I was invited to give a talk during the ‘Reports from the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics’ session at the American Association of Physics Teachers Winter Meeting. Below is the transcript. I would love to hear feedback, questions about the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics or about my experience as a physics major at a women’s college. Thank you all!
Good morning, I am Amelia Plunk. I have no facts or figures to present regarding the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics, instead I want to talk about how the conference truly shaped my understanding of the needs of young female physicists.
Mount Holyoke College, my alma mater, is the oldest institution of higher learning for women in the United States. The first of the Seven Sisters, ‘Moho,’ as we affectionately call it, is continually ranked by the NSF among the top colleges in the nation for the achievements of our faculty, students, and graduates. In 2004 NSF placed Mount Holyoke in the top two percent of institutions who produced graduates that later went on to obtain PhDs in the hard sciences. However the true value of a science education at Mount Holyoke lies in its rigorous distribution requirements which give students the tools to further understand their field within social, political, and historical frameworks.
As it is women’s college, it is nigh impossible to graduate from Mount Holyoke without having taken a class that addresses issues in gender discrimination in some form. Recently the physics department introduced a course on women in science, and the introduction to gender studies class is a popular choice among non-majors for fulfilling the social science distribution requirement.
Thus by the time I was a junior (and well into my physics major) I had taken multiple courses in gender and feminist theory and my social circle contained a large contingent of gender studies majors. Therefore in my mind I was an expert on issues of women in the hard sciences. I was always ready to discuss faults in explanations for the existence of the gender pay gap. I could easily compare the belittling or abraisive language used to describe women in positions of power to the uplifting and commending terms used for men in similar roles. However it wasn’t until I attended the Northeast Conference for Undergrduate Women in Physics that a glaring hole in my feminist education became apparent to me; not only was my understanding of discrimination against women purely theoretical, but also focused on the professional world. I had no concept of what discrimination in the classroom looked like.
For the classroom experience in the Mount Holyoke physics major is one that fosters intense collaboration between students and that results in the formation of a tight-knit group that is nothing if not supportive of all its members. In fact my first experience with being a gender minority in the classroom was not until I took electromangetism at the University of Massachusetts. Even then I never felt stifled or discriminated against and, in hindsight it is astounding that I never questioned why.
When, in 2011, I attended for the first time the Northeast Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics it was held at MIT; in 2012 I returned to the conference, then held at Yale. While my experience during the MIT event was indeed exciting and eye-opening, it was the Yale conference that truly changed my outlook on women in physics. Those three days in the bitter cold of a New England January were spent among ambitious women and men committed to improving the climate for women in physics. I was able to attend a round table discussion about networking, to poke and prod a panel of graduate students about the application process, and to trade information with other women in physics from around New England.
The most valuable experience of the conference, however, was not the career panel which included women in academia, industry, and science media. It was not the keynote speech by the inspiring Dr. Persis Drell acknowledging what she called the “physicist’s dilemma” and discussing the growing number of exciting opportunities for physicists. It wasn’t even Dr. Meg Urry’s incredible opening address encouraging us to do interesting, high impact work and to own our ambitions. No, in fact, it was the conversations that I had with the countless women at this conference, most of whom were in their first or second years of a coeducational college, who felt like they didn’t belong in this field.
It had never occurred to me that an introductory physics course could be not only uncomfortable for a gender minority, but a downright toxic environment. Over and over again I heard accounts from my peers of group work sessions where one of two situations occurred. In the first, women would show up to these study sessions confident in their work thus far and prepared with questions about how to proceed. Any suggestion they put forward however would be quickly dismissed, and any question posed to the group was treated as elementary and the responses they received were framed as obvious. It is no surprise that these women quickly lost what confidence they had in their choice of academic path.
The second pattern I noticed was of women who were less confident to begin with and hoped that by attending group sessions they could form bonds with their classmates. Most expressed that they were nervous going into the group, generally because they were the only, or one of very few, women in attendence. Their nervousness resulted in a withdrawal of their ideas and a reluctance to speak up. After several group sessions peers began accusing them of “leeching;” of applying the ideas of others to their homework without producing their own contributions. Such hurtful accusations could drive anyone to work in solitude.
After hearing these women’s stories my own experience was finally put into perspective. I then understood why, even when I was in the distinct minority, I consistently had positive classroom experiences. In fact very rarely has anyone at Mount Holyoke expressed discomfort in, much less fear of the physics classroom environment.
For example, a particularly enlightening episode involved a Hampshire College student who took electronics at Mount Holyoke. He was a student of music industry and was interested in the electronic creation of sound. He had very little physics background, which became quickly apparent during late-night group homework gatherings. Of course he pursued extra help from the professor, but he also found it from us, his classmates. We made every attempt to coordinate group work with the bus schedule so that he could participate, and any questions he posed regarding mathematical techniques or physical concepts spurred a mini-discussion that not only aided his understanding of the material, but honed our skills in teaching.
This mutually beneficial relationship between those students in the top of the class and those in the bottom is not only common, but expected in physics courses at Mount Holyoke, regardless of the gender makeup of the class. And thus, by the time I made it to that UMass class I had no fear of speaking up, and no tolerance for scorn at my ignorance of certain subjects. Without the support and encouragement of the community I had become a part of early on I can easily imagine how different my college physics experience could have been.
I am happy to report that I have maintained connections with several of those women who expressed concern about their ability to pursue physics and that all of them felt a renewed vigor after the conference and have found a confidence in themselves that they were able to bring back to their institutions. Even though they continue to lack a cohesive community in their home physics departments, they now have a network of support that is always open and ready to help.
Another of my misconceptions about the experience of women in physics that was thoroughly shattered by the conference was that the vast majority of the supression of women in this field is instigated by men. When Dr. Sarah Demers stepped up to the podium on the final day of the conference we were all expecting an envigorating talk about her work at CERN. While that is indeed what we received, the true treat was that she also provided us with an in-depth, very personal exploration of her life as a wife and a mother. She pointed out to us that too often as a community women in the hard sciences are so focused on breaking the gender stereotypes by excelling in our field that we look down upon professional women who choose to take a step back to pursue more “traditionally feminine” roles.
Recently Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a piece in The Atlantic entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” that I encourage all of you to read. In this article she tells of her step-down from a high-profile political policy position because of a desire to spend more time with her family. When she explained her decision to female peers she was met with a range of reactions from disappointed to condescending. How can we ever hope to correct the misconceptions about women in the sciences and to enlighten men about how to respect their female peers if we cannot even respect the autonomy of our own gender?
For these reasons communities such as that formed through the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics are integral in creating the foundation of equality for women in the hard sciences. As Dr. Meg Urry so aptly stated at the 2012 opening ceremony, we must not only mentor down, to the next generation of women physicists, but sideways and up as well. For without the encouragement from your peers and the fresh perspective from younger minds than your own would any of you have made it to where you are today? I certainly would not have.