the
shower curtain comes in on you and sticks to
you…General stuff that makes physics fun,
especially for people who don’t like math.
The former elementary education student quoted
here chose the physics major after taking the nonmajors
physics education course she describes. And
she is not alone—we heard several cite a nonmajors
introduction, approached from an innovative format,
as a reason for the decision to major in physics.
Faculty often feel freer to be exploratory and innovative
in such courses than in the calculus-based course for
majors—the pressure to cover content appears to
Beyond the anecdotal level, validating the effect
of innovation on teaching success has proved difficult.
The uniformity in the traditional approach adopted
in all of the departments we visited prevented us from
making any strong correlations. Interestingly, however,
in the few cases of nontraditional courses we found,
women seemed more likely than men to experiment
with innovative or interactive teaching formats.
As a freshman coming in and not having a lot
of experience with the department, I wish they
would do something to make the individual
professors seem more approachable when you
first start off. (Female student)
Sometimes, faculty don’t really know how they
strike students, even in departments like the ones we
sampled—small, undergraduate-oriented, and focused
on teaching. Faculty frequently say that they have an
open-door policy, that students feel free to come in
anytime to talk about classes, plans, or personal matters.
But our interviews indicate that’s not always the
student perception at typical departments. Physics
majors complained that, in their first year, they did
not receive the open-door policy message the faculty
thought they were sending. The problem vanishes in
upper-level classes that are small and informal, when
students get to know the faculty and their fellow
students well. But in the introductory classes, special
efforts on the part of faculty to approach students—
potential majors, especially—are often lacking.
At one successful school, the professor teaching
the introductory class identifies potential majors and
regularly invites them to departmental activities. The
day we visited he was handing out tickets for a trip
to see Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen. Some
departments designate a particularly good teacher
who is also good at recruiting. One successful
department teaches an introductory class specifically
for physics majors, to avoid exposing less experienced,
serious students to more experienced and possibly
intimidating nonmajors who are less interested in the
class. Yet another school designed a discussionoriented
section to appeal to women and minority
students. Generally, students at schools without some
form of personal attention more often spoke negatively
about their first-year course.
The weft: Creating departmental culture
In a successful department, there exists an
environment in which everyone is accustomed to
working together: More experienced students guide
less experienced ones, and faculty members act as role models, cooperating as a team and supporting
each other in their professional and personal lives.
The faculty can provide a comfortable, stable
network of support for a healthy student body.
Figure 3 illustrates the departmental connections.
Some of the threads of a warm, student-friendly
department culture are given in the box on the next
page. It is important to ensure that the student
culture is not a boys club; some typical departments
are so male-dominated that women may feel uncomfortable
and out of place. The second part of the box
suggests ways for faculty to help create an inclusive
Students do much of the work to create a warm,
friendly, inclusive departmental culture. They staff
tutorials and labs, run the physics club, and plan
social activities. They work in recruiting and
outreach programs and keep in touch with alumni
and alumnae. These activities lighten faculty loads and
give students a sense of belonging and responsibility.
At successful schools, recruiting often begins
before students even enroll in college. Faculty members
judge science fairs, teach in summer bridge programs,
and visit local high schools—all high-profile ways to
advertise. Departmental Web sites designed to
emphasize the participation of women also attract a
wide pool of students. If available, the department’s
telescope or planetarium can be used for outreach at
local schools. Current majors effectively assist with
such efforts, and our findings suggest it is often
female students who are most involved.
Successful departments extend their efforts in
another direction as well. Faculty at most undergraduate
schools maintain contact with a few alums
who have gone on to prestigious graduate schools
and academic careers. But at successful schools, the
network is more extensive and connected with
current students in the department. At two successful
schools, the department chairs pointed out photographs
of graduating classes and shared stories of alums who
had taken various career paths (see figure 4). One
chair described with equal enthusiasm a former
student who is now a veterinarian and another who
is in graduate school in physics at MIT. Posters of
research done by present and former students decorated
the walls and were pointed out to us with pride.
In the physics department, we run a career
panel where we bring back graduates from the
last 10 or 20 years. And the networking system
is displayed there. And some of the students
from the ‘70s and ‘80s now are division chiefs,
so they can offer jobs. They are good role
models. We try to balance them in gender too.
At successful schools, faculty members invite alums
to give seminars, recruit for graduate school, and
provide students a sense of what life as a physics major
can be. In a small department without graduate students
or postdocs, that extra dimension adds perspective.
Historically black colleges and universities
Among the schools we visited, historically black
colleges and universities (HBCUs) were especially
effective at creating networks of support. These
schools are well-known for producing great numbers
of African American scientists.(9) Less well known is
their female-friendliness. A recent study of African
American female scientists showed that 75%
received their bachelor’s degrees at HBCUs.(10) Of the
20 schools that graduate the highest percentage of
female physics majors in the US, 8 are HBCUs.1
What accounts for that remarkable record?
The physics departments in the two historically
black colleges in our study do many of the same
things other successful departments do, and they do
them exceptionally well. Faculty members at HBCUs
are dedicated to the success of each student. They
make strong efforts to recruit students by visiting local high schools and teaching summer bridge
programs. They involve students in research and
physics-department-related activities from the beginning
and they maintain contact with alums, encouraging
them to visit, advise inexperienced students, and
recruit students to graduate schools and jobs. They
also use their own students as tutors, recruiters, and
mentors for less experienced students. And all of that
is accomplished with minimal resources. The success
of such efforts calls into question claims by wealthier
schools that a program to improve the learning
environment for female students is just too expensive.
Really you don’t start taking a physics class
until you take calculus 1. I took elementary
functions, which is basically precalc. Then I
took calculus 1 and 2, now I’m in calc 3. It really
depends on the person coming in. (Male student)
This student describes his starting point in
physics and implicitly alludes to the alternative route,
in which students with stronger backgrounds jump
right away into the more traditional calculus-based
introductory course. The matter-of-fact tone of his
remarks is as important as the actual words—there is
clearly no stigma attached to starting at a lower level.
That attitude is the one important and distinguishing
feature common only to the historically
black colleges we visited. Their faculty typically
distinguish clearly between students who are interested
and talented in physics and those who happen
to have a good high-school physics background.
Background courses in mathematics and physics are
offered to prepare anyone with a background
insufficient for the calculus-based majors course. The
institution and faculty are dedicated to helping
students overcome deficiencies in their background
without lowering standards.
Good faculty members will cover the content
and go the extra mile and give the student the
assistance, but they have to hold the student to
the standard. They don’t lower the standards
because the student has a deficiency. Physics is
physics wherever you are. (Female dean)
A central result of our study is that several factors
contribute to making a departmental culture inclusive
to a variety of students. Typical departments have
some of those threads, but successful departments
have more of them. Not surprisingly, when departments
make efforts to be more friendly and inclusive, both genders notice the difference. But even though
warming up a department benefits all students, it
seems to help women in particular. Sociology partly
explains the difference: Women tend to value
interpersonal relationships more than men. And a
sense of isolation may explain another part of the
difference: Typical departments simply have many
fewer women than men. Perhaps male students can
more easily develop peer relationships that help
them survive a “cold” department.
Many of our observations are in accord with the
findings in the SPIN-UP—that is, many small factors
combine to create thriving departments. The surprise
is that SPIN-UP researchers did not observe a significant
increase in women or minority students. We are
continuing to study this complex issue, comparing
SPIN-UP data to our own, to understand the
differences between thriving departments and
female-friendly ones. We also plan to widen our
school sampling to include women’s colleges and
other minority-serving institutions.
Although we studied undergraduate-only physics
departments, many of our results may be adapted to
larger research-oriented departments that cater
mainly to graduate students. To develop a warm,
female-friendly culture in these schools, it is important
to focus on the first year, before students are fully
integrated into the department. Department chairs
should choose the undergraduate adviser and the
introductory (calculus-based) class instructors
carefully; those faculty members should be friendly,
accessible people to whom students easily relate.
Other useful ways to integrate the department
include encouraging graduate students to informally
mentor undergraduates and inviting undergraduates
to seminars and departmental parties. It may also be
useful for the undergraduate adviser or the
department chair to meet regularly with women
students to discuss any concerns.
Physics departments around the country are
making progress, and we hope that trend continues.
Some research universities are beginning to see the
relationship between family-friendly policies and the
recruitment and retention of female faculty, for
example. Both Georgia Tech (http://www.advance.
gatech.edu/overview.html) and the University of
California, Irvine (http://advance.uci.edu/home.html)
have included family-friendly policies in their NSF
ADVANCE institutional transformation grants. We
encourage graduate-student-focused physics departments
that are interested in improving their climate for
women to contact the CSWP and request a site visit.
The program is described on the CSWP Web page
(http://www.aps.org/educ/cswp/visits/). Further results
for graduate programs are found in references 4 and 5.
This project was funded by the National Science
Foundation Program for Gender Equity. The
American Physical Society’s Committee on the Status
of Women in Physics was very supportive, especially
Neal Abraham, Judy Franz, Suzanne Otwell, and
Alice White. We are grateful to Rachel Ivie and
Patrick Mulvey of the American Institute of Physics
for providing statistical support. It is a pleasure to
acknowledge our colleagues listed in the box above
who lent their expertise and time. Finally, we are
most grateful to the students and faculty of the
departments we visited.
Here are important threads in a student-oriented culture.
Provide a student lounge. This area gives students a place to study together,
tutor other students, and interact socially. Departments with a comfortable
lounge have markedly improved student relations. Faculty drop by to chat
with students, which prompts casual interactions (see figure 5).
Offer a tutorial service. This service has many benefits: Newer students get
another resource beyond sometimes intimidating professors; older students
get a job that lets them practice explaining physics concepts. Students feel at
home in the student lounge if sessions take place there. And perhaps most
important, students in more advanced classes automatically become mentors
to less experienced students.
Use student lab assistants. Students in more advanced classes may advise those
in the introductory classes, thus providing the same benefits as a tutorial
service. An added benefit: Physics majors gain valuable experience in setting
up equipment and trouble-shooting problems.
Schedule departmental seminars. Use these sessions to focus on undergraduate
interests—jobs or postgraduate opportunities, for example.
Create a Society of Physics Students chapter or other physics club. These clubs
provide opportunities for social interactions, physics-related activities, and
career counseling. Some successful departments have one club meeting
specifically devoted to the concerns of introductory students.
Here are important elements that can foster a female-friendly culture.
Monitor the student culture. Make it clear that sexist and racist remarks and
behavior are unprofessional and have no place in a laboratory or classroom.
Foster a cooperative spirit. Rather than create a competitive atmosphere in the
department, encourage cooperation in class, from formal group activities to
informal study groups.
Mention female and minority scientists. For example, emphasize Nobel laureates
and leaders in the field to students in class or on departmental posters.
Highlighting a variety of physicists may help women and minority students
feel more strongly tied into the physics community.
Emphasize applications to environmental and social issues. Elaine Seymour
and Nancy Hewitt found that women and minorities often choose careers in
science for societal reasons.(3)
Encourage student-faculty research. Such research is an important part of an
undergraduate education in science and can facilitate a less formal relationship
Ensure that students feel safe working in the department alone or at night. Of
the female students we interviewed, none expressed concern over their safety.
We include the caveat simply as a critical aspect of helping students feel
comfortable in the department.
(1) R. Ivie, K. Stowe, Women in Physics, 2000. AIP pub. no. R-430 (2000). The report is available online at http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/
(2) NSF, Women, Minorities, and Persons With Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2000, NSF rep. no. 00-327, Arlington,
Va. 2000. Available online at http://www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/nsf00327
(3) E. Seymour, N. Hewitt, Talking about Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences, Westview Press, Boulder, Colo. (1997).
(4) M. S. Dresselhaus, J. Franz, B. C. Clark, Improving the Climate for Women in Physics Departments, American Physical
Society and American Association of Physics Teachers, College Park, Md. (1995).
(5) B. L. Whitten, CSWP Gazette, Fall 2000, p. 3.
(6) M. E. Tidball, J. Higher Educ. 57, 606 (1986).
(7) S. V. Rosser, E. O. Lane, J. Women and Minorities in Sci. and Eng. 8, 163 (2002)
(8) M. Eisenhart, E. Finkel, Women’s Science: Learning and Succeeding from the Margins, U. Chicago Press, Chicago, Ill. (1998).
(9) W. Pearson Jr, L. C. Pearson, J. Negro Educ. 54, 24 (1985).
(10) C. B. Leggon, W. Pearson Jr, J. Women and Minorities in Sci. and Eng. 3, 213 (1997).
(11) B. L. Whitten, S. R. Foster, M. L. Duncombe, P. E. Allen, P. R. L. Heron, L. McCullough, K. A. Shaw, B. A. P. Taylor, H.
M. Zorn, J. Women and Minorities in Sci. and Eng. (in press).
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