This June, an SFI working group will tackle a persistent disequilibrium in physics.
Women physicists are outnumbered, earning only 20% of Ph.D.s and only 10% of full professorships in U.S. colleges and universities. This gender imbalance was brought into sharp relief during the inaugural Workshop for Stochastic Thermodynamics in 2020, when Jenny Poulton, a postdoctoral physicist at Imperial College London, was the first woman to speak.
“By day three of this conference, not one woman had asked a question or given a talk,” Poulton recalls, “and someone put up a slide about online conferences potentially being beneficial to women.” She chuckles. “So I made a bit of a fuss.”
This year, as part of the 2021 workshop, Poulton is speaking at the conference and she’s also organizing a follow-on working group — the first meeting of the Junior Women’s Caucus in Stochastic Thermodynamics. Designed for women physicists at the Ph.D. and postdoctoral levels, the working group aims to give participants the opportunities many early-career researchers find most helpful, such as networking, journal-reading, tutorials, and access to senior academics in the field.
“I’ve been part of women’s groups before where the focus was on going to schools and doing outreach — and those things are very admirable,” Poulton says. “But I wanted this group to be of direct advantage to the women who are involved."
The paucity of women in stochastic thermodynamics reflects a broader trend in physics, and more broadly in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The “leaky pipeline” metaphor refers to a well-documented phenomenon where fewer and fewer women participate as STEM scholars move from undergraduate, to graduate, doctoral, postdoctoral, and faculty positions.
The pipeline problem looks especially pronounced in stochastic thermodynamics, which is an emerging field within physics. There is no particular reason for this field to have a worse gender bias than physics in general. Because it’s a small field, Poulton says, the very small number of women might just be a product of random chance. This makes it harder to conclude that the bias toward men is truly representative of the field over time. But “even if we are as good as the rest of physics then that’s pretty poor levels of representation.”
David Wolpert, an SFI professor who is the senior advisor working with Poulton to co-organize the working group, sees both moral and practical reasons for advancing more women into senior positions in physics, despite there being “only so much one can do” at further reaches of the pipeline.
“There’s a moral imperative,” Wolpert says, “but there’s also a purely selfish one. I want to have the broadest pool of people to interact with because that’s what will help my own scientific research."