While the proportion of female physics students in U.S. high schools hovers at close to half, there’s a disturbing decline on the path to becoming a professional in the field.
Jump ahead to the number of full professors, and women in physics make up just 10 percent of the total as of 2014. The numbers are higher in astronomy, but still only 15 percent of full professors are women.
While figures are improving (and more recent numbers could be higher), physics and astronomy still suffer some of the worst gender imbalances among STEM fields in the United States. They’re also two areas of research prioritized by the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the funder is now trying to improve some of these troubling stats in laboratories and academic departments.
“If you look at some websites … and you look at a photo from 100 years ago of what the department looks like, and then you look at the photo today, sometimes they’re not that different,” says Director of Science Cyndi Atherton, who oversees Heising-Simons’s new Women in Physics & Astronomy initiative.
“When you look at those percentages, it’s sobering.”
Race and gender inequality in STEM has been a growing concern in recent years, heightened by the booming tech industry’s stark imbalances and high-profile cases of harassment in academia and industry. Atherton, an atmospheric scientist and former science program director at the Moore Foundation, has long been aware of the problem, including from her time as a grantmaker.
“It becomes really apparent when you look at the projects, or you look at the professors in a department in a university, or when you go to some workshops and conferences, just what a gender disparity there is in these fields,” she says.
Atherton started with Heising-Simons in 2013, when the foundation first started to build a professional staff. Giving had previously been self-directed by founders Mark Heising and Liz Simons, a former teacher and the daughter of finance billionaire Jim Simons, who runs the Simons Foundation with wife Marilyn. In just a few years, Heising-Simons has accelerated its giving at an impressive clip, up to $54.8 million in 2016, with $15.3 million going to science. Other programs include education, human rights and climate change.
We’ve covered some of its science grantmaking previously, including highly focused funding in areas like dark matter research and the study of past climates to better understand our current changing climate.
- How a Young Foundation Is Looking to Make a Difference in Science
- How One Funder is Looking Back Millions of Years to Understand Climate Change
Increasing percentages of women scientists is an important cause for the foundation’s staff and its founders, Atherton says. One particular influence on the formation of the new initiative was a 2015 commentary in Nature by astronomer Meg Urry, which dispels some false assumptions and lays out steps for dealing with inequality in science, closing with, “We simply have to try. Harder.”
The foundation spent 2016 engaged in fact finding about who was already funding this and what levers they might pull themselves, conducting a roundtable with leaders in the fields, and inviting a review by an external panel. Heising-Simons is initially committing about $3 million a year to the issue over the next five years.
Diversity in STEM is a big issue in government funding and among education foundations, and some research funders like Sloan and HHMI have backed work in the area. A number of corporate funders are also keenly interested in STEM diversity, with an eye on the skills of tomorrow's workforce. Still, Heising-Simons found there was room to get involved, especially in its niches of physics and astronomy.
“There’s just a lot of space to improve, and we’re not at saturation by any stretch of the imagination,” Atherton says, noting that each area of science has its own problems to overcome.
Doing so is no small task, however, with deep cultural, systemic and psychological factors at play. As Urry points out in Nature, “Every major criterion on which scientists are evaluated for hiring, promotion, talk invitations or prizes has been shown to be biased in favour of (white) men.”
To name a few, research has found implicit biases against female students in academic hiring, and women in science often face less developed support networks, fewer mentors and role models, and lower confidence than equally performing male peers. It’s a multifaceted problem that leads not only to inequality, but also a more homogenized scientific community that shuts out top talent.
The challenge for a medium-sized foundation like Heising-Simons is finding where it can address the imbalances.
The program is currently looking at four key strategies: improving institutional climate, empowering individuals, building networks and support systems, and curating, analyzing and disseminating data and best practices. It can’t impact the hundreds of physics degree-granting institutions out there, but currently, it's eyeing about 25 that tend to graduate many students who go on to become faculty, Atherton says.
Of the program’s early grantees, an AAAS pilot program called the SEA Change initiative is setting up rankings and recognitions based on how inclusive universities are. Another is Rising Stars, a program from MIT that will replicate academic career workshops for women in physics at universities across the country. The foundation is also pulling together a leadership group of eight women in physics and astronomy to provide input on future grants.
In a sense, Heising-Simons is looking at a sort of niche within its niche by launching this program—physical sciences receive a minority of private philanthropy overall, and in some of its fields, equity issues are uniquely problematic and underfunded.
But Atherton hopes that by creating and replicating successes, the foundation can move the issue from the margins. “This is something that I think sometimes people think is an extra, rather than something that needs to be built in.”