Sarah Bradley

Where are the world’s women in physics?

Highlights from the 7th IUPAP Conference on Women in Physics

14 July 2021

  • Women are less likely to have access to essential career resources
  • Women are massively under-represented in physics journals
  • Only 18 per cent of Australian STEM professors are women.

“On the first day of the 7th IUPAP Conference on Women in Physics we heard about the scale of the challenge to redress gender inequity in physics. As the conference progresses we hope to learn more about how we can work together to improve the situation for women in physics,” said Professor Sarah Maddison, conference co-chair.

Women are less likely to have access to essential career resources

Dr Igle Gledhill (Witwatersrand University, South Africa) and Dr Rachel Ivie (American Institute of Physics) reported that:

  • There are no significant gender differences in career opportunities such as talking at a conference as an invited speaker, serving as editor of a journal or supervising students. But,
  • Women are less likely to have access to a range of career resources, such as sufficient funding, clerical and tech support, employees or students and support as a working parent. The differences appear small, but they compound over a career.
  • Family obligations affect women significantly more than men. Women report choosing a less demanding work schedule, becoming more efficient, and slowed career progression after becoming a parent. While parenthood has no negative impact on men’s careers and in fact men with children were more likely to say their careers progressed more quickly.
  • Women are much more likely to have a partner who is also a physicist.
  • Women physicists report doing more housework than men. Male physicists report earning more than their partners, many of whom are not physicists.
  • More women than men report that their workplace is unpleasant, and sometimes hostile.
  • Many more women than men have experienced, or are aware of, sexual harassment at work.

Their presentation was based on a 2018 survey of more than 30,000 researchers around the world, 7500 of whom are physicists.

Women are massively under-represented in physics journals

The ‘good’ news is that, when looking at papers from the last few years, about 25 per cent of astronomy and astrophysics authors are women, and their numbers have been steadily increasing. But such a positive trend is not evident in other disciplines of theoretical physics, reported Helena Mihaljević. Her team at HTW University of Applied Science Germany analysed open-access publication databases.

They also found that the so-called productivity gap, as a ratio of women’s over men’s productivity, is closing in astronomy and astrophysics for recent cohorts, but not in mathematics or theoretical physics. This may partly be due to different publication practices in these fields, with astronomy being very collaborative with multi-author papers; while mathematics is more likely to have single author publications.

Female authorship of various renowned physics papers remains at or below 10 per cent. However, the bright spots are astronomy and astrophysics, which shows an overall positive trend.

Only 18 per cent of Australian STEM professors are women

28 per cent of people employed in Australian science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) fields are women but only 18 per cent of professors are women.

Professor Lisa Harvey Smith, Australia’s Women in STEM Ambassador, also reported that of the women who graduated with a STEM degree in 2011, only one in ten were working in STEM five years later, compared with one in five men.

For more details, graphics and interviews visit www.scienceinpublic.com.au/iupap-women and contact:
Laura Boland, laura@scienceinpublic.com.au, 0408 166 426
Niall Byrne, niall@scienceinpublic.com.au, 0417 131 977

Background: more on each session

Gender Gap in the Global Survey: Igle Gledhill, Rachel Ivie and Susan White

To understand and reduce the gender gap in science, we must identify the various factors that deter women from pursuing scientific careers.

Several international surveys have explored these issues in the past. The 2018 Global Survey from Global Approach to the Gender Gap in Mathematics, Computing and Natural Sciences: How to measure it, how to reduce it? addresses inequality in education and career experiences along with work-life balance.

Dr Igle Gledhill (Witwatersrand University, South Africa) and Dr Rachel Ivie (American Institute of Physics) outline the background to this survey and some of the results for physics.

To ensure as broad representation as possible, the questionnaire was available in seven languages and distributed across 159 countries. It was completed by more than 30,000 scientists, 7500 of whom were physicists. Thirty-seven per cent of the physicists were women.

All results controlled for confounding variables (gender, age employment sector, geographical location and UN level of human development). Key findings include:

  • There are no significant gender differences in career opportunities such as talking at a conference as an invited speaker, serving as editor of a journal or supervising students.
  • Women are less likely to have access to a range of career resources, such as sufficient funding, clerical and tech support, employees or students and support as a working parent. The differences appear small, but they compound over a career.
  • Family obligations affect women significantly more than men. Women were more likely to report choosing a less demanding work schedule, becoming more efficient, and slowed career progression after becoming a parent.
  • Women are much more likely to have a partner who is also a physicist.
  • Women physicists report doing more housework than men. Male physicists report earning more than their partners, many of whom are not physicists.
  • More women than men report that their workplace can be unpleasant, and sometimes hostile.
  • Many more women than men have experienced, or are aware of, sexual harassment at work.

While these results are discouraging, this data is important to document what needs to be corrected. Recommendations to government, universities and laboratory administrators must be based on evidence to effect change.

Gender in publication practices in maths and physics, Helena Mihaljević

A scientist’s publication record is often taken as proxy for their reputation, and plays a key role in achieving and maintaining a successful academic career. An understanding of the effect of gender on publication practices is relevant to academic institutions, science policy makers and researchers alike.

Helena Mihaljević and her team at HTW University of Applied Science Germany accessed non-commercial, open-access databases and studied the distribution of authors across subfields, proportions of women authors across countries, representation of women authors in prestigious journals and research activity over time.

There are more women authors in astrophysics than other physics disciplines (around 16 per cent), and their numbers are increasing.

There is a trend of converging career length (as determined by published works), which indicates that securing an academic position is getting harder for both women and men.

The so-called productivity gap as a ratio of women’s over men’s productivity is closing in astronomy and astrophysics for recent cohorts, but not in mathematics. This could be related to the more collaborative nature of these disciplines, as compared to mathematics.

Women are still under-represented in renowned journals, especially in physics and theoretical and pure mathematics. For maths, female authorship is extremely low and showing no signs of improving in renowned theoretical or pure maths journals, while applied maths is showing a positive trend in female authorship (around 15%). In physics, female authorship remains at or below 10 per cent, with few positive trends. However, the bright spots are astronomy and astrophysics, which shows an overall positive trend.

Australia inequity, Lisa Harvey-Smith

Around the world, women are under-represented in STEM studies and careers. The statistics are stark:

  • 28 per cent of people employed in Australian STEM industries are women.
  • Only 18 per cent of professors are women.
  • In Year 12, girls are particularly under-represented in engineering, computing, physics and higher maths.
  • Of the women who graduated with a STEM degree in 2011, one in ten were working in STEM five years later, compared with one in five men.
  • Women earned less annual median income than men as VET STEM graduates and STEM postgraduates.
  • Women working full-time in STEM who took a career break for the arrival of a child were likely to earn less than those who didn’t. Men who took career breaks for this reason earned significantly more.

There is a range of reasons why women are under-represented and there are ‘pinch points’ at every stage of education and employment that limit women’s studies and careers. These range from lack of role models and gender bias for younger women, to discrimination and more caring responsibilities for STEM professionals.

These issues are systemic and complex and require large-scale, long-term cultural and systemic change.

The Australian government is tackling this problem with a suite of programs, guided by a national strategy. Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith is the Women in STEM Ambassador and leads a team that seeks to increase the participation of women and girls in STEM education and careers across Australia. Her office is achieving this through education, research, advocacy and policy advice.

The Women in STEM Ambassador is spearheading a national awareness-raising initiative funded by a $1M investment from the Federal Government. The Future You campaign is all about exciting and informing young people about the vast array of career options that use STEM skills. 

Their education-focussed programs and activities seek to increase girls’ interest in STEM jobs, raise parents’ opinions of the importance of STEM as a future career for their children and help teachers develop more inclusive STEM learning environments.

Initiatives for professional women in STEM seek to help the media and others discover the diversity of Australian women with STEM skills, connect women with career-advancing opportunities, improve workplace culture in STEM research organisations and remove bias in awarding grant funding.

Evaluation is the only way to understand if programs are working to affect change. The National Evaluation Guide is a simple online evaluation tool that offers practical advice and breaks down program evaluation into five easy steps.

Indigenous health, shark gonads, blind books, and future food: it’s National Science Week!

This year’s festival runs 14 to 22 August with thousands of events around Australia.

Entertainment, business, environment, food and wine, Indigenous, the Arts, health, sport, technology, farming and agriculture, lifestyle, education, and disability media …

EVERY round can find a story in this year’s National Science Week.

National Science Week 2021 runs from 14 to 24 August. Here are some of the early top picks:

Future-proofing food
How are we going to feed 10 billion people on a planet hit by climate change? Ask one of the hundreds of Australian scientists working on solutions. For instance:

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Free telescopes for Launceston, Exeter and Ulverstone schools, April 29 and 30

Sky-gazers visit the region to get kids dancing with the STARS

Astronomers, students and telescopes available for photographs. Key dates and locations:

April 29, morning: Riverside High School, 354 West Tamar Road, Launceston; Jay Duggan: 03 6327 6333
April 29, afternoon: Exeter High School, 28 Glen Ard Mohr Road, Exeter; Greg Finnigan: 03 6394 4366

April 30, morning and afternoon: Ulverstone Secondary College, 38 Leven St, Ulverstone; Kylie Waters: 03 6425 1433; 0400 126 282

Three schools in Launceston, Exeter and Ulverstone will be visited by astronomers, who will present them with powerful telescopes and show eager students how to use them to unlock the secrets of the stars.

Dr Brad Tucker, from the Centre of Excellence for All-Sky Astrophysics in 3D (ASTRO 3D) and the Australian National University, together with Mr Peter Swanton, also from ANU, will give the telescopes to Riverside, Exeter and Ulverstone high schools on April 29 and 30.

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