Thursday, April 1, 2010

Particle Physics, Climate Change, and Dinner With Vera Rubin, Part II: Perspectives on Minorties in Physics

 Read Part I here.

Read article full text on the SPS website.  

Two other sessions of interest at this meeting [The April meeting of the American Physical Society] were “Perspectives on The Outlook for Women in Physics”, and “Strategies for Improving the Climate for Diversity in Physics Departments.”  In the former, representatives from industry, national laboratories, and academia presented on recent changes and programs put into place to encourage female representation, while in the later, strategies for improving participation among minorities of all kinds were discussed.  I thought the second session was more valuable because it proposed multiple solutions, and was well attended by male and female physicists, students, and industry workers alike.

The speakers explained several programs that have been put into place to address continued low minority participation in physics, especially at the highest levels of physics achievement.  The list included observational site visits to departments requesting them by the APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics, workshops in which department chairs receive a crash course on issues and strategies for improving the climate of diversity in their departments, and more recently, broad and open conversations brought to the campuses themselves.  Many of these initiatives have been remarkably successful at mitigating some of the more obvious barriers, such as work/life balance issues, the provision of equal support and networking opportunities for all students, regardless of race or gender, and awareness of unconsciously biased behavior.  Many difficult hurdles have been overcome, though many more remain.

A key feature of these sessions was the discussion of best practices for departments and minority studies.  For departments, one of the simplest suggestions was to make lounges an inviting place for students.  If there are inviting, public places to meet and network, all students have an opportunity to be involved, and some of the informal networking that often leaves minorities isolated can be made more inclusive.  This is something that has worked very well in my own undergraduate department, which boasts a very high proportion of female students, as well as a large proportion of students who are constructively involved with department activities.  Other suggestions included celebrating the accomplishments of all students and faculty whenever such accomplishments occur, and never tolerating rudeness and derogatory behavior, especially if one is not a member of the group being singled out.  Advisors and faculty should take care to build in students and colleagues an identity that extends beyond his or her minority status as the "token" member of a particular group.  Finally, the kind of climate that encourages competition for competition's sake, demands extensive after-hours work weeks, and ignores the concerns of the outside world is something that is becoming increasingly undesirable for young women and men who want to balance a rewarding career in physics with a rewarding family life.  Departments and institutions as a whole should take care to observe how policies might inadvertently deter some of their potential talent.

Some of the advice that came up for women and unrepresented groups is to go after networking aggressively, rather than wait for it to come to you, and apply for grants, funding and positions aggressively as well.  As one speaker put it, in reference to general climate and atmosphere, "Have a sense of humor, but don't be a doormat."  It is important to understand situations and to pick the correct battles, but at the same time, there is no need to tolerate discrimination.

Dr. Sherry Yennello, a speaker from Texas A&M University, commented that "physicists are the best problem solvers there are, so let's wrap our heads around this problem."  With all of the ideas, programs, and open dialogue I witnessed at these sessions, a truly inclusive and collaborative environment is something we physicists seem quite capable of building.

Stay tuned for the final installment over the next few days. 

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