In The Field

APS March: Woman welcome

woman.jpgI was out to dinner with the Nature crowd a few nights back, and the conversation turned to women in physics. May Chiao, one of the editors at Nature Physics, hadn’t been to the March conference for a few years and said she noticed a real change: “Women are everywhere.”

I hadn’t really noticed before she brought it up, but sure enough, there are women aplenty at this conference. Women are commonplace in hallways and seminar rooms, many of them look like young graduate students and postdocs, but there are other more senior researchers here as well.

If women are becoming more commonplace, it would be a welcome change for physics, which has had pretty much the worst gender ratio in science. I asked APS spokesman Jason Bardi whether he had any stats on the number of women at the meeting. Unfortunately, he said, the APS doesn’t keep data on the gender of its meeting attendees.

But Margaret Murnane (see my previous post) says the numbers are definitely on the rise. She says she still remembers one of the first physics meetings she attended in Reno, Nevada. Not only was the conference overwhelmingly male, but at one reception, the drinks were served by cocktail waitresses in bunny suits. “There’s been a complete transformation,” she says.

Murnane credits the shift to the leadership of high-up female physicists like Millie Dresselhaus and former APS executive director Judy Franz. They made a concerted effort to make sure that women felt welcome and included in what previously had been a male only world.

But just because there are more young women at the conference doesn’t mean physics has solved its gender problem. Only about one in ten US faculty positions are held by women according to the American Institute of Physics, which keeps track of such things. Nearly half (43%) of all physics departments have no women on their faculty at all.

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