Physics students discuss department’s ongoing lack of women

Danielle Drake-Flam | Staff Reporter

Washington University’s physics department currently employs zero tenured or tenure-track women faculty, a statistic emblematic of the department’s gender disparity in both the number of students and professors.

Although a large number of female students take the introductory physics course, these students usually take the class to fulfill requirements for other programs, such as engineering majors or pre-med, and do not continue classes within this hard science field.

Currently, there are 22 tenure-track physics professors, all of whom are male, and only 15 to 20 of the 103 students majoring or minoring in physics are women, according to the Society of Physics Students. While there are classes taught by women in the physics department, none of them have tenure-track or tenure positions.

Some students have grown concerned with the issue, not just because it is a problem of gender equality, but also because it limits the talent pool that the department can draw from to roughly half of the student population. Concern regarding the lack of women in the department culminated in a January 2016 Student Union Senate resolution calling for the hiring of women and a February 2016 sit-in to raise awareness of the issue.

Ben Groebe, a third-year physics graduate student with a focus in astrophysics, discussed the issue of disparity between men and women in the physics department, saying he wasn’t surprised by the department’s low number of women when he first arrived here three years ago to start his graduate work.

“I wouldn’t say I ‘first noticed’ it so much as expected to see it before I arrived, and confirmed it once I did. [The gender disparity] is a common, well-known problem in the global physics community,” Groebe said.

Groebe believes that the lack of women in physics is bigger than just the department here on campus, and extends to a larger issue regarding women in hard science fields. He thinks that it will take years to make progress on this front.

“This is more of a reflection of the nature of the problem than the adequacy of the department’s response, but the latter is still open to debate,” Groebe said, “The root problem is large, extending well outside of Wash. U. and entrenched in a way that it will take years to see progress. Women are discouraged from pursuing technical fields, particularly math and so-called hard science from a young age, which means that once they reach college age there’s already an imbalance before they even experience the culture of a college physics department.”

Aside from the general lack of female presence in the physics field, students are also concerned about the absence of tenure-tracked female professors within the department.

Junior mathematical physics major and master’s degree student Stella Schindler addressed this issue by explaining the recent allegations that have been brought to the attention of the department.

“The complete lack of tenure-track female professors here really came to the forefront of departmental discussions after department members brought forward allegations of other gender disparities two years ago,” she said. “Many department members have mentioned that they were never aware of the scope of what their female colleagues had faced. Now that people are starting to open up about their experiences, the department has been able to have productive discussions about what needs to be addressed and how to move forward.”

Despite the issues within the department, Groebe is hopeful that these disparities will be addressed.

“There has been a lot of awareness raised by activists which the department has affirmatively responded to, and I definitely see a culture among many of my graduate student peers that strongly emphasizes respect for women. I am heartened by that,” Groebe said.

Schindler agrees, saying she is happy to be a part of such a momentous change.

“The Wash. U. physics department is a great place to be as a woman right now,” Schindler said. “Besides, the best way to help drive change is to be part of it; we hope that every person on this campus who wants to study physics feels welcomed and able to do so.”

  • Tru Isou

    The only real answer is to start assigning women to STEM majors and careers, either arbitrarily or based on test scores. No more free choice.

  • Joshua Garner

    Physics is hard. We live in a society that caters to women so that has made women soft. If we want now women in physics, we need to start making tougher women or lower the science standards.

    • Moses

      Lol, spoken from someone who has no right or ability to give advice on this issue

      • Joshua Garner

        I am speaking as a person with a physics degree from UW. Additionally I would like to point out that the top student in my graduating class was a female.

        Men are a minority in college. Men are a minority is most college degrees. Yet feminist garbage propaganda has nothing to say about it.

        The same reason that more women than men believe in astrology is the same reason why more men than women are in physics. Our society fosters women to be gold diggers. Physics is not a place for that.

        • Nina Nepa

          Wow you’re so right! You and your physics degree from UW sure told me. Guess I should stop pursuing my M.S. in Mechanical Engineering, because I’m well, soft! However, your hypothesis that “society fosters women to be gold diggers,” well, is purely conjecture and built upon fallacy with no concrete data or calculation. And sir, you know know science is just not a place for that.

          • Joshua Garner

            I think females in the STEM fields is wonderful and necessary for our society to be the strongest is can be.

            Cosmopolitan magazine has a circulation of 3 million.
            Kim Kardashian has 50 million followers on twitter.
            Women demand that the guys they date make more money than them.
            Women go to college and get crap degrees: poli sci, art history, communication, women’s studies, etc. They don’t, even though they out number men, get degrees in STEM.

            And who is stopping women from going into STEM? Who is discouraging them? No one. There is special money set a side for women just for STEM. Men get nothing and they are the ones not going to/dropping out of college. Graduate programs are so desperate to fill up their rosters with women that all you have to do is apply. Standards be damned because there is a quota to be filled.

            The world is handed to you on a silver platter while men have to still sign up for selective service or go to jail. And still you whine because you are so used to getting whatever you want as a pretty white girl. Ugh.

          • Nina Nepa

            Who is stopping women from going into STEM? Who is discouraging them?

            It is very people like you that are discouraging by making these generalizations and these assumptions. Have I whined? No, I just continue to work as hard as I can. It sounds like you are the one whining about something you can very much control.

            If you think it is necessary for women in STEM to make our society the best it can be, turn some of that anger and frustration into encouragement to close the gap. A reason why this gap is in place is because we don’t see as many people in our field that resemble ourselves, making it more intimidating to enter into a work place/educational environment. However, that doesn’t change what you love to do. You know better than anyone that no one can change your love your physics. It just sounds like you have a lot of anger where you could channel more productively in your own work, or fighting for your beliefs.

            Instead of propagating such phrases as with cosmopolitan, and Kim kardashian (congrats you know more about her followers than me!) encourage more of your own work that will inspire people (women and men) to understand why it’s hard/important/valid instead of simply cutting down a stranger on a comment thread.

            I will never need to justify how hard I work to anyone but myself and my colleagues, or justify why I deserve to be in the field I am. I’ll just keep doing it.

          • Joshua Garner

            Women have all the advantages in life in America. Suggesting otherwise is arrogant and ignorant.

            You accused me of: “It is very people like you that are discouraging by making these generalizations and these assumptions.” Oh please, I did no such thing. Shame on you for lying. Don’t be a liar.

            You contradict yourself. First you say women avoid STEM because they are discouraged. That is a crock and you know it. No one discourages women from STEM, no one. You, for example, have never ever been discouraged from STEM based on your gender. But then you go on to say that people can’t be discouraged.

            Isn’t it fun pretending to be the victim of society? Does that help you justify your gross amount of privilege in this world? Keep soaking up all the attention and money. Let men die and drink their tears.

          • Nina Nepa

            I am ashamed that such a callous person is in any sort of objective field. You are in no way objective, that is my mistake here. That is very funny that you say I have never been discouraged based on my gender because that is a lie! Shame on you for lying. Don’t be a liar. That is incredibly ignorant to speak on behalf of my life, when you know nothing about it. Like I said, i haven’t whined, I only continue to work hard. “Men get nothing and they are the ones not going to/dropping out of college” from your words, it sounds like you are the one playing the victim, so enjoy doing that. But lastly, i will indeed soak up attention and money. I will receive attention from my research publications. I will continue to receive money from my paychecks from my work. That’s how it works. I am sorry that you feel the need to continue to cut others down. P.S. You severely need to pet a dog or something, and get that blood pressure down from all of this rage.