Monday, January 31, 2011

Gender, Physics, and the Wikipedia

For a long time people in physics have known that we have something funny going on in our field with respect to gender.  In 2006 only 6% of full professors at US physics departments were women.  In fact, there is a well-documented "leaky pipeline" for women in physics and astronomy that is summed up nicely by the following figure from the AIP's Statistical Research Center:
You'll note that while just under 50% of high school physics students are women, that number almost monotonically decreases as they move up the professional ranks (although there is a very slight bump between women with PhD's and those who are new tenure-track faculty).  So the question is why?  I have never seen any evidence for a gender-based discrepancy in fundamental ability, so I - like many others - would attribute this to something social rather than something biological.  But it's not like physics faculty hate women - in fact most physicists I know would be in the top few percent of people in terms of those concerned about making science more inclusive.

It turns out that we in physics and astronomy are not alone - the Wikipedia has a similar problem.  The New York Times reports that only 13% of Wikipedia contributors are women.  There are some proposals to actively encourage women to contribute, but that is exactly contrary to the idea Wikipedia espouses - namely that the best source of knowledge is one that is allowed to grow and expand naturally from a community rather than one that is mediated by some arbiter of truth.  As one of the women on Wikipedia's governing board stated:
“The big problem is that the current Wikipedia community is what came about by letting things develop naturally — trying to influence it in another direction is no longer the easiest path, and requires conscious effort to change.”
So while Wikipedia might not have many answers for the physics community, at least we know we're in good company.


  1. I'd be interested in seeing a plot of # of students who take home economics in high school, then major in it or something related in college, then teach it professionally.

    I'd be interested if the graph looks an awful lot like this above plot with the genders switched.

    If so, should I think men cannot compete with women because of some fundamental ability which is lacking? I'm assuming not.

  2. By the way, that is interesting about the Wikipedia.

  3. Joe,
    It seems like there is something in the "subconscious" culture of physics and astronomy that pushes women out of the field. So how does one overcome that? The current culture of physics research in the US is highly productive in many ways, so how does one encourage a more inclusive culture without crushing the productive culture we currently have? In many ways that mirrors the question that the Wikipedia is dealing with.

  4. It's a very interesting trend. How does this trend look in other fields? Do we see the same thing in other "traditionally male" sectors of academia? How about industry? For example, what percentage of computer programmers are female, plotted against the number of years they have been working in the field? (I know "number of years working in the field" isn't the same as academic seniority, but it's a start.) How about business executives? Researchers at national labs? Plumbers? Auto Mechanics? Economists? Lawyers?

    Personally, I think we would likely see that this trend is a reflection of a large part of our society. Some sectors, likely the business sector among them, have decreased it through conscious effort and regulation. Other sectors, like academia and Wikipedia, which prize intellectual freedom above almost all else, tend to specifically reject this sort of regulation, thinking that the solution that we'll come to naturally will end up being the best one. I don't think that there's anything unique about physics pushing women out. I think it's some larger societal trends that discourage women from going further in the work force. Physics, by not specifically regulating it, will likely just continue to follow along with those trends.

    Why do so many women drop off between high school and college, or between undergrad and graduate school? I think it's in part because the have so few female professors to encourage them to continue on in this path (i.e. a self-perpetuating situation) and in part because of some larger societal trend that is affecting not only physics and academia, but also many other sectors of society. This is all just speculation, but I imagine that one could look up the statistics somewhere. Anyways, great post as always.

  5. I think I can answer some of Bill's questions. I don't think this is at all limited to physics. The same thing happens in engineering. My advisor is a woman, and I'm taking a class from her this semester. I noticed the other day that this is the first engineering class I've ever had with a female professor. So I think your comment about insufficient female profs is probably accurate.

    I think the problem is in many of the science and mathematical fields. And I think it is primarily a cultural problem.

    Now here's some interesting anecdotal evidence for you. When I worked at LLNL, there were WAY more women (still less than men, but probably around 30%) than I'd ever seen in engineering fields. In fact, our database team, was almost ALL women.

    I really don't get it, and I think it's quite unfortunate. I wonder how much we are missing in our world due to the way women have been treated and the second class status they often still have.

  6. Sciences are mosly lonely fields. The reality is simple: women seek much more interpersonal professions, so they choose to move to the fields they find more supportive of their happiness. Look at medicine and you are likely to find many more women doctors.

    How many Amys are there who would hang out with Sheldon cooper types?

  7. Ancient1,
    How many Sheldon Cooper's are there? In my department of ~100 grad students, post-docs, and faculty I can think of maybe 1.


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