Female physicists make slow academic headway in the United States

American Institute of Physics study finds women gaining higher proportions of PhDs and faculty positions, but identifies a leak in the pipeline at undergraduate level.
Chris Woolston is a freelance writer in Billings, Montana.

Search for this author in:

Three scientists in research laboratory discussing project on digital tablet

Although women are proportionately making gains in US physics programmes and in faculty positions, recruitment efforts alone are unlikely to resolve inequities in the system.Credit: Thomas Barwick/Getty

Women physicists are making slight but steady inroads in US physics classrooms and universities, according to a report from the American Institute of Physics (AIP), a non-profit research organization and publisher based in College Park, Maryland. “There’s reason for optimism,” says Rachel Ivie, a co-author of the report and the director of the AIP’s Statistical Research Center. “But there’s also reason for frustration because things are moving so slowly.”

The report, which examined data up to 2017, found that women earned 20% of the more than 1,800 US doctoral degrees awarded in physics in 2017, a slight increase from 18% in 2007 and a significant jump from 30 years earlier, when women earned less than 10% of all physics PhDs. In 2017, 22% of first-year physics graduate students were women compared with 18% in 2007. The report found a better gender balance in the field of astronomy. In 2017, women accounted for 40% of astronomy doctoral degrees and 33% of bachelor degrees.

Using data from the AIP’s 2014 Academic Workforce Survey, the report concluded that the “pipeline” between graduate school and an academic position remains relatively intact for women. Between 1980 and 1994, women received just 8% of all PhDs in physics. But in 2014, they accounted for 10% of full-professor positions at US universities. If that section of the pipeline remains secure, Ivie says, the growing number of women earning PhDs should translate to greater representation among faculty members in years to come.

The report found that the biggest leaks in the US physics pipeline appear early. Although secondary-school physics classes are relatively evenly split between male and female students, female physics students accounted for just one-fifth, or 21%, of bachelor’s degrees in 2017. The proportion of female students who go on to earn US physics PhDs between 2022 and 2024 is thus unlikely to be any higher, unless proportionately more male PhD students drop out of their doctoral programmes.

A study1 published on 22 April in Physical Review Physics Education Research found that nearly three-quarters of women pursuing US undergraduate physics degrees report experiencing at least one form of sexual harassment during their science studies.

Ivie says that the AIP is starting to examine the possible reasons for female students’ steering away from physics as they progress in their education. “Do they drop off because something is going on with physics education?” she asks. “Or is it something else?”

The early years, in particular, of physics undergraduate programmes might be a pivotal point for female students, researchers say. “The area we really need to focus on is the first couple years of college,” agrees Fran Bagenal, an astrophysicist at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies and gives frequent talks on the demographics of physics. “I call it the sophomore road bump.” She speculates that some female students might feel out of place in large lecture halls that are populated mostly by male students. “Women can feel alienated,” she says. Anything that increases comfort levels could help to keep more women in the field, she suggests.

In 2014, the most recent year for which the AIP has data, some 25 PhD-granting US universities had 6 or more female physicists among their faculty members.

The slowly growing numbers of women receiving PhDs in physics should attract even more women to the field, Ivie says. But simply recruiting more women won’t resolve the inequities in the system. The report notes that previous AIP surveys have found that male academic physicists are more quickly promoted to full professorship than are women, and that male physicists are earning 10% more than female physicists within 10 to 15 years of earning their PhDs.

“When I first started working on issues around women in physics nearly 20 years ago, a lot of people assumed that the representation problem would fix itself,” Ivie says. “But that’s not necessarily true. Even if we increase representation, women in senior positions could still face discrimination.”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01414-0


  1. 1.

    Aycock, L. M. et al. Phys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res. 15, 010121 (2019).

Download references

Nature Briefing

An essential round-up of science news, opinion and analysis, delivered to your inbox every weekday.