Women of Color in Physics Departments: A Data Picture17
Rachel Ivie, Statistical Research Center, American Institute of Physics
Most readers know that there are very few women of color in physics, and it is important to know exactly how few there are. However, the numbers alone do not adequately portray the day-to-day inequality that women of color experience in physics. In my years of studying women in physics, I have seen many people make the mistake of assuming that if the representation of women in physics increases to some “acceptable” level, then the problem of inequality will be solved. This is far from the truth. While it is essential to document and remedy the small numbers of women of color in physics, it is also necessary to collect data on other areas of inequality so that they can be addressed. To my knowledge, a few researchers have begun to collect these data (Maria Ong and Sharon Fries-Britt, for example), but the results are either not yet available or have not been widely disseminated among the physics community. This article will document the tiny numbers of women of color in physics and will also point to areas of potential inequality about which we have no data. These include hiring, salaries, promotions, working conditions, and the general experiences of women of color in physics.
Representation. Figures E-6-1 (bachelor’s degrees), Table E-6-1 (Ph.D.s), and Table E-6-2 (faculty members) show just how small the numbers of women of color in physics are. At the beginning of the academic pipeline, there is only a trickle of women of color into physics, and the numbers don’t improve farther along. For comparison, approximately 5000 people, mostly white male U.S. citizens, earn bachelor’s degrees in physics annually. In 2007, only 181 women of color (including Asian American women) earned bachelor’s degrees in physics. In the 33 years shown on Table E-6-1, more than 35,000 people have earned physics Ph.D.s in the U.S., but only 111 under-represented minority women have done so. In all 800 physics and astronomy departments in the U.S. (Table E-6-2), there are approximately 9100 full-time equivalent faculty positions, but there are only 29 black women and 38 Latinas on physics faculties.
17 A version of this article was originally published in CSWP Gazette, Spring 2010.
Figure E-6-1 Number of Women of Color Earning Bachelor’s Degrees in Physics in the US, 1995-2007
Source: National Center for Education Statistics. Data are not available for 1999.
Table E-6-1 Number of women who have earned Ph.D.s in Physics in the US, 1974-2006.
|US Citizens and Permanent Residents||Number in 33 years||percent|
|American Indian or Alaska Native||4||0.1|
Source: National Science Foundation.
Table E-6-2 Number of women faculty in US Physics and Astronomy Departments, 2008.
|Highest Degree Granted by Department|
|Ph.D.||Masters||Bachelors||Total||Percent of All Women|
|African American or Black||14||3||12||29||3|
|Asian or Asian American||106||14||56||176||16|
|Hispanic or Latina||19||7||12||38||3|
Source: AIP Academic Workforce Survey.
URM women. The category “under-represented minority” (URM) applies to minority groups that are represented in science at rates lower than their representation in the US population. Therefore, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and American Indians are considered URMs in science and in physics. Table 1 reveals just how low the numbers of URM women are. These data represent the numbers of physics Ph.D.s earned by women in a 33-year period. African American women average a little more than one physics Ph.D. per year. Hispanic women average fewer than 2. And the smallest number of all is American Indian women: there have been only four physics Ph.D.s earned by American Indian or Alaskan Native women since 1974.
Asian American Women. The statistics on the representation of Asian American women in physics help illustrate why additional data on the experiences of women of color are needed. Compared to their proportion in the US population (about 5 percent), Asian Americans are not under-represented in science generally or in physics specifically. Asian American women are more than adequately represented in physics, but they may be just as likely to face discrimination in the workplace as other women of color.
Representation doesn’t tell the whole story. Women of color in physics are “double minorities:” minorities because of race and sex. For all minorities, representation does not tell the whole story, although it certainly plays a large part. As double minorities, women of color may be subject to inequities in hiring, salary, promotions, etc. Their experiences are likely to be different from men’s and from white women’s experiences. But data on these topics generally have not been collected. Data are missing about the experiences of women of color in physics, along with quantitative data on hiring, salary, and promotions. However, women of color are likely to experience inequity in most, if not all, of these areas. Furthermore, we don’t know if the problems are happening in the higher education system, in the workplace, in both, or if the reasons for low representation happen much earlier in the pipeline.
Conclusion. Sometimes scientists think that their work environments and classrooms are not affected by issues of race or sex. By studying the actual experiences of women of color in physics, we can determine whether or not this is true. These data also have important implications for efforts to recruit and retain women of color in physics. Because of the lack of data on where the problems lie, such efforts may be ineffective if they are directed to situations that do not need correction. Programs to increase the representation women of color in science should be based on data documenting the exact nature of the problems, rather than on assumptions about these problems. These data can only be gathered by studying women physicists of color at a more detailed level, perhaps using in-depth interviews and collecting data on facts other than representation.
Correcting the low representation of URM women in physics will go a long way toward ending the inequities they experience. However, this will not remedy all problematic areas. It will not address discrimination that all women of color may experience in their daily lives as physicists. Inequities such as these, if they exist, should be documented so that corrective steps can be taken by institutions. At that point, we will truly have made progress toward an equitable situation for women of color in physics.
Thanks to Arnell Ephraim and Kenneth Nunn for their assistance with this article.