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:: By Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93

:: Photo by Dan Dry

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Chicago Journal ::

Gender gap

The University aims to encourage more women to pursue the physical sciences.

In 2005, at about the same time that Physical Sciences Dean Robert Fefferman founded the Committee on Women in the Physical Sciences to spur more women to enter the field, then-Harvard president Lawrence Summers made headlines for suggesting women may be ill-suited for hard science because of inherent genetic differences between the genders. The ensuing controversy from Summers’s remarks highlighted the national dearth of women in physical sciences.


Ka Yee Lee, associate professor of chemistry, chairs the Committee on Women in Physical Sciences.

In fact, although the percentage of women faculty in the Physical Sciences Division has increased from three percent in 1999 to ten percent in 2006, the representation lags behind national averages for other top-50 universities in some departments, making it a prime concern for the Chicago committee, which Ka Yee Lee, associate professor of chemistry, chairs.

The committee, says Lee, is not just a committee “of women for women,” but rather, an inclusive body that aims to ensure that both male and female physical scientists understand that their various fields will benefit by helping the most gifted scientists—regardless of gender—establish themselves. As such, its members include senior male professors, such as Peter May from mathematics, Jeffrey Harvey and Heinrich Jaeger from physics, and Michael Stein from statistics. Among the committee’s initiatives have been helping design the Faculty Climate Survey, a review of humanities, social-sciences, physical-sciences, and Divinity School faculty concerns administered by the Provost’s Office in 2006. The survey results have not yet been announced.

The committee also administers the Physical Sciences Opportunity Fund, which twice a year gives out a number of awards ranging from $500 to $2,500—a range that allows it to spread its funding around. The fund also has a contingency plan so that faculty, staff, and graduate students can request money for short-term child–care expenses or to attend a conference or conduct research that would take them out of Chicago. 

Dovetailing with the committee’s work is the Physical Sciences Division’s initiative to increase the number of women at all levels—graduate, postdoctoral, and faculty, says Fefferman. In August the division came one step closer when the Henry Luce Foundation awarded a $230,400 grant to fund four one-year Clare Boothe Luce Graduate Fellowships for women entering PhD programs in astronomy and astrophysics, computer science, mathematics, and physics.

The division singled out those four departments because they consistently have had fewer female graduate students than other physical-sciences departments. For instance, as of 2006, women accounted for 22 percent in mathematics and 17 percent in physics, compared to 46 percent of graduate students in statistics and 50 percent in geophysical sciences.

Looking at just the percentages can be deceptive, since the programs, which tend to be small, can cause women to feel isolated. In computer science, for example, of the 18 graduate students offered spots in the fall 2007 graduate program, eight chose to enroll—seven of them men. On average the department awards a PhD to one woman a year, says Anne Rogers, associate professor of computer science and director of the department’s graduate program.

To help lessen those feelings of isolation and build a sense of community among women in physical sciences, each Clare Boothe Luce fellow will be assigned a faculty mentor in her department—Rogers in computer science, Hsiao-Wen Chen in astronomy and astrophysics, Benson Farb in mathematics, and Wendy Zhang in physics—and the division plans to bring the fellows together. “The first year of graduate school can be very painful,” says Rogers. “When there aren’t many other women in your classes, you might not realize that everyone finds it hard. Sometimes it helps just to be reminded that it’s supposed to be hard.”

The fellowship will enable its holders to focus on academics, without the teaching or research responsibilities that usually go along with University funding. It will do so by financing incoming graduate students for a year; after that, they will receive full support from the University. 

Clare Boothe Luce Fellows will also receive a stipend for books, research, and conference travel. “At conferences you really begin to understand what it means to be a member of a field,” Rogers notes. “There’s a huge psychological benefit, as well as the academic benefit of seeing what’s happening at the forefront of your field.”

If efforts by the University—and other universities—unfold as planned, conferences will soon be featuring more women in physical sciences spearheading innovation in their fields.