Female-Friendly Physics Departments

Sooooo beautiful. You must read what Pat has to say about APS’s CSWP compiling a list of female-friendly physics departments. And follow the links therein. Here’s how my various alma maters responded to this survey question: Please describe why someone applying to graduate school who is interested in a female-friendly department should choose your department.

Duke University

The physics department at Duke University has quite a few females. Interaction among the women of this department is encouraged by having lunch together a few times a year among and other social events. I am told by many of the female graduate students that, becasue the Director of Graduate Studies is female, they feel more comfortable talking with her regarding almost any issue they have. Most feel included and respected in research and classes.

Hmm, I gotta say that’s not too impressive, Duke. Please note: errors in the original. I couldn’t bring myself to use sic…not just yet.

The Department of Physics has been a national resource since the turn of the century. It has been at the center of the twentieth century revolution in understanding the nature of matter and energy and the dynamics of the cosmos. Our faculty¿four of whom hold Nobel Prizes and 23 of whom are members of the National Academy of Sciences¿include leaders in nearly every major area of physics. The number of SB degrees awarded to students majoring in physics was higher than we have seen since the 1980¿s, and more than twice the number in 2000. Faculty in physics continues to win prizes for research and teaching, and we continue to attract the best physicists in the field at all levels to the department.
The American Physics Society recently conducted a study of Women in Physics and Astronomy and concluded that the representation of female women in physics and astronomy at all levels continues to increase. They found that women tended to leave physics during their undergraduate years. Contrary to AIP¿s findings, we¿ve actually increased the number of women in our undergraduate programs. In fact, the total number of women majors has increased by a factor 3 since 2001, much more rapidly than for the men. Indeed, the number of women who earned MIT Physics degrees last year is larger than the total number of physics majors at many great research universities.
Our percentage of women graduate students is higher than for most institutions. We support the Women in Physics group, which consists of current female graduate students, by providing space and funding for bi-weekly dinners and other events. The group actively recruits female candidates to the program (i.e., they host a reception during Open House for female candidates and they telephone individual female candidates). They annually organize a dinner open to all undergraduates to discuss graduate school in physics, physics research at MIT and career choices in general. Last year, they began a mentoring program with the Undergraduate Women in Physics (UWIP) group for female undergraduate physics majors at MIT. The program was developed to foster a closer interaction between undergraduate and graduate physics students to benefit both groups of women. All these activities are listed on their web site http://web.mit.edu/physics/wphys/ and http://web.mit.edu/uwip/. This group also receives financial support from a generous alumna of our Department.

Okay, MIT, given your rep with Nobel prizewinners and their treatment of postdocs, I wouldn’t go bragging too heavily on that Nobel Prize crap as a point in your favor on the female-friendly rep. Maybe your physics Nobelists are feminists, maybe not, but it’s not selling me. Otherwise, a step up over Duke’s entry.
Penn State University

The Physics Department at Penn State University provides graduate
students with the opportunity to collaborate with world-class scientists doing cutting-edge research in a wide variety of fields. PSU has active efforts in condensed matter, gravitational physics, atomic, molecular, and optical physics, experimental particle physics and observational particle astrophysics, theoretical particle physics and string theory, and biological physics, including systems biology and computational neuroscience.
Female faculty and graduate students play an integral role in essentially all of the research groups in the Physics department. Penn State as a whole has also demonstrated a strong committment to having women in faculty and administrative positions at all levels, with a number of recent appointments at the faculty, department chair and Deans level. All graduate students in the Physics Department benefit from a wide range of support ranging from faculty mentoring, extensive TA training (both at the start of their graduate career and regularly as part of their TA duties), workshops on ethics and sexual harassment issues, and frequent sharing of information (via an active listserve) on issues related to graduate studies, employment opportunities, and departmental activities. There are very active departmental and College-wide `climate’ committees, as well as a mentoring program for female physics (and astronomy/astrophysics) students (Physics and Astronomy for Women or PAWS), at both the undergraduate and graduate level, both recommendations made by the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics who visited the PSU Physics in 2001 at our invitation. Physics faculty, postdocs, and graduate students have made use of on-campus day care facilities in recent years.

It doesn’t knock my socks off, but it isn’t bad. I do like that they mention that all TA’s receive training on ethics and sexual harassment issues.
Note that none of the 3 departments mentioned anything about departmental stances on sexual or racial harassment, beyond this statement on TA training at Penn State.
Well, it’s a start.

  1. absinthe
    August 20, 2007 at 8:10 pm

    For fun I checked out Big State University’s response to the questionnaire. The Research Foundation of BSU was my former postdoctoral employer who denied me childbirth leave then fired me after I complained about it (well, not *exactly* fired me…they just told me that they had found someone else to fill my position and they would no longer renew my contract).
    Anyway, regarding childbirth leave, BSU has this to say:

    Is there a family leave policy for graduate students? If so, describe.

    For Research Assistants in research groups supported by grants through the Research Foundation (RF), yes: they are employees of the RF, which complies fully with the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FLMA).

    Gee…things really must have changed around there since I left…

    How many tenure-track or tenured faculty — male/female?

    Currently 53 male and 4 female. We are working to raise the percentage of female faculty members.

    Hmmm….I went to their website and I count only 3 female faculty members (which is actually up 1 from three years ago, so I guess there is some progress there). As an aside that gives more background to the situation, the female science faculty members at BSU organized a “townhall” meeting a couple of years ago to talk about the abysmal status of women in all the science departments there (with the physics department being the worst offender). At the meeting, one of the female professors from the chemistry department asked the Dean of Science why BSU didn’t have more women in physics. The Dean deferred to the chair of the physics department who answered “we never get any qualified applicants”.
    Yeah, all those women physicists out there are really low quality as far as scientists go. Now if they had penises, well, that might change things…
    As another aside, isn’t asking physics departments to rank their female-friendliness kind of like asking Satan to write a “why you should come here!” brochure for Hell? Maybe some physics departments are female friendly and their replies to the survey accurately reflect the way they are. In BSU’s case, I can tell you that they have quite the female hostile physics department, and it is recognized as such even by other science departments within that same university.

  2. August 21, 2007 at 9:42 am

    You realize, of course, that calling the survey “Female-Friendly Physics Departments” is completely misleading. The questionnaire was sent to all physics department chairs, and their responses collected without any fact checking. So basically, all you need to do to show up on the list of Female-Friendly Physics Departments is to fill out a little questionnaire, and voila, there you are.
    Personally, I think it would have been a whole lot more useful if the CSWP had done the survey in a way where you could have gotten some useful statistics out of it.

  3. August 21, 2007 at 9:42 am

    You realize, of course, that calling the survey “Female-Friendly Physics Departments” is completely misleading. The questionnaire was sent to all physics department chairs, and their responses collected without any fact checking. So basically, all you need to do to show up on the list of Female-Friendly Physics Departments is to fill out a little questionnaire, and voila, there you are.
    Personally, I think it would have been a whole lot more useful if the CSWP had done the survey in a way where you could have gotten some useful statistics out of it.

  4. August 21, 2007 at 3:49 pm

    Good point Astra…there should have been some minimal criteria if a department wanted to appear on the “Female-Friendly” listing.
    Maybe it would just be easier to compile a Female Unfriendly list. I’m only half joking.
    But seriously…this may have been the only kind of list they could get large-scale compliance with. Departments can pat themselves on the back for having done something good. But when a woman starts looking at one department in comparison to another on that list…as I did with Duke, MIT, and Penn State…you can see who put more effort into it, who takes it seriously, which departments might actually be somewhat better than others…it’s a first pass filter.

  5. absinthe
    August 22, 2007 at 10:00 am

    I disagree Zuska…just because some university “put more effort” into their report doesn’t mean their report reflects reality. It may just mean they are better at putting lipstick on their pig than other universities (or perhaps have more money available to tart up their pig than other universities). For instance, as I mentioned in my comment above, my former employer BSU makes their childbirth leave accomodations sound really, really good. In reality they have to-date violated the FMLA law in every single case of a female physicist having a baby in that department where the FMLA would apply (I know, because we had to research their past behaviour in that respect for my lawsuit). In other words, BSU LIED in their report to CSWP.
    I don’t think this survey even works as a good “first pass” filter. The survey is in fact garbage, because, like I say, asking the ol’ white boys club in the department to evaluate their female-friendliness is asinine. It’s a phenomenon we statisticians like to refer to as “survey bias”.
    Are you becoming a softie in your middle-age? This is the second time in a week where your stance on something really surprises me (the first is where you used the term “diplomatic” to refer to the comment by the UNL chancellor that my daughters are no doubt strong enough to put up with the public misogynist rantings of a UNL professor (and anything else that professor might additionally say in the university environment), in effect stating “don’t worry about your daughters attending UNL! We of course won’t do anything about professors like that because it would get us in trouble with the AAUP…but also we figure all women should be strong enough to handle it anyway”).

  6. August 22, 2007 at 2:26 pm

    Yeah, softie, that’s how most people would characterize me.
    But I guess if I do not agree with Absinthe in every view on every possible issue I must be a softie. Because Absinthe is the last word on what every woman is supposed to think and say.
    May I refer you to my “About” section? I quote:
    I do not speak for all women, all women engineers, all women scientists, all feminists, or all feminist women engineers and scientists.
    I speak for myself. You are welcome to disagree with me, of course. But not to come on my blog and malign me. This is at least the second time that you have found me lacking in sufficient militant feminism for your taste. As I say, you are welcome to have that opinion. But this is my blog, and I write what I want on it. Nobody gets to tell me what I should be saying – not misogynists, and not feminists, either.

  7. absinthe
    August 22, 2007 at 3:42 pm

    I don’t think anyone should necessarily agree with me about anything. If I my comment gave you that impression, I apologize.
    If my blog gives anyone that impression, I apologize.

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