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For women in physics, the pipeline is a labyrinth

Physicist Patricia Rankin asserts that there is no glass ceiling that blocks women's advances to the top levels of physics. Nor is the problem a career pipeline that leaks women at every junction until, by the end, there are very few left; actual career paths are not so straightforward. No, the situation is much more complicated, she said at an April networking luncheon for women in physics (see her full remarks here).

What they face instead is a series of obstacles at each career stage that are negotiable but which take more effort for women to make their way through than men. Making it to the top requires overcoming accumulated disadvantage...A recent book (Through the Labyrinth by Eagly and Carli) likened the path that women have to take to a labyrinth that can be navigated but leaves many wondering if it is worth the time and effort. So we are replacing the (perhaps appealing) model that suggests the lack of women can be fixed by removing a final barrier with one that argues that we need to intervene at many more career stages and make much more widespread changes.

Rankin is vice chancellor for faculty diversity and development at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  As a graduate student based at Imperial College in London she began working at SLAC in 1978. She went on to complete a postdoc at the lab, working with the Mark II detector and the B factory. After getting tenure at Boulder and serving for a couple of years as a program officer at the National Science Foundation, Rankin was awarded an NSF ADVANCE Institutional Transformation grant and set about improving the climate for women on the Boulder campus.

That work resulted in the creation of LEAP, or Leadership Education for Advancement and Promotion, which after seven years is making the transition from an NSF-funded project to a permanent part of the university.

At a SLAC colloquium last week, Rankin presented evidence for the labyrinth-as-obstacle view of things.

There is no single, clear-cut reason why so few women make it to the top levels of physics, she said.  Some of the evidence is anecdotal or ethnographic, and comes without error bars. This makes it necessary to combine information from many sources.

Further, it takes about a generation for demographic changes to percolate through the system. By one calculation, an instantaneous change in the makeup of the applicant pool from 20 percent to 50 percent would result in about a 4.2 percent change in the makeup of a department over five years, if hiring held steady.

Given the amount of time and work that goes into becoming a physicist, some people have argued that women are too smart to want to go to all that trouble, Rankin said. "That's the only argument I've heard that says physicists aren't smart," she said, to laughter from the audience.

However, studies of what people look for in their careers show no differences between men and women, she said. Half of people entering law and medicine--both of which require lengthy training--are women. And gender differences in SAT scores are dwarfed by the differences between nationalities.

Some of the studies that show bias against women are old; for instance, a study concluding that people are more likely to attribute women's success to luck and men's to skill dates back more than 30 years. But this doesn't necessarily mean they're outdated, Rankin told me later. Subsequent research has tended to confirm and elucidate these results. She said that what people find most upsetting is that the evidence indicates that, despite all efforts, the playing field for women is still not even.

"It's a hard thing for many of us to accept, because most of us are brought up to believe very strongly that science is a meritocracy," she told me Friday. "Things are improving, but very slowly, because of the demographic inertia effect."

She cites a Swedish study of postdoctoral applicants, published in Nature in 1997, that examined an elaborate system set up to guarantee fairness when selecting from a pool of candidates. Each candidate received a competence rating based on objective factors. While men's ratings could be predicted by the number of papers they had published in leading journals, the study concluded that a female applicant needed at least 100 of these "impact points" to rate as highly as a man with 40 points.

Bias is not limited to men, Rankin said. Both men and women are susceptible to "gender schema," ingrained notions about how an individual will behave based on the perceived behavior of a group. For instance, when researchers showed people photos of men and women who were carefully chosen to be of equal height, they estimated that the men were taller, which is true of the population as a whole. Leadership qualities--strength, decisiveness, assertiveness, charisma--tend to be associated with men, and come out of a military model of leadership. Women are expected to put more time into nurturing relationships in the workplace. If they don't, they pay a penalty; if they do, they're seen as less assertive. This "damned if you do, doomed if you don't" dilemma is played out in ways large and small: While a man gets extra points for remembering an administrative assistant's birthday, for instance, a women gets docked if she doesn't.

Thus the labyrinth. Navigating it takes energy. Veering off into another metaphor, it's as if men and women are running the same race but the hurdles for women are just a bit higher: "You're spending your energy jumping those hurdles, so you have less energy to do other things."

Rankin said changing the culture requires fixing things at multiple levels. Careers in science now work if you follow all the rules perfectly--taking the right courses early enough and proceeding smoothly from graduate school to postdoc and on through the tenure track. Once someone exits this classic career pipeline--to raise children, for instance--they find it hard, if not impossible, to get back in.

To change that, she said, the field needs interventions that make things better for everyone and that are everyone's responsibility. At Boulder, for instance, people on the tenure track who wanted to take family or medical leave used to have to ask that the tenure clock be stopped; now it's stopped automatically. "That has made a dramatic difference in the use of that policy," Rankin told me, "I suspect because it's changed what the status quo is and what the expectation is."

She told the SLAC audience that people need to learn about the effects of gender schemas on their thinking.  They need to make sure that those entering the field are "networked, mentored, included, advised, coached"--especially important for women, she said, because in a field where they constitute a small minority they get less informal mentoring than men do.

Institutions also need to evaluate the civility of their environments: Are meetings called at times that conflict with family obligations? Are people called on uncivil behavior? Who is responsible for doing that?

"I was delighted to hear that there's a code of conduct here," she said of SLAC. "This is a civil environment."

I thought the ending of her April talk offered a nice summation of her point of view:

The time has come for us to admit the failings of the classical system and start thinking like modern physicists. We need to acknowledge that multiple paths may be followed (some more probable than others) and take a quantum mechanical approach that allows people to tunnel into or back into physics careers through classically forbidden regions--like taking extended time off for parental leave.

Does science have to be 24/7? Have we have traded quality for quantity? Do people have to be full-time researchers? Do we want to give up on people that need to work at a reduced level for any reason? Can people come into the field after a bachelor's degree in history? Could we develop an accelerated curriculum to help people who decide on physics later in life or people who want to come back in? Can we give graduate students funded parental leave? To use another analogy from Hewlett--if we think of a physics career as a highway--can we add on ramps instead of only having off ramps?

Rankin sent me a list of recommended readings, including the work by Sylvia Ann Hewlett that she refers to above; you can see it below. Also of interest: the American Physical Society's best practices for recruiting and retaining women in physics.

Why So Slow--The Advancement of Women by Virginia Valian. If you want to read one book that discusses the research explaining why few women make it to the top of their organizations, this is the one.

Tempered Radicals by Debra E. Meyerson. A great book for people faced with the problem of working within a system that they may not fully support. It discusses how small changes can add up and how you do not necessarily have to sacrifice your values to achieve success in an imperfect environment.

Same Difference--How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children and Our Jobs by Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers. This is a good book to look to for inspiration when faced with the "but women don't want to be physicists" argument.

Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success by Sylvia Ann Hewlett. One of the best sources for discussions on what some businesses are doing to retain women and be more competitive. It would be good to brainstorm what similar measures could be tried in physics.

Women Don't Ask by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. This book explains why women should negotiate and why they may not.

Ask for It by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. This book helps women negotiate (since it talks about the research discussed in Women Don't Ask you may want to read this first and only read the other book if you want to go deeper. I liked a lot of the ideas--but balked at the idea of practicing negotiating by seeing if you could get a cheaper cup of coffee...).

Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia by Emily Toth. For the times when it seems like no-one else can see the absurdity of what is going on...

Success Strategies for Women in Science--A Portable Mentor edited by Peggy A. Pritchard. Since I wrote a chapter of this book (on networking) I may be biased--but lots of people have told me they liked this book!

Through the Labyrinth by Alice H. Eagly and Linda L. Carli. If you want the short version go for the article in the Harvard Business Review--but the book is a great overview of recent research.

Why Women Should Rule the World by Dee Dee Myers. I must admit I was surprised I liked this book--it makes it clear that the issues women face are universal (and its topical since Ms. Myers was President Clinton's press secretary).