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Affecting the Climate for Women in Physics:
The CSWP Site Visit Program

by Meg Urry

Meg Urry is Chair of the Physics Department at Yale University. She has been a member
of CSWP site visiting committees.

June 2007

Each scientific institution has its own culture. Some are welcoming and relaxed. In others the atmosphere is
more formal, almost corporate. But occasionally the climate feels hostile or alien to women. Often
it is hard for insiders to see just what is wrong and/or to effect change. Then it is time to seek
some outside advice.

Since its inception in 1990, the Site Visit program of the American Physical Society’s
Committee on the Status of Women in Physics(1) has visited 34 physics departments and 5 research
facilities (see Box 1). The primary goal of the CSWP program is to improve the environment
and increase numbers of women in physics at all levels, from undergraduate ranks through
senior faculty. It has long been recognized that climate and culture are major factors in
women leaving or staying in science. By focusing specifically on how the environment affects
women scientists, CSWP Site Visit committees are able to address issues directly affecting their
retention and success. Furthermore, women are often the “canaries in the coal mine,” pointing to
environmental issues that are unhealthy for both men and women. CSWP site visits can sometimes
point to simple solutions that prevent major problems from developing.

Anatomy of a CSWP Site Visit

CSWP site visits must be requested by the department chair (or equivalent administrator,
in the case of non-academic institutions). This demonstrates an active interest in improving
the situation for women and thus optimizes the chances for a positive outcome. While there
may well be departments in greater need than those who invite CSWP inspection, little can
be accomplished without the commitment of a strong local leader in a position of authority. If
you are wary of approaching your department head to suggest a site visit, I suggest you look
for a sympathetic faculty member, preferably senior, who can make the case. Often an initially
reluctant chair is swayed by arguments that a site visit would make the department look
good, that it might improve recruitment, or satisfy an institutional requirement to address
gender issues. But many chairs genuinely want to improve their department and welcome an external site visit from a prestigious organization such as the APS. Unfortunately, not all requests for a visit can be met as the CSWP has sufficient budget for only 2–3 visits per year. Usually requests are taken in order of receipt.


Site visit committees are organized by a member of the standing CSWP committee who
has been appointed to serve as CSWP Site Visit Coordinator for one year. It is his or
her responsibility to organize committees for each of the 2–4 site visits per year. These are
constituted much like the usual departmental visiting committee, i.e., each consists of 3–5
physicists with expertise overlapping the main subfields represented in the department. Most of
the committees are all female, the thinking being that women in the departments being visited will
feel freer to talk to an all-woman committee. An alternative view is that men should be included,
in part because they might be granted greater authority by male faculty resistant to a negative
assessment. There is no documented evidence about either potential effect, however. Finally,
there is an attempt to balance experienced senior scientists (including the committee chair) with
younger physicists.


In general, the Chair and committee members are all well-known, highly respected physicists.
One department chair commented after a site visit that the key to making his faculty receptive
to the committee’s report was “the stature of the committee members, who were very well
respected and had no political axe to grind.” He thought that an outside committee could be
significantly more effective than a universitybased group, both because department members
were more willing to speak freely to outsiders and because outsiders were seen as free of
internal university politics.


Prior to the actual site visit, the APS administers a survey, to be completed by the department
and various segments of the departmental community. This includes basic demographic
information disaggregated by gender, such as the numbers of students at each level, their graduation
rates, the number of postdoctoral fellows, faculty at each level, etc. The surveys are evaluated
by experienced statisticians at the American Institute of Physics and results are provided to
committee in advance. No results are reported for 5 or fewer responses in any given group, so that
anonymity is preserved. The survey gives the Site Visit Committee a sense of the general feeling in
the department and notifies them of any specific issues that need to be considered. Typically
about 20–30% of the students in the department complete the survey, raising the possibility that it
does not accurately reflect departmental attitudes, something the committee is careful to take into
account. In addition, the chair of the committee typically has several discussions with department
chair or administrator prior to visit, to get an idea of the major issues.

The actual site vit lasts one or two days, depending on the size and complexity of the organization. The day usually starts with a meeting with the department chair, followed by discussions with leaders and/or representative members of groups such as undergraduates, grad students, postdocs, faculty, department administration, and administrative staff (e.g., directors of undergraduate and graduate studies). Typically, women and men meet separately with the committee, to ensure that everyone feels free to speak openly. At some point during the visit, the committee also talks with administration officials (deans and/or the provost), to get the institution’s view of the department. After the visit, the site visit committee writes a report, usually within a few weeks of the visit. The entire process is confidential, from the interviews through the final report. Identifying characteristics are omitted from the report, to preserve the anonymity of department members.

The final report is sent to the department chair. Usually the chair shares the report, either
the summary or the detailed report, with faculty and administration. One year later, the chair
is asked to give the CSWP a response to the report, indicating how the recommendations
have been implemented and giving a preliminary assessment of their utility.


Findings on the Climate in Physics Departments


The APS Site Visit program has visited a wide range of institutions—from large state universities to small colleges, and everything in between, including some Government research labs. Despite this diversity of institutions, site visit committees do find some surprising similarities in climates found in different departments. Typically undergraduates are very enthusiastic about physics, and there are few differences in attitude between men and women. First- and second-year graduate students are similarly enthusiastic about physics. They like their classes and, though in many cases anxious and daunted by the challenges ahead, most remain very keen on physics.


By the later years of graduate school, however, strong differences between men and women
can emerge. Senior women graduate students sometimes appear discouraged and battle-weary.
They speak of having made the wrong choice to pursue physics. They tell the visiting committee
that they don’t like it, aren’t cut out for it, don’t know how to do it well, and certainly should have done something else. They can’t wait to get out, get away from the department, and from academia,
and some say they are planning to finish up only because it took them so long to come this far. At
one university, a 5th year graduate student—who had an outstanding reputation in her field—talked of
being absolutely and completely without any good ideas, and said she wouldn’t have the first idea of
what to propose for a grant or how to plan a research program for a faculty job. She was practically
in tears as she described what she perceived as her complete unsuitability for her chosen field.
Yet she was well known by physicists outside her university as being a very bright and promising
scientist.


Few of the men say anything remotely like this. Any discouragement is usually manifested
as reduced ambition (relative to the projected standards typical of most departments, namely
that one should aspire to a faculty position at a top research institution); for example, they
expressed interest in faculty positions at a 4-year teaching college rather than a research-intensive
university. The much stronger alienation of women physics graduate students is both striking
and very worrying.


Student disaffection is relatively easy to detect—they are young, idealistic and fairly
willing to talk. When it comes to faculty it is often much harder to assess the true climate—they are
heavily invested in the system and less willing to be perceived as rocking the boat. While junior
faculty often seem as if they are progressing normally and expect fair treatment, nearly every
senior woman faculty tells a different story. Their concerns range from minor annoyance to
major disgruntlement. Many speak of a lack of respect from colleagues, of not being listened to
or heard, and of having little say in departmental affairs. One senior woman—enormously respected
and well-known—said she really didn’t know why she had been hired; she felt she was
barely tolerated and certainly not supported by other faculty, especially those in her subfield.
Overall, senior women faculty in physics express a sense of marginalization, as well as a lack of
access to resources, much as was described in the famous MIT report on women faculty in the School of Science, and in many reports since.

Many male faculty are supportive of their women colleagues and eager to improve the
climate for women in physics, as well as to increase the number of women faculty and
students. Some, however, view women colleagues as under-talented or overly difficult. Phrases such
as “high maintenance” emerge. The sense you get is of the women faculty being not so much
harmed by overt discrimination as diminished by being ignored or dismissed. After spending
a decade or more of being overlooked, many senior women faculty adjust by withdrawing.
Sometimes they focus their interests away from research into teaching or administration outside
the department, or into some endeavor on a field independent of their male colleagues, thus
reinforcing the (erroneous) impression that they are not suited for or interested in cutting-edge
research. This in turn can have the subtle negative consequence of lowering faculty expectations of
women graduate students.


CSWP site visits reveal that many U.S. physics departments have climates less than
optimal for the full flowering of talent within them. In many cases, the faculty are unaware of
the negative effects of simple—and apparently unbiased—departmental practices. The site visits
help to document the status of women within the department, and to illustrate how perceptions
and reality impact them. A few simple, practical recommendations often can decisively improve
the climate.


Typical Recommendations of a CSWP Site Visit Report


For undergraduates, the advising structure and climate are the key issues. It is important for
faculty to be accessible and supportive. Making sure the students have a comfortable, convenient
student lounge is invaluable, as are social activities like pizza parties, chairman’s teas, picnics, and
other activities that humanize the department for students. The department should feel like a
comfortable “home” for students. A decent web presence and connectivity (e.g., an email listserv
for undergraduate majors), along with strong Society of Physics Students organizations, can also
improve the undergraduate physics experience. On occasion, it is necessary to pay attention
to sexism, which is not rampant but remains (surprisingly, given that we’re in the 21st century)
alive and well on today’s campuses. More than one young woman has been told she is not suited
to physics, or isn’t smart enough, or lacks some other requisite ability. At one university, a young
man told the Site Visit Committee that he did his physics homework only with other male physics
majors because he “knew they were smarter than the women.” When questioned further on this
point, he admitted he had never actually talked to any of the women about physics, so had no
basis for his prejudice. In such an environment it is relatively easy for women physics majors to be
made to feel inadequate. Yet it is simply remedied by faculty demonstrating respect for the intellect
of women students in their classes.


Other recommendations might address recruitment of majors—why is it that so many
more men than women major in physics? It helps to de-emphasize pre-college technical background,
which is largely irrelevant. Departments may expect their majors to come primarily from
honors introductory physics classes filled with students with top scores on AP Physics exams,
but this kind of record reflects the quality of the high school more than it does innate aptitude
for physics. In the right environment, bright, enthusiastic students can quickly make up for
little or poor high school experience in physics. Departments should recognize and facilitate
different entry points to the major. In addition, research shows that women respond well to
innovative teaching techniques, where traditional“chalk and talk” lectures and competitive
atmospheres are de-emphasized in favor of cooperative and/or interactive learning. Providing
such classes, especially at the introductory level, has the potential to increase the number of
majors overall, not just the number of women, by appealing to students who are less attracted to
traditional physics instruction.


Undergraduate physics students often hit problems in their sophomore year when the
workload and style tends to get tougher. Faculty tend to see these “crank and grind” courses (e.g.
classical mechanics, E&M, quantum) as the first test of whether a student “has what it takes” to
be a physicist. This is the time when it is key that students develop good study habits, get
together in study groups and ask the instructor about things they do not fully understand. Some
departments have found it helpful to pay senior students to hang out as informal tutors in study
lounges, a tutoring room or physics labs. They report this not only helps junior students get
over this “roadbump” but the upper division students also improve their mastery of basic
material which helps their GRE performance. Once students gain experience and confidence
they are often launched on their own successful path. Most women in physics have trouble not
from a lack of math or physics ability but from an essentially sociological problem of developing
good study habits and enhancing a natural curiosity about the physical world.


For graduate students, the first year or two can be particularly important, as students takequalifying exams and join a research group. Orientation to the department is therefore very important, and might better be spread out throughout the first year rather than crammed into the busy first week on campus. Training
for teaching assistants is helpful, as is a targeted research seminar to inform beginning students
about available research opportunities in the department. Senior graduate students can be
organized to mentor junior graduate students. Often this springs up organically from within the
student body, but it can also be organized by the department administration. In some departments,
unequal work burdens in different assistantships and/or uncertainty in future research support
has lowered graduate student morale; this can be mitigated by department level or administration
intervention. Stress in general can be relieved by appropriate measures. For example, to reduce the
stress from qualifying exams, departments can give special classes and/or offer problem-solving
sessions in the semester preceding the exam. Perhaps most importantly, there should be regular
communication between graduate students and departmental leadership, if necessary through
official groups (if the department is very large). The guiding principle should be that the present
graduate students were admitted to the program in the expectation they would succeed, and that
the department intends to support them and help them as necessary to achieve that end.


Most importantly, the sometimes seemingly opaque graduate career process must be
perceived to be fair. Some departments have found that having senior graduate students on
the committee that makes up the qualifying exams not only results in a better exam but
also allows the senior student to witness that the system is fair. Obviously, when it comes to
discussing individual performances on the exams it is not appropriate to have students present.


Compared to students, postdocs are more easily lost in the shuffle. Fewer universities
have offices devoted specifically to the postdoc population, even though most have long-standing
structures for undergraduate and graduate students. Postdocs are also more vulnerable,
since the good opinion of their single research supervisor largely dictates the progress of
their career, and they are much more isolated in research groups than students who share
other classes or teaching duties with a broad range of classmates. Thus the most important
recommendation for postdocs is to integrate them into the department in ways not dependent
on the research group. As with other groups, the department chair should meet regularly (at least
once per year) with postdocs as a group, to assess whether there are systemic issues that need to be
addressed. In the event of problems within their research group, postdocs should be encouraged to
approach the chair or any other faculty they deem accessible. Where appropriate, departments could
appoint a “Director of Postdoctoral Fellows” just as they do for undergraduates and graduate
students. Finally, it is important to increase the number of women postdocs, both for their
professional development and for creating a cadre for future faculty hires. Some departments and
universities have offered institutional support (for partial salary) when a faculty member hires
a female postdoc.


Recommendations for faculty tend to reflect the particular circumstances of individual departments,
as few have more than a handful of women. Some general statements can be made,
however. Junior faculty focus almost entirely on developing their careers and achieving tenure,
and for many this crowds out other considerations such as whether they actually like the department.
This may explain why it is the senior women faculty who tend to describe problems (e.g.,
MIT report). Department chairs must be vigilant in ascertaining the job satisfaction of their
women faculty and making sure their access to resources (including salary) is on par with men
in the department. At some institutions women faculty get together, often across departments,
to talk about common issues; groups of senior women faculty can be very effective at getting
departments and universities to address their concerns. The range of attention given to family
issues (such as child care, maternity and paternity leave, extensions of the tenure clock for birth or
adoption) varies enormously with institution. But there are examples for other institutions to
follow, tabulated on many of the NSF ADVANCE web sites(4). Similarly, institutions are sharing
information on how to handle the “two-body problem” (e.g., procedures for obtaining two
jobs at the university or nearby, the possibility for part-time status and/or shared faculty positions,
etc.). Departments can help by, for example, holding meetings at family-friendly times.


Mosts universities and departments recognize the unique responsibilities of role models,
particularly women and minority faculty in physics, who typically carry a disproportionate
service burden (advising minority or female students, filling the diversity slot on committees,
leading efforts to recruit and retain more women and minorities, etc.). One way to
alleviate this burden is to recruit more women faculty. A number of departments, no matter
how well-intentioned, have documented quite a remarkable string of failures in recruiting women
faculty. They conclude that women physicistsare in big demand and are difficult for any one
department to “land.” In fact, women scientists report otherwise—few say they were heavily
sought after for faculty positions. Thus it seems to be the case that a few women superstars are
eagerly recruited by multiple universities while many other talented women are out there and
available. The late Denice Denton talked about how universities should conduct real, active
searches for new faculty, scouring the terrain for excellence rather than waiting for it “to come
in over the transom.”(5) There was a recent case of a potential new woman neuroscientist—a
“super-star”—who was apparently warned off an MIT faculty position by the discouragement
of an individual senior male professor. It only takes one hostile interview to leave a bad taste
that might be the difference, for a hotly recruited candidate, between accepting and rejecting a
particular offer.


Broader recommendations center mainly on the importance of communication and a process to
address concerns. Regular meetings between the chair and women students, postdocs, and faculty,
are important. Establishing and encouraging groups of women in physics is relatively easy
and very effective. The days of girly magazines and pinup calendars are largely gone, if not
completely eradicated. But sexual harassment, however rare, is unfortunately not gone. Women
isolated in research groups can be particularly vulnerable; in wanting to fit in, they are reluctant
to antagonize anyone and thus are at a loss if collegial friendliness crosses the line to unwanted
attention. Departments need to have clear means of addressing such events. Young women need
role models, whether indigenous (e.g., women faculty in the department) or imported (e.g.,
seminar and colloquium speakers). Both the CSWP and the CSWA maintain lists of women,
sorted by institution, background, and subfield, that facilitate finding appropriate speakers.


Do the CSWP Site Visits Cause Change?


Ideally, a successful CSWP site visit would result in improvements in the department climate,
leading to greater numbers of women students, postdocs, and faculty, as well as greater satisfaction
of everone with their environment. Because of the scope of the CSWP program, it has not been
possible to carry out a formal evaluation. Instead, 6 months after the site visit, chairs are asked to report
on changes by answering a specific questionnaire from the APS. Thus, most of the information is
self-reported, short term, and ultimately anecdotal. It would be extremely valuable to have a formal
evaluation of the effectiveness of the program on, say, a 5-year time scale. Chairs and department members are generally very positive about the CSWP site visit program. Nearly all report better communication, especially between chairs and women students. There is greater openness about the topic of departmental climate, and a shift away from always looking to the women faculty for answers toward seeing climate issues as something that the faculty as a whole need to address. Nevertheless, one must be realistic that some faculty are allergic to change and that in academia few things happen swiftly.


Responses from individual women faculty were mixed. Some talked of tremendous changes,
and said their lives had been strongly affected. One of the most discouraged women faculty
was, within a few years of the visit, chair of her department. Another said, “one of the
most important things that happened was that you educated our chair… about some of the
difficulties in our department. Consequently he has worked to improve the lives of women (faculty,
students, etc) in the department [and] he is interested in hiring more women faculty.” Others
are less positive, one saying she was “unsure whether things have changed in any substantive
way” although the chair’s efforts “have led to a quieter and more collegial environment.” Some
expressed concern about negative fallout from her university administration because of negative
comments in report, although the chair thought it more likely the department would have been
punished if he hadn’t taken the step of inviting the CSWP intervention.


In general, the more committed the chair, the more positive about the visit and the more
substantial the response to the CSWP Site Visit Committee Recommendations. One chair
expressed gratitude for the “thorough and honest assessment of what the climate in the department
is or was” and reported that, for example, the recommended changes for undergraduates had
led to “larger and much more active SPS chapter.” In some cases, the chairs went beyond the
recommendations and devised new ways to better the career progress of women physicists. Indeed,
another hallmark of successful departments is that they take things further after the site visit,
figuring out how to bring like-minded faculty into leadership positions within the department,
and how to institutionalize climate change.


Perhaps the most important effect of the CSWP site visit is the newfound realization that
it is largely up to the men in the department to effect change, where previously everyone turned
to the women faculty to say “Please do something to fix this.”


To Request a CSWP Site Visit


CSWP site visits are instigated when a department chair contacts any member of theCSWP or Sue Otwell, APS Staff Liaison to the CSWP(1). Because the program is carried out by volunteers already heavily burdened with other “diversity” responsibilities, only 2–4 visits per year can be organized. Funding for the visit is shared between the APS, which pays for the committee chair’s travel expenses, and the
department, which covers expenses for the other committee members. From 1992–1997, the NSF
funded CSWP site visits, to 10 universities. Typical costs are roughly $1500 per person.
There is a $500 charge ($100 for laboratories) per site visit to offset costs associated with
programming and tabulating student surveys. Department chairs are urged to request support
for the visit from the administrative officer responsible for the recruitment and retention of
under-represented groups.

References:


(1) For a list of member of the CSWP see www.aps.org/educ/ cswp/index.html. Sue Otwell can be contacted via otwell@ aps.org. See also Barbara L. Whitten, “Improving the Climate for Women in Physics, Site Visit Program,” CSWP Gazette, Fall 2000 and “Best Practices for Recruiting and Retaining Women in Physics”, CSWP http://www.aps.org/programs/ women/reports/bestpractices/index.cfm

(2) Rachel Ivie and Katie Stowe, Women in Physics and Astronomy, 2005, AIP Publication Number R-430.02, February 2005 (see http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/reports/women05.pdf )

(3) The NRC has posted a list linking to many of the gender equity studies http://www7.nationalacademies.org/cwse/
gender_faculty_links.html

(4) Websites of programs with ADVANCE grants from NSF http://www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/advance/itwebsites.jsp

(5) See January 2007 for the transcript of Denice Denton’s presentation to the Women in Astronomy II conference in June 2004. A presentation on her Faculty Recruitment Toolkit can be found at http://www.engr.washington.edu/advance/ resources/faculty_recruitment.pdf

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