Women Working in the Nuclear Field

Women in Physics

Mirta Matijevic, IAEA Seibersdorf Lab

"In graduate school, I was in an extremely hostile environment and miserable with no support from any of my research group... but the fact that if I quit, that would cut the number of women in the physics class by 50%, kept me struggling to survive." -- A respondent to Women Physicists Speak: the 2001 International Study of Women in Physics

For those working in physics it would come as little surprise that women are sorely underrepresented in the field. Two reports shed light on what professional women think about their chances in physics classes and careers.

At the global level, the survey Women Physicists Speak: The 2001 International Study of Women in Physics offers further glimpses into the challenges women physicists face, and the reasons they stayed in the field. The report compiled country-level data and anecdotal information of over 1000 women physicist from 55 countries. Highlights of the survey include:

  • Most women physicists reported that they developed an interest in physics before or during secondary school;
  • Respondents felt they had generally positive experiences as undergraduates and as graduate students;
  • About one in three women felt they had progressed more slowly in their careers than their colleagues had;
  • Career demands influence choices. Women physicists surveyed tended to put off marriage or having children. Of those who were married, a significant number reported that marriage affected their work. When comparing themselves to their colleagues, women with children were more likely to say their careers had progressed slowly;
  • Women physicists credit many contributing factors for success. Most frequently cited was the support of their families, including their parents and husbands. Many also mentioned support of advisors, professors and teachers, and some cited support of colleagues. Also cited were self-determination, will power, and hard work;
  • Barriers remain. They include the problems of balancing the demands of child care with a scientific career, and discriminatory attitudes, usually expressed in the form of assumptions that women cannot do physics; and
  • Women physicists like what they do. Three out of four women said that they would choose physics again.

A US report, Women in Physics (2000), found that in America, women tend to drop out of the field earlier than men. An increasingly large number of girls were first exposed to physics in high school, but with each step up the academic ladder, women´s participation in physics decreased. For example, more than two of five high school physics students in 1993 were girls, but women earned less than one-fifth of bachelor´s degrees in physics five years later. The report found it likely that women still experience subtle discrimination turning them away from physics.

Read other reports on women in physics from the American Institute of Physics.

Photo: Mirta Matijevic, Plant Breeding Unit, IAEA Seibersdorf Laboratories

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