Author(s): Mildred S. Dresselhaus, Judy R. Franz, Bunny C. Clark
Although there has been progress in increasing the opportunities for women in science and engineering, there remains much room for improvement in physics and other areas.
Few women complete the initial levels of training and education in physics. Only 15% of physics undergraduates at American universities are women. As the educational level increases (master's, Ph.D., academe), the percentage of women declines. It is said that when the proportion of females reaches a "critical mass" of 15% in an area, women's performance in the classroom or workplace gradually becomes indistinguishable from that of their male counterparts. When percentages of females are below the critical-mass level, women's retention rate and overall performance declines.
This article focuses on retaining women already in the physics pipeline. Evidence from other countries' proportions of women in physics suggests that local societal factors play a role in women's persistence in physics. This could also be explained by the widely varying levels of women students and faculty in general at American universities. The proportions of women does not correlate with the department's strength and resources.
The authors of this article led teams to visit various universities' physics departments and assess the general atmosphere of each department through interviews and through questionnaires returned by students, faculty, and administrators. Authors found certain patterns.
The authors hope to duplicate the effects of this intervention program without the need for individual on-site assessment. They plan to create a framework to help other physics departments establish through their own efforts on a self-evaluation basis a supportive environment.
Other efforts to improve the climate for all physics students and faculty, both women and men. The prospect of self-evaluating problem spots may have applications in science and engineering at large and not remain confined to physics in particular. The authors close the article by informing us that from the site visits that have been carried out, we have found that it is not enough for faculty members to give good lectures and engage in world-class research. As educators, faculty members must also be concerned about providing a welcoming and supportive environment for their colleagues and their students. Constructive attitudes, a caring approach, open communication channels between faculty and students, and good will can go a long way toward enhancing successful outcomes for students and young faculty members.
--abstract by Juliet Midgley