Closing the gender gap

November 18, 2015 by Anneliese Rilinger

You’ve seen us around campus wearing shirts that say “Caution: laser beam … Because girls are better with power tools” in bright pink letters, drinking our fifth cup of coffee or tea as we struggle to finish this week’s problem set, hurrying back to the physics common room to collaborate with our classmates. There aren’t many of us, but female physics majors are a tight-knit group. And we have to be, because it’s not easy to be one of the only women in a class full of men; to feel rejected when no one wants to be your lab partner; to be told, “Maybe there’s fewer of you because girls just aren’t as good at physics.”

That’s why the news of Dean of the College Sarah Bolton’s appointment as president of the College of Wooster comes as something of a disappointment. Don’t get me wrong: I think Dean Bolton will make an excellent president, and, of course, I am always in support of women holding important, prestigious positions (especially since the College has never had a female president). But when she leaves the College, the physics faculty here at the College will be entirely male. To be fair, the physics department has made efforts to support female physicists. Last year, a tenure-track position was offered to a woman who turned it down in favor of a job elsewhere, and the male physics professors are certainly supportive of their female students. As of last year, we even have an organization called Women and Gender Minorities in Physics, which invited Dean Bolton to meet with female physics students over dinner.

And yet, even a theoretical physicist will tell you: Knowing that, in theory, women can be just as successful physicists as men is not the same thing as having that role model to look up to. It’s one thing to be told that we can earn our Ph.D.s and hold faculty positions or conduct research at state-of-the-art laboratories, but it’s something else entirely to actually see it done. Fortunately, there are truly fantastic female faculty members in physics-related fields, including astronomy, computer science, geosciences and mathematics. Their influence, mentorship and support cannot be discounted. Personally, I have had nothing but positive experiences with Chair and Ebenezer Fitch Professor of Astronomy Karen Kwitter in the astronomy department. However, there is no substitute for a physics professor when one has a physics-related question: discussing what it’s like to be a woman at a physics graduate school or research lab, for example. As wonderful as the professors in these related departments are, they can’t really speak to the specific nuances of physics itself; as helpful as the male physics professors are, none of them have experienced physics from a woman’s point of view. With Dean Bolton’s departure, there will be no one at the College who can combine these two factors.

According to the American Physical Society, the percentage of women in physics at the undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral levels is about 20 percent. That means one in five physicists is female. This standard sets the bar quite low; one would think it would be easy for a forward-thinking college like Williams to surpass such an expectation of inequality. And yet, the ratio of women to men in the College’s physics department is actually worse than the national average. In a department of eight professors, the average expects that at least one, if not two, would be female, but we no longer have any. In this day and age, it is truly unacceptable for such inequality to exist, both in the worldwide physics community and here at our institution.

It is high time for the College’s department of physics to hire another female professor. There are certainly qualified candidates to choose from and no excuse not to hire them. Another female physics professor at the College is long overdue, and the female physics students would greatly benefit from her addition to the physics faculty.

Dean Bolton, the female physics students of the College will miss your presence as the only female physics professor on campus. We wish you the best of luck in your new position as president of the College of Wooster, and hope you continue to be an inspiration to and role model for female physics students at Wooster as you have been here to students here at the College.

Anneliese Rilinger ’17 is an astrophysics major from Byram, N.J. She lives in Morgan.

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