Responses to Survey of Women in Physics

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Publication date: 
25 September 2006

A 2005 survey of women working in physics around the world found that most would choose a physics career all over again. Yet at the same time, many had concerns about family and child-rearing responsibilities and feelings of isolation from colleagues, as well as concerns about funding, equipment and lab space.

The survey was conducted by the Statistical Research Center of the American Institute of Physics, in conjunction with the 2005 Second International Conference of Women in Physics. The report, "Women Physicists Speak Again," recounts the responses of 1353 women from over 70 countries, either working in a field of physics or as students.

A large majority (88%) of the respondents received their first undergraduate degree in physics, and 59% indicated that they received positive attention from their undergraduate physics professors. "About one-third reported receiving attention that was neither positive nor negative, and less than 10% reported receiving negative attention or no attention at all," the report says. "This suggests that positive attention from professors plays an important role in retaining women students."

Of the respondents with a graduate degree, 37% described their relationship with their (current or former) graduate advisor as excellent, and 41% described it as good. "What is surprising," the report states, "is the number of women who reported poor relationships with their advisors, but still persisted in physics."

A majority of respondents said that they made the decision to go into a physics career during secondary school. Many cited teachers and parents, as well as an interest in physics, as influences on their choice of career. Of those women physicists in the workplace, 68% work in academia, 15% in government, 7% in industry, and 10% in other areas of employment. Although the respondents "overwhelmingly said they would choose physics again (86%), a majority (71%) also reported being discouraged by physics." Reasons for being discouraged included: Interaction with Colleagues (55%); Funding (52%); Research (49%); Personal Life (48%); Climate for Women (43%); and Family Obligations (35%) (respondents could choose more than one answer).

According to the report, "Two-thirds of all respondents said that their marriage affected their work." When describing whether the effect was positive or negative, "Women in developed countries were much more likely to say that the effect of their marriage was positive (72%) than women from developing countries (58%)." The report goes on to say, "The effect of children on a woman's career is perhaps stronger even than the effect of marriage.... Many women physicists stated that they had decided not to have children." The report finds that "Women over 45 from developing countries are more likely (86%) to have children than women from developed countries, 73% of whom have children. Women in developed countries also tend to have their children at a later stage than women from developing countries.... Not surprisingly, almost all respondents said that having children affected their work, and the percentage is higher for women in developed countries." In addition to the responsibility that many women physicists have for children, the report notes that "20% of the respondents" indicated that they were primarily responsible for taking care of others as well.

In summary, the report says that the women physicists responding to the survey "have many things in common," and "most spoke passionately about their love of physics." Yet despite the similarities, it finds that "issues are not the same for women physicists in developing countries as they are in developed countries. Women in developing countries spoke repeatedly of a lack of basic resources (funding, office space, lab space, equipment, travel money, and clerical support). Women in developed countries also found these issues (particularly funding) challenging, but the percentages who said they do not have enough resources for research are higher in the developing countries."

The complete report, "Women Physicists Speak Again" (AIP Pub. No. R-441) is available, along with other AIP reports on women in physics, on AIP's Statistical Research Center web site at

The National Academies have just released a report analyzing the barriers to hiring and promotion experienced by women in academia. That report will be highlighted in a forthcoming FYI.

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