What Works for Women in Physics?

October 27, 2011

Each month this year, AAUW is teaming up with Nature Publishing Group, one of the world’s leading science publishers, to put together an online forum on women in science. The AAUW posts highlight findings from our 2010 research report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, now in its third printing.

Barbara Whitten, a professor of physics and women’s studies at Colorado College, compared what she called “successful” physics departments, where women made up about 40 percent of bachelor’s degree earners, with more “typical” physics departments, where women made up closer to the national average of around 20 percent of graduates, to see what set successful departments apart from more typical ones.

Whitten and her colleagues found that the major difference between successful and typical departments was departmental culture. Specifically, they found that the most successful programs 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 and also provided opportunities for faculty and students to interact more informally and forge relationships. According to Whitten, most typical departments do some of these things, but successful departments do more of them and more consistently and personally.

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 women science majors. HBCUs produce a disproportionate number of African American women physicists. And more than half of all African American physics degree holders, women and men at all levels, graduate from HBCUs.

HBCUs do one crucial thing that Whitten’s team did not observe at other schools they visited: 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 said. 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.”

In your experience, does allowing for different pathways into a major increase the diversity of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics students? Do you have any experience with this approach that you’d like to share?

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