Physics probes climate for women

Yale’s women in physics are speaking up about changing their department.

As part of the movement to change the climate for female physicists at Yale, department members have begun collaborating with undergraduates to hear their ideas. Physics Department Chair Paul Tipton hosted a luncheon two weeks ago and spoke to 10 female undergraduates who are majoring in, or interested in majoring, physics. The goal, he said, was to gain a better understanding of the climate for young women within the major, especially as a male chair succeeding former Physics Department Chair Meg Urry last summer. Since the luncheon, physics faculty members have had several discussions about the issues raised at the event, including potentially reforming introductory courses.

Tipton said he wants to educate himself on “what it’s like to be a young woman in science here at Yale,” adding that women in sciences face challenges which he may not always be aware of. Both female and male faculty in the department have been involved in the recent movement.

“Having only women solve the problems of women in physics places a tremendous burden on us in terms of time,” said physics professor Sarah Demers.

For Lauren Chambers ’17, being a female physics student means being part of an extremely small group.

In her intensive introductory physics class of about 70 students, she said, she counted only 14 girls.

“[Physics lectures] seem to be large lecture classes taught by men, filled with men,” Chambers said.

But Catherine Harmer ’15 said that the challenges women face are not ones of explicit bias by men against women — rather, they are the product of widespread misconceptions. Harmer said she believes that society has an underlying idea that women are not as good as men at math and science.

This bias is one that people may not even be conscious of having, Demers said.

“I think some of my colleagues are not fully on board with the idea of the negative potential of implicit, subconscious bias,” Demers said. “This is something that is very clearly not just a problem of old white men. Implicit bias is something that all of us carry, and all of us are equally responsible for it.”

Chambers said much of the pressure she feels does not seem to come from anywhere concrete, but rather stems from her own thoughts.

Several students and faculty member interviewed suggested providing young women in physics with older female mentors, as one way of alleviating this sort of implicit pressure. Both Demers and Harmer said having mentors has been instrumental in their academic careers.

But while the idea of an official mentorship system between undergraduates and female faculty was offered at the luncheon, both students and professors recognized inherent difficulties in this proposal. After all, there are only so many female professors in the department, Madeleine Barrow ’15 said.

Demers echoed the sentiment. There are not enough women to advocate for more women in physics, she said, so the few women in the department must spread their time between their commitments to teaching, research and advocacy.

“Serving on these committees and speaking at conferences is thrilling, one of the best parts of the job, and it’s so important to me that we do improve the climate,” she said. “But there must be a way to solve the problem without it being just the women solving it on their additional time.”

Building community can also be a challence for female students–not just because their small numbers, but also from the structure of the physics classes themselves, Chambers said. Unlike many other science lectures, physics lectures do not have sections. Whether it involves turning to extracurricular clubs or independently forming study groups, Chambers said, finding support is something students must actively work to do.

Tipton said many of the challenges women encounter, including a lack of support resources, are actually relevant to men as well.

“Many of the things you would do to improve the climate for women are things you would do to improve the climate, period,” Demers said.

Harmer said she and many other female physicists are happy to see the issue come into the scope of campus dialogue.

At the end of the discussion on Friday, Tipton thanked the students for their insights and acknowledged the challenges they had mentioned.

“These are not easy things to solve, and they will require a big cultural change,” he said. “But we should keep meeting. I hear you.”

During the 2012-’13 academic year, the Physics Department had 21 male tenured professors and three tenured female professors.