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Departmental culture can also be a barrier to women in physics. Physics continues to be one of the most male-dominated of the STEM disciplines, with women earning only 21 percent of bachelor’s degrees in 2006 (National Science Foundation, 2008). Barbara Whitten,8 a professor of physics and women’s studies, collaborated with a team of researchers to examine what works for women in undergraduate physics departments.
Whitten began her study in late 2002. For the first phase of the study, she and her colleagues visited nine undergraduate-only physics departments in the United States. In five of those departments women made up about 40 percent of the graduates, while in the other four departments women’s representation among graduates was closer to the national average (about 20 percent at the time). The first group was defined as “successful,” and the second group was defined as “typical.” Whitten and her team wanted to know what set successful Barbara Whitten is a professor of physics at Colorado College. Her primary research is in the area of theoretical and 8 computational atomic and molecular physics, and she has worked on problems in laser plasmas, Rydberg atoms, and low-energy electron collisions. She is also interested in gender and science, and for the past decade she has focused primarily on the experience of undergraduate women in physics. She has conducted research on what makes a physics department female-friendly in a project called What Works for Women in Physics?
Similar to Margolis and Fisher, Whitten and her team found that many different factors help create a departmental culture and environment that are supportive and welcoming to female students. According to Whitten, most typical departments do some of these things, but successful departments do more of them, and they do them more consistently and more personally. Specifically, Whitten and her team found that the most successful departments supported activities and events that fostered a broader culture that was inclusive. Successful departments integrated students into the department soon after they declared a physics major and reached out to students taking introductory courses who might potentially major in physics. Successful departments often had a physics lounge and sponsored seminars, trips, and other social events.
These activities provided opportunities for students to learn more about different applications of physics and career opportunities but also provided opportunities in which faculty and students could interact more informally to forge relationships.
Whitten was especially impressed with the model of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) for creating effective and supportive departmental cultures that help recruit and retain female science majors. HBCUs produce a disproportionate number of African American female physicists, and more than one-half of all African American physics degree holders, female and male at all levels, graduate from HBCUs (Whitten et al., 2004). Whitten says that HBCUs do many of the things that create a female-friendly department and do them exceptionally well. HBCUs support all their students, including women. As Whitten puts it, “You don’t have to aim at women to have benefits for women.” HBCUs do one crucial thing that Whitten’s team did not observe at other schools they visited in the first phase of the study: the schools provide a path toward a degree for students who do not come to college fully prepared to be physics majors. “Most schools don’t recognize a category of student who would like to be a physics major, is interested in physics, and might be good at physics but who does not have the preparation straight from high school,” Whitten told AAUW. The typical model is someone who has decided in high school that she or he wants to be a physics major and declares the major in college. HBCUs were the only schools that provided an alternative path to the major. Whitten believes that “if we could make a path like that in all schools, we would increase the diversity of physics majors.” This is an example of how a department can change its approach to recruitment and increase diversity. Many students who do not have adequate high school preparation in physics can succeed at the college level if provided a path.
AAUW 64 In the second phase of their research, Whitten and her team visited six physics departments at women’s colleges and found that they and the HBCUs had a similar philosophy of student recruitment. Physics faculty at women’s colleges know that few women come to college intending to major in physics, so active recruitment is a necessity. This reality forces faculty to think of “pathways rather than pipelines” and challenges the notion of a singular, linear route to becoming a physicist, which is more likely to reflect a white male experience (Whitten et al., 2007).
Whitten’s research suggests that a female-friendly physics department should adopt all or
some of the following practices:
• S p onsor depar t mental so cial act ivit ies.
Seminars, lunches, and social events help integrate students into the department.
Departments should also make an effort to invite potential majors to enroll in introductory courses and participate in social activities.
• Pro vide a st udent lounge.
A lounge and other informal spaces in which undergraduate majors can interact outside of class can help integrate students and make the department feel more inclusive. Be sure that the lounge is welcoming and open to all students.
• Act ivel y recr uit st udents into the major.
Provide interested and talented students who arrive at college underprepared or unsure that they want to study physics, or any other STEM subject, a pathway to the major. Offer introductory courses that appeal to students with different levels of physics preparation or background. The work of faculty at HBCUs to provide a pathway into physics for underprepared students is an excellent example of how critical this is to identifying and recruiting talented STEM students from more diverse backgrounds.
• S p onsor a women-in-phy sics gro up.
In a male-dominated field like physics, having an informal group of female faculty and students can help female students. Groups like this can sponsor a variety of social and professional activities and, if possible, should be organized by a female faculty member as part of her departmental service, not as a volunteer activity.
Women’s representation among faculty in STEM disciplines has increased over time, but women remain underrepresented among tenured faculty. In the fields of physics, engineering, and computer science, women are scarce at every level, so attracting and retaining female faculty is critical. For progress to occur in STEM fields, teachers and academic leaders must be selected from the entire pool of talented and qualified individuals; female faculty can also help recruit and retain female students and students from other underrepresented groups. Job satisfaction is a key to retention, but women and people of color are more likely than white men to report that they are less satisfied with the academic workplace, and, hence, women are more likely to leave the academy earlier in their career (Trower & Chait, 2002).
Cathy Trower is the research director of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) at Harvard University. COACHE includes more than 130 colleges and universities that participate in the Tenure-Track Faculty Job Satisfaction Survey, which is administered annually to all full-time, tenure-track faculty at member institutions and asks about key components of faculty satisfaction. It asks junior faculty members to assess their experiences regarding promotion and tenure; the nature of their work; policies and practices; and the general climate, culture, and level of collegiality on their campuses. Trower and her colleagues found that female STEM faculty were less satisfied than their male colleagues with how well they “fit” in their departments, opportunities to work with senior faculty, and institutional support for having a family while on the tenure track.
Trower and Richard Chait founded COACHE in 2002 to help improve the academic environment for junior faculty and assist colleges and universities in recruiting, retaining, and increasing the satisfaction of early career faculty. Junior faculty are most at risk to leave academia during the early years, and their departure can incur both economic and cultural costs to institutions. Trower became interested in the topic of junior faculty satisfaction while she was working on a doctoral degree in higher education administration.
Cathy Trower is a research associate at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, where she heads the 9 Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE). She has studied faculty employment issues, policy, and practices for 15 years, during which time she also produced an edited volume and numerous book chapters, articles, and case studies. She has made dozens of presentations on tenure policies and practices, faculty recruitment strategies, and issues facing women and minority faculty.
AAUW 68 Although the data collected using the COACHE survey are not representative of all universities or colleges, they provide critical information about a current cohort of early career faculty. Additionally the data allow Trower and her colleagues to explore whether levels of satisfaction differ significantly by gender and academic discipline. Trower’s findings on satisfaction among STEM faculty are described below. The data were collected from 1,809 STEM faculty members (587 women and 1,222 men) at 56 universities.
T h E n AT U r E o F W o r k A n d d E PA r T M E n TA l C l i M AT E
For both female and male STEM faculty, the nature of the work and the departmental climate were the most important factors predicting job satisfaction, and the two factors were equally important for both groups.
Within the climate category, the researchers at COACHE identified 10 climate dimensions related to faculty satisfaction that are “actionable” by administrators (Trower, 2008):
• Fairness of evaluation by immediate supervisor
• Interest senior faculty take in your professional development
• Your opportunities to collaborate with senior colleagues
• Quality of professional interaction with senior colleagues
• Quality of personal interaction with senior colleagues
• Quality of professional interaction with junior colleagues
• Quality of personal interaction with junior colleagues
• How well you “fit” (i.e., your sense of belonging) in your department
• Intellectual vitality of the senior colleagues in your department
• Fairness of junior faculty treatment within your department Female STEM faculty were less satisfied than their male peers were with all 10 factors and significantly less satisfied with three: sense of fit, opportunities to collaborate with senior colleagues, and the perception of fair treatment of junior faculty in one’s department. The results of the COACHE survey show sense of fit to be the single most important climate factor predicting job satisfaction.
U n PAC k i n G S E n S E o F F i T
Trower defines “sense of fit” as one’s sense of belonging in her or his department. In an interview with AAUW, she explained, “If you feel like you don’t fit or belong—for whatever reasons—your satisfaction is bound to be lower, because not only is it human nature to want to belong... it is crucial for getting tenure.” She found that the sense of fit was enhanced for both
Although good professional and personal interactions with colleagues are important for both female and male STEM faculty, such interactions may be critically important for women.
Many STEM departments in various disciplines have only one or two women, so many female faculty may be the only women in their department. For example, most doctorate-granting geosciences institutions have only one woman per department (Holmes & O’Connell, 2003).
More than one-half of all physics departments had only one or two women on their faculty in 2002, and only 20 physics departments had four or more female faculty (Ivie & Ray, 2005).
“Because of the low numbers of women, isolation and lack of camaraderie/mentoring are particularly acute problems for women in fields such as engineering, physics, and computer science” (Rosser, 2004, p. xxii).
Isolation is a critical problem since it can be a major source of dissatisfaction among female faculty and can influence their decision to leave. Women report being excluded from informal social gatherings and more formal events, as well as from collaborating on research or teaching (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1999). Women are also less likely than their male colleagues to have role models or mentors and, therefore, get limited advice on navigating the workplace, professional and career development, and advancing in their careers (Macfarlane & Luzzadder-Beach, 1998; Rosser, 2004). A recent study by the National Academy of Sciences found that male faculty were significantly more likely than female faculty to report having discussions with colleagues about research, salary, and benefits. The study results also emphasized the importance of fit, highlighting that “the most problematic kind of attrition involves faculty who leave because they feel unwelcome. These faculty members have not failed but they also have not fit in, and the departments they leave have invested time, money and other resources that can be lost” (National Research Council, 2009, p. 98).
T h E i M P o r TA n C E o F M E n To r i n G