This summer, when professors Bonnie Fleming and Helen Caines joined the Physics Department, they tripled its number of women professors.
For the past three years, professor Meg Urry has been the first and only female professor to hold a spot among the department’s 30-odd full professors. Her status, as well as Fleming and Caines’ hiring, highlight the disparity between genders not only in Yale’s Physics Department, but in university physics departments around the country.
The American Institute of Physics has found that only 13 percent of physics degrees in the United States are awarded to women, ranking the country 13th, behind France, Poland, Denmark and others.
About twice as many declared physics majors at Yale are male as female, according to the Yale College online facebook.
Yale Physics Department Chair Ramamurti Shankar said he believes the problem is not limited to the faculty at universities and instead affects the entire field of physics.
“We have been actively trying to increase the number of women in our faculty, but we were also looking for women who we could hire on their own merits,” he said.
While women take introductory physics classes, few go on to pursue graduate degrees in the discipline, Shankar said.
“Where do they disappear to?” he said.
Fleming said women have yet to reach “critical mass” in the physics world.
“Once higher levels are more populated it will encourage the undergraduates to stay in the field,” she said.
Urry said the lack of women in the field of physics is a serious problem for academia and gender equality.
“I think there are barriers to women that are do not exist for men, although most of the overt ones are gone,” she said.
She cited long hours and the demands of the work as two of the factors that discourage women who want to have families from pursuing the profession.
In the course of her career, Urry has spent many hours promoting physics as a career for women. She organized national meetings on women in astronomy in 1992 and 2003 and led the U.S. delegation to the first international meeting on Women in Physics in France in 2002.
Last year, Yale offered a lecture series focused on women in physics.
“We are trying to emphasize that physics is a great area for women and there cannot be a better time than now to join the field,” Shankar said.
Although Fleming said she is used to being in the minority, she has not had any blatant displays of prejudice against her in her career and finds the Yale faculty especially supportive.
Caines was travelling this month and could not be reached for comment.
Ana Mandel ’07, who plans to double-major in physics and English, said she does not fit the classic model of a physics student because she is female.
All three professors said they think lack of role models in the field is a turn-off for many female students. But Urry believes there is more to it than that.
“Meg was a pioneer,” Professor Shankar said. “In the future it will get easier and easier for women.”