Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Conferences Celebrating and Advancing Women in Science

Last month my university and three others hosted simultaneous Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics. Approximately 150 students, nearly all undergraduate women, traveled to Boston for a weekend as warm inside the conference rooms as it was cold outside. It was an inspiring event and I'm grateful to the students from Yale, MIT and Harvard who organized and ran the conference. Although the conference series says "physics" in its title, many of the attendees were interested in astronomy and greatly enjoyed the astrophysical and personal perspectives given by JWST Mission Head Kathy Flanagan and Purdue University President France Cordova.

The goals of this conference series are to help female undergraduate physics majors transition to graduate studies; to foster a supportive undergraduate culture for women in physics; and to strengthen the network of women in physics. Based on my conversations with students the last four years, and my participation the last two, I believe the conference series succeeds admirably. MIT, while perhaps not fully representative, has had an increased rate of women going to graduate school after attending the conference. I have had several women tell me that contacts they made at the conferences, and encouragement they received, are responsible for them staying in the field to pursue a PhD.

Graduate school attendance marks a critical transition for women in science. Between about 20% and 40% of physics or astronomy undergraduates are female (with a few excursions to either side). The percentages in graduate school are typically half those at the undergraduate level. Many women, and some men, choose not to go to graduate school because of the perceived difficulty of balancing work and family or because of a lack of encouragement. It's important that we communicate the value of an advanced degree for many different careers -- not just the professoriate -- and that we encourage everyone to achieve their full potential.

Once women obtain their PhDs, they enjoy comparable opportunities as men for academic careers (see the NRC report Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty). Although the numbers are small, their success is often huge. Recognizing and celebrating the success of women in these fields, as well as assessing progress and identifying challenges in achieving gender equity, is the theme of a major symposium at MIT to be held March 28-29, 2011. One of a series of symposia celebrating MIT's 150th anniversary, Leaders in Science and Engineering: The Women of MIT may be of interest to many. Registration is open to anyone and we hope that the program will be of wide interest to AAS Women.

Men and women sometimes ask me why we bother holding conferences that emphasize or favor one gender. The irony of that question will be apparent to many readers. I do it because it empowers the attendees and I am one of them. In fact, I feel strongly that more men would enjoy attending and benefit from such conferences; it will help them become better mentors and scientists. At the conference for undergraduate women in physics, a speaker recounted her husband's reaction as the accompanying spouse at a conference for women in physics. He -- also a physicist -- told his wife, "As the only man among 30 women physicists, I wanted to run out of the room. Then I realized this is what you experience every day." The insight made a deep impression on the audience.