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.”