Physics department responds to lack of female faculty, discusses hiring efforts

Danielle Drake-Flam | News Editor

Following a February 2016 student organized sit-in intended to spreading awareness about the lack of gender diversity in the physics department, increased pressure has been placed on the department to hire a female physicist. Last year, the department made three job offers to women, two of which were senior faculty offers.

While neither of the offers were accepted, professor and department chair Mark Alford said the department will continue to move forward with recruitment efforts.

The physics department began a diversity committee—aimed at providing faculty and stuents with a place to voice concerns regarding diversity and inclusion—last year, with lecturer Mairin Hynes as chair.

“[We] try to promote things like diversity and inclusion by giving everybody a number of ways to reach out and let the department know what’s going well, what suggestions they have [and] if something’s a problem,” she said. “We also wanted to try to improve the overall diversity of speakers we bring in to help emphasize…that it’s not just white men in physics. There’s a wide range of people.”

The physics department also sought the counsel of Vice Provost and law professor Adrienne Davis to strategize effective methods of recruiting female physicists.

“It’s [about] beginning to identify really good people now, with the thought being that we might not be able to hire them next year, but we might be able to hire them in five or six years,” she said. “I think we’ve got to be consistently getting great women through the department so that we can cultivate them as a vast source for us.”

According to Hynes, potential hires may turn down positions due to revised and improved offers from their current institution.

“Both of them stayed where they were. And they basically got promotions within the research university they were at. Once again, I’m speculating, but that oftentimes will happen. Maybe they don’t feel appreciated where they are and they get a great offer,” Hynes said. “And then the place they’re at doesn’t want to lose them so they [increase] their offer. This person already has research contacts there; they already have a lab [and] they already have a life in this location.”

Another factor impacting recruitment is that women may be reluctant to join a department severely lacking in female faculty members. Davis believes this may have affected the hires’ decisions to decline Washington University’s offers.

“[Female presence] is very important to some women faculty and scientists, and not as important to others,” she said, “Truly, it could’ve been a factor.”

Because of this, Alford said that the physics workplace may not be comfortable for women at this moment.

“I think it’s a fact that the workplace climate in this physics department, and probably in most physics departments, has tended to be male-dominated and not necessarily a comfortable place for women to be as a small minority, because that’s how they are starting out,” Alford said.

Despite a lack of racial diversity in the department, Alford argued that recruiting people of color is not the department’s greatest priority because women make up a greater percentage of the population.

“In the case of physics, you know we don’t have any African-American faculty; we don’t have any [Latinx] faculty. But those sort of pale next to not having any female faculty—who are half of the population. That’s the thing that really stands out. Those [recruitment] tools or those concepts became more widely talked about, and that helps when you have an idea of what you might do or what sort of approach you might take to the problem—it gives you more incentive to address it,” he said.

Some faculty also speculate that the lack of gender diversity stems from the tendency for women to be discouraged from pursuing hard sciences early in life.

“There is clearly some kind of discouragement in the earlier part of the pipeline because by the time that you get to who’s majoring in physics in college, there’s already a disparity in who’s interested in majoring,” Alford said, “I think what happened in the past is that we tended to push the blame off to the earlier part of the pipeline and say ‘Well, of course when they show up and want to major, then we’ll welcome them.’ What I think has become apparent, or maybe more apparent, is that firstly we ought to be doing our bit of the pipeline.”

Going forward, Davis said that recruiting women to the department will be a difficult process, but noted that it is not impossible.

“Ten years ago, African-Americans were 3 percent of the Danforth faculty, and now they’re at 6 percent. And again, that’s national average, and if we continue, we’ll be the national leaders,” Davis said. “We can do these things. I think that sometimes we don’t think that we can do it, but we know that we can. It just takes a lot of work, a lot of energy, a lot of innovation [and] a lot of vision.”

  • Wash. U. Physics Students

    “In the case of physics, you know we don’t have any African-American faculty; we don’t have any [Latinx] faculty. But those sort of pale next to not having any female faculty—who are half of the population.”

    The statistic that Prof. Alford might have meant to cite was that underrepresented minorities account for ~5% of physics doctorates versus ~20% for women (although they make up ~30% and ~50% of the population, respectively).

    That being said, we certainly welcome anyone of any background into our department and look forward to its continued diversification. We also hope the department keeps momentum in building the pipeline.

    https://www.aps.org/programs/education/statistics/minoritydegrees.cfm

    – Wash. U. Society of Physics Students

    • Val Ryland

      Latinx isn’t a word. Latino is the correct, gender neutral form.