Changing the face of physical sciences: Progress for women researchers

Students and faculty at the University of Chicago are seeing more women in science.

In 2014, 30 percent of new faculty offers in the Physical Sciences Division went to women. Of the 16 new faculty members hired in the division in 2014, five are women.

The new hires include astronomer Wendy Freedman, who became one of only seven active faculty members to hold the title of University Professor. Freedman is world-renowned for leading a team of 30 astronomers that measured the current expansion rate of the universe, and she currently leads the Giant Magellan Telescope project.

In addition to Freedman, the division welcomed Zheng Tracy Ke, assistant professor in statistics; Tiffany Shaw, assistant professor in geophysical sciences; Shan Lu, associate professor in computer science; and Yamuna Krishnan, professor in chemistry.

This new face of the physical sciences is the result of several programs—some intensive, some low-key—that aim to increase the presence and visibility of women researchers in the physical sciences at UChicago.

The 2014-2015 physics colloquium series, for example, features 29 leading scientists, 16 of them women. They include Fabiola Gianotti, who in January became the director-general of the European particle accelerator laboratory, CERN. Gianotti, an Italian particle physicist, was a public voice of one of the experiments that discovered the Higgs boson, one of the stars of Particle Fever—the 2013 movie about that discovery—and a runner-up for Time magazine’s 2013 Person of the Year. The next speaker, on April 12, will be Cristina Marchetti of Syracuse University.

Outstanding scientific visitors

Young Kee Kim, the Louis Block Professor in Physics and former chair of the PSD’s Women in Science Committee, instituted the colloquium series with extended visits of one or two days by each speaker. The extra time gives students and faculty a chance to establish a dialogue with a distinguished scientist who happens to be female. For example, Gianotti’s visit included the regular colloquium talk, a conversation with undergraduate physics majors, a dinner, a mini workshop for department members and an open session on Oct. 17 for female graduate students and postdocs in all disciplines, which was attended by about 30 women and men.

University programs—such as a conference for more than 200 undergraduate women in physics that Kim organized in January 2014—bring together larger groups of women scientists to help them discover and network with their colleauges and fellow students in the sciences.

“Each student is in her own department, in her own class, where there are only a few women; perhaps they are rather isolated. But when they saw many students all at the same place, I think that was very, very encouraging to them, and also to see women at different levels—undergraduate, graduate, faculty,” Kim said.

This observation is echoed by Mary Harvey, associate provost for program development, who co-organizes an annual career development and leadership retreat for women as part of the Chicago Collaboration for Women in STEM, a joint effort of the UChicago and Northwestern University. The last retreat was in February.

Special atmosphere

“It’s a very special atmosphere; it feels materially different when only women are in the room, and there is a set of conversations that are unlikely to occur with men in the room. When women discuss their ambitions, they will talk more freely about the effect family has on their careers, for example” Harvey said.

In the last five years, the University has made important changes to support work-life balance for all faculty members, including building two child care centers and strengthening the stop-clock policy on the tenure track. Such efforts will continue across the University and within the Physical Sciences Division.

The more visible presence of women faculty members and speakers may help subtly change unconscious perceptions about science, both among women and their male peers. Formal institutional support and awareness also are critical to ensuring that a new generation of young women will choose to study science and pursue it as a career. Women are more likely to leave a science career at key transition times—after graduate school and after postdoctoral appointment—the so-called “leaky pipeline problem.”

The issue of the leaky pipeline is very much on the mind of the incoming chair of the Women in Science Committee, Elisabeth Moyer, associate professor in geophysical sciences.

“I would like the committee to focus not only on our hiring and retention of female faculty, but also on helping enable our women to be successful as they go off to get jobs at other places. As a top institution, that is one of the ways we contribute to women in science: We produce the women faculty who should be teaching the next generation of undergrads,” Moyer said.

“Increasing the number of women in the sciences will continue to be a divisional priority,” said Rocky Kolb, dean of the Physical Sciences Division. “We will continue to commit resources to initiatives aimed at enhancing the representation of women at all ranks and ensuring an environment and culture that supports all individuals in attaining their full career potential.”