Closing the Physics Gender Gap

By Elizabeth Simmons

Dr. Simmons presenting at ICTP, 2015

 ICTP’s mission of affording scientists from developing nations opportunities to excel in physics and develop successful careers is laudable. A related area where ICTP is having a significant impact is in supporting women physicists around the globe.

In many nations, there are far fewer women than men in physics studies and careers. Across the US or Europe women typically make up only about 20% of professional physicists. In South Korea and Japan, the percentage is less than half this. A number of women from African countries whom I have met at ICTP have noted that they are the first to earn a PhD at or be employed as a faculty member at their institution.

What are the reasons for the gender gap? Some relate to family life: women are often expected to do most of the household and caregiving tasks within a family, even if they work outside the home. This makes it challenging to have enough time for studies or to advance in a career. Others relate to socialization: media stereotypes, peer pressure, and elders’ advice often discourage young women from being pioneers in traditionally “masculine” fields such as science or mathematics. Those entering these fields can find themselves isolated or excluded, with little access to mentoring and collaborative networks. Furthermore, a Global Survey of Physicists conducted by the American Institute of Physics in association with the IUPAP Working Group on Women in Physics has revealed that women physicists in every nation have less lab space and fewer opportunities for career advancement than their male colleagues (see follow­up articles from 2012 and 2015)

While those reasons apply broadly across the sciences, data shows that the gender gap in physics is much larger than in biology, chemistry, or most other sciences. A recent study suggests that a key factor is whether talent in a given field is innate or acquired. Subjects where people believe one develops skill through education and practice have smaller gender gaps; those to which people commonly ascribe an innate ability (physics is among them) have larger ones. 

How can we physicists change these long­standing patterns? We can take extra care to treat all of our students equally, regardless of gender: expressing confidence in their abilities, reminding them that practice and effort will build their skills, and avoiding bias when we admit graduate students or award prizes. We can offer mentoring and concrete advice about CVs, negotiation skills, job searches and career planning to junior colleagues from groups (including women) who are less well represented in physics. We can urge our countries to support parental leave and daycare for working parents. And we can advocate with our institutions and national funding agencies for equal treatment of women in hiring, salaries, grant awards, teaching assignments, lab space, and leadership opportunities.

Fortunately, ICTP’s workshops on Career Development for Women Physicists have been making a difference in the lives of attendees, as their enthusiastic and candid evaluations show. Participants have used their new skills to boost their own careers and have used resources from the workshop to offer mentoring and advice to colleagues back at their home institutions. They are using social media to stay in touch, providing a sense of community that extends beyond the small number of women in their own departments.

It is wonderful to see ICTP being a world leader in supporting women physicists. I hope that ICTP will continue to offer career development workshops and that other STEM institutions around the world will follow its example so the gender gap in physics can be closed. 


Elizabeth Simmons is a University Distinguished Professor of Physics and the Dean of Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University in the United States, and co-led a recent career development workshop for women in physics at ICTP. 

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