Where Are the World’s Women in Physics?

Women are greatly under-represented in physics journals.

The ‘good’ news is that, when looking at papers from the last few years, about 25 per cent of astronomy and astrophysics authors are women, and their numbers have been steadily increasing.

But such a positive trend is not evident in other disciplines of theoretical physics, said Helena Mihaljević. Her team at HTW University of Applied Science Germany analysed open-access publication databases.

They also found that the so-called productivity gap, as a ratio of women’s over men’s productivity, is closing in astronomy and astrophysics for recent cohorts, but not in mathematics or theoretical physics. This may partly be due to different publication practices in these fields, with astronomy being very collaborative with multi-author papers; while mathematics is more likely to have single author publications.

Female authorship of various renowned physics papers remains at or below 10 per cent. However, the bright spots are astronomy and astrophysics, which shows an overall positive trend.

Only 18 per cent of Australian STEM professors are women

Twenty eight per cent of people employed in Australian science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) fields are women but only 18 per cent of professors are women.

Professor Lisa Harvey Smith, Australia’s Women in STEM Ambassador, also reported that of the women who graduated with a STEM degree in 2011, only one in ten were working in STEM five years later, compared with one in five men.

Australia inequity, Lisa Harvey-Smith

Around the world, women are under-represented in STEM studies and careers. The statistics are stark:

  • 28 per cent of people employed in Australian STEM industries are women.
  • Only 18 per cent of professors are women.
  • In Year 12, girls are particularly under-represented in engineering, computing, physics and higher maths.
  • Of the women who graduated with a STEM degree in 2011, one in ten were working in STEM five years later, compared with one in five men.
  • Women earned less annual median income than men as VET STEM graduates and STEM postgraduates.
  • Women working full-time in STEM who took a career break for the arrival of a child were likely to earn less than those who didn’t. Men who took career breaks for this reason earned significantly more.

There is a range of reasons why women are under-represented and there are ‘pinch points’ at every stage of education and employment that limit women’s studies and careers. These range from lack of role models and gender bias for younger women, to discrimination and more caring responsibilities for STEM professionals.

These issues are systemic and complex and require large-scale, long-term cultural and systemic change.

The Australian government is tackling this problem with a suite of programs, guided by a national strategy. Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith is the Women in STEM Ambassador and leads a team that seeks to increase the participation of women and girls in STEM education and careers across Australia. Her office is achieving this through education, research, advocacy and policy advice.

The Women in STEM Ambassador is spearheading a national awareness-raising initiative funded by a $1M investment from the Federal Government. The Future You campaign is all about exciting and informing young people about the vast array of career options that use STEM skills.

Their education-focussed programs and activities seek to increase girls’ interest in STEM jobs, raise parents’ opinions of the importance of STEM as a future career for their children and help teachers develop more inclusive STEM learning environments.

Initiatives for professional women in STEM seek to help the media and others discover the diversity of Australian women with STEM skills, connect women with career-advancing opportunities, improve workplace culture in STEM research organisations and remove bias in awarding grant funding.

Evaluation is the only way to understand if programs are working to affect change. The National Evaluation Guide is a simple online evaluation tool that offers practical advice and breaks down program evaluation into five easy steps.

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