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Fall 2010

Volume 39
Number 2

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Sherry Yennello Catherine Fiore
Sherry Yennello
Catherine Fiore
Improving the Climate for Women in Physics
By Sherry Yennello, professor and associate dean at Texas A&M University, and Catherine Fiore, research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—both past chairs of the American Physical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Physics

“Your visit this week has spurred lots of conversation and is likely to have a long-term impact around here. We have identified a parents’ room in our new building, the comment box has become a permanent fixture, we are creating a web-based study group sign-up sheet, we've started to arrange SPS [Society of Physics Students] talks by alumni who have gone on to nonacademic careers, and we're posting signs about the blue-light escort service. To tackle the bigger issues, we've started a series of department discussions at Monday lunch. At the first, this coming Monday, we will lead a discussion of strategies for building community. The next will be about creating an environment that is cooperative rather than competitive. There will be others, though we're still figuring out what the topics will be.”

These changes in a top-tier physics department resulted from a recent site visit conducted as part of the American Physical Society’s (APS’s) Gender Equity Conversations project. Women are currently severely underrepresented in physics; only 6 percent of full professors in 2006 were women (American Institute of Physics 2006). Recognizing the importance of encouraging more women to enter and persist in the field, the APS has a longstanding commitment to improving the climate in physics departments for women and underrepresented minorities. The APS’s Committee on the Status of Women in Physics (CSWP) runs numerous programs aimed both at helping women succeed in current climates and at changing these climates at the departmental and institutional levels. This article will describe the CSWP’s efforts to pursue the latter goal through three programs: its Climate Site Visit program, Gender Equity workshop, and Gender Equity Conversations project. Together, these efforts aim to improve the climate in physics departments so all individuals can reach their full potential.

Climate Site Visits

Since 1990, the CSWP has conducted site visits to physics departments at large research universities and national laboratories to assess and improve the climate for women. Through the Climate Site Visit Program, a team of physicists visits university physics departments or labs to catalogue the problems that women face and to suggest potential improvements. The site visit program has led to a deeper understanding of the climate for women physicists in academia.

The CSWP conducts site visits at the request of a department chair or lab director. Once the host and the CSWP coordinators have agreed on a date, the coordinators assemble a team of four or five women physicists from a variety of subdisciplines. Prior to the visit, the team asks students and employees to complete a confidential survey for the team's use only. On the day of the visit, team members meet with several individuals and groups: the physics department chair or lab director, physics faculty members, research staff members, administrators responsible for faculty appointments or hiring, and graduate and undergraduate students. The goal of these meetings is to provide the team with the quantitative and qualitative information they need to assess the climate in the host facility. At the end of the visit, the team makes a preliminary report to the department chair or lab director as part of an exit interview.

After the visit, the team writes a report for the department chair or lab director, detailing its findings and offering simple, practical suggestions on improving the climate for underrepresented minorities and women. The team encourages the chair or lab director to share the report with the rest of the department or lab. One year after the visit, the department chair or lab director will submit a written report to the team, describing actions taken to improve the climate.

The climate for women has varied dramatically among the departments the CSWP teams have visited. The departments with the worst climates tend to have no women faculty (or perhaps one who has been marginalized), few women students who have little interaction with each other, students who report having few or poor interactions with the chair, and faculty who show a general lack of respect for students. But CSWP teams have also seen departments that have much warmer climates, with several active female faculty members, a substantial number of female students who interact regularly with each other, a supportive chair who listens and responds to concerns of students, and a safe physical environment.

A female physics faculty member who has served on several Climate Site Visit teams describes a “successful departmental climate for women” as “one in which the enthusiasm and ambition of the women undergraduates” translates to “successful and ambitious women graduate students…dynamic, forging-ahead female postdocs; energetic junior women faculty; and productive, happy senior women faculty who all serve as positive role models.” After visiting over forty colleges and universities and eight research facilities, the CSWP compiled a list of best practices that can lead to departments like these. The list is available for free download at

Strengthening the Physics Enterprise

To complement the site visits’ work within departments, the CSWP recently formed two new initiatives. The first of these occurred in May 2007, when the CSWP held a workshop on gender equity with the chairs of fifty leading physics departments and unit leaders from fourteen national laboratories. This highly successful event was the first stage in an overall effort to instigate institutional transformation in the field by creating change agents—individuals and groups with the skills and desire to shift the climate.

The CSWP followed the chemistry community’s example in organizing this workshop, titled “Gender Equity: Strengthening the Physics Enterprise in Universities and National Laboratories.” The event, cofunded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy (DOE), was held at the APS headquarters in College Park, Maryland, on May 6–8, 2007. The workshop’s primary aim was to facilitate steps to double the number of women in physics in both academia and national laboratories over the next fifteen years.

Speakers and panelists included academic and national laboratory leaders, representatives from funding agencies, and social scientists whose research focuses on gender bias and family or career issues. Spurred by these presentations, participating physics department chairs, national laboratory managers, and federal agency representatives developed recommendations aimed at retaining women in physics and making the field more attractive to women and men. Participants examined underlying causes for the scarcity of women in physics and formulated specific action items to improve recruitment, retention, and promotion of female students, postdoctoral fellows, faculty, and scientists in academia and national laboratories. The workshop agenda and several presentations are available at

Gender Equity Conversations

The CSWP’s latest effort is a set of Gender Equity Conversations held in physics departments at universities around the country. Building on the 2007 APS workshop’s success, these conversations are distinct from the longstanding Climate Site Visits program in their focus on mutual exchange of information, internally recognized issues, and collective problem solving. The conversations aim to encourage local action by facilitating discussions among physics department constituents (faculty, staff, students, postdocs, and administrators) and visiting team members experienced in finding ways to help women at all career stages feel welcomed, valued, and supported.

Coordinating CSWP members select three or more visiting facilitators from the workshop steering committee, CSWP’s membership at large, and a cohort of physicists and social scientists who are fully engaged in diversity issues. The facilitators bring extensive knowledge of gender equity literature and “best practices” to the conversations, helping host departments develop strategies appropriate to their local circumstances. Within the department, the chair creates a three-person “host committee” that includes the chair, a person who will follow up on the conversations and keep the issues they surface visible, and an established faculty member who represents prevailing attitudes in the department. Prior to the visit, the lead facilitator requests information about the department and learns about particular concerns or goals, such as improving success in hiring, improving retention, and attracting more and better prepared students.

Each conversation takes the form of a one-day visit, typically preceded on the evening before by an organizational dinner. CSWP expects that the host department will open the meetings to all interested parties to best facilitate discussion of the community’s issues and identify solutions that address its needs. Each Gender Equity Conversation should engender ongoing discussions and action within the department, drawing from ideas that have worked at similar institutions to develop workable solutions.

Each visit begins with a group session that includes as many members of the physics department as possible, representing all faculty ranks and students. The facilitators introduce participants to the project and lead them through an exercise to generate discussion points concerning gender equity in the department, the university, and the field of physics overall. These discussion points form the core for the day’s subsequent conversations, which consist of meetings between facilitators and members of each group (undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, faculty, and staff). Each conversation generates suggestions for addressing specific challenges within the departmental or university setting. In the final session, faculty members and the department head develop realistic action items tailored to the department’s needs, along with a timeline for implementation. At the end of the day, facilitators generate a summary that both the hosts and the CSWP can use to forward their goals of increasing diversity in physics. Both hosts and discussion leaders approve these notes for use by the department and by CSWP (which disseminates ideas broadly without including identifying information). Although the Gender Equity Conversations are relatively new, they have garnered positive responses. More information is available at

Final Thoughts

People looking to point fingers tend to blame “the old guard” for the lack of gender equity in science. But while these senior stakeholders are culture bearers, they didn’t write the rules of the game, but typically inherited them from their predecessors. They believe that others need to follow the same rules to succeed. While these scientists are influential, many of them have never consciously thought about departmental culture and their role in it.

The culture bearers need to be an integral part of any solution. They are intelligent people whose talents can be put to good use in solving the challenge of the chilly climate. As scientific investigators, they learn by theorizing, experimenting, thinking, questioning, and debating others’ conclusions—not by being told solutions. They will not willingly change until they understand the need to change. It’s certainly possible to mandate behavior; but without winning hearts and minds, sustainable change cannot occur.

Conversations can offer an effective route to deeply rooted change. An anecdote from one of the Gender Equity Conversations illustrates this point. During the visit, one senior faculty member was clearly agitated throughout the day. He imagined that he had been forced to attend this session where he was going to be told that his views were wrong. At one point, he vocally expressed displeasure at the very nature of activities like the Gender Equity Conversations. But in voicing his objections, he opened the door for a rich discussion. At the end of the day, that gentleman thanked those of us on the committee and told us that he supported our work. The constructive and unscripted conversation changed his attitude and behavior more than any edict or lecture ever could have.

Physicists are trained to unveil nature’s biggest secrets and solve problems involving systems as small as quarks or as large as the universe. If a tiny fraction of that intellectual energy were focused on issues of equal access and opportunity for all individuals, higher education could meet these challenges. But scientists must own the problem of inequity before they will attempt to solve it. The CSWP programs described here plant the seeds of change to improve the climate—and with it, the chances for all in the scientific enterprise to succeed.


American Institute of Physics. 2006. “Percentage of faculty positions in physics held by women.”

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