Wonders of a Woman in Physics

March 14, 2018
Liliana Caballero
Assistant Professor
Department of Physics, University of Guelph.

Decades have passed since the first policies oriented to support women in the sciences were launched. North American funding agencies, as well as Universities and Colleges have been motivated to offer scholarships for female students and post-docs, and hire female faculty. Progress has been made and we are fortunate that the implementation of the policies have helped to increase the participation of women in scientific fields. However, we still have an imbalanced work force. We are still losing talented women and their potentially valuable contributions. In this regard, physics is one of the most affected of the sciences, theoretical physics being at the bottom. I wonder why this is still happening and what can be done.

As a Hispanic female doing theoretical physics, I feel I can understand the rough path that minority groups face in the academic world. I want to encourage these individuals to pursue their scientific dreams and I hope to serve as a role model for them. This motivated me to take an independent step and organize a social activity: bi-weekly lunches in an informal setting, for the community in my Department to share their ideas on how to support women in physics. In this space, students, post-docs, and professors, talk about their thoughts, experiences and challenges. I resonate with many of them.

The challenges faced change according to one's career stage: fear of mathematics, peer pressure, lab discrimination, lack of role models, biased interviews, and family care to name a few. Some of the stories told during our “Women in Physics Lunches” are like my own, just with a somewhat different setting: another country many years ago. Some other stories, told by senior scientists, have stopped being a struggle, thanks to the increase in awareness of peers and the policies supporting women. I admire my senior women fellows, they went through much more.

The shared paths leave me with a sense of uncertainty and empowerment at the same time. In my small local community, I can support the women that have already passed big obstacles and have decided to become physicists. I can offer them a word of advice or direct them to resources that can help them. Outside this universe I cannot be of help. Many girls will leave high school with a sense of curiosity about their world and still feel inadequate about exploring it, because they have grown to think that girls are not good in math. I will still not be able to reach all physics female students that are struggling with peer pressure and reassure them. Many of them will drop out of their program because they believe they were not good enough to be a scientist. Or they will have to make a different career choice to maintain a balanced work-family life. I wonder how we can help them.

At the local level: Can you organize an activity that helps increase the awareness about the need to support women in the sciences? How will your College, Department, or University be involved? Are you inviting female speakers to your colloquium/meeting/conference? Is your school taking advantage of the programs launched to help girls explore STEM?

In the large scale: What policies are in place to support math literacy for girls in middle and high school? What is the scope of these programs? Are there enough schools covered? What scholarships are available for physics students at the early stage? Are they based on already proven merit? Are they supportive of women with interest but without significant achievements yet? How are funding agencies supporting women scientists during their tenure-track years? How are these policies being disseminated?

If you have answers for me, drop me a line. I know many women who will benefit from your answer!