Women in the Physical Sciences: An Undergraduate’s Musings

A couple of weeks ago, I was very graciously invited to attend a physical chemistry conference. A project that I had given a significant contribution to had been accepted to present at the conference as a poster. I was very excited—this conference was only in its fourth year of reception but, from what I understood, was founded by many big names in nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). A small conference of experts in the field, here to think and discuss new advances in the rapidly expanding field of NMR.

This year, the conference was located on the University of Michigan’s campus. The science presented was incredible; it was dense, rich, and showed both the breadth and depth of NMR. The versatility and power of solid-state NMR are astonishing. We can now visualize not only single organic molecules, but dynamic systems such as proteins and viruses, and will soon be able to characterize these systems at unprecedented speed and resolution (big congratulations to the Ohio State University for the successful funding of North America’s first 1.2 GHz NMR! So excited to see this beauty built and explore new reaches of science). In addition, several internationally-renowned NMR scientists were present. I got to meet some of them and it was an absolutely humbling experience.

However, not too far into the morning presentations I noticed something that made me a little uneasy. Almost everyone in the room was a man. I vividly remember looking around the auditorium expecting to see another woman… and just not seeing one. There were about 140 scientists present at the conference. A quick headcount yielded 90 scientists visible from my perspective in the room—15 of them were women (including me, my labmate, and my grad student mentor). It prompted me to wonder: why weren’t there more women present? Surely it is not because women weren’t interested in this branch of science, or that women weren’t as smart as men. My science classes at Kenyon had presented an approximately even distribution between men and women. So where did the edge of the cliff occur between undergraduate education and top-notch academia? 

This question resonates deep within my small beating heart. I had participated as a Clare Boothe Luce (CBL) scholar during my sophomore year at Kenyon College. The goal of the CBL program was to spotlight the painful disparity between female and male academics in the physical sciences and close the gap by supporting women going to graduate school in the fields of chemistry, math, and physics. I had heard all about women being a minority in these fields, but for the first time, I had seen it with my own two eyes. I had a conversation with my advisor, who is a physical chemist. She and I both agreed that we personally had never experienced discrimination or discouragement as women in the physical sciences, and we were also confused as to why the gender gap was so.

Disclaimer: my thoughts are nothing conclusive, nor are they telling about the field of physical science or academia in general. Just musings of a young adult who likes chemistry and NMR. What I typically notice about friends that leave the field of STEM is that they get discouraged from bad experiences in the class (professors, grades, hostility from other STEM students), stick with it for a while longer, do not have better experiences, and leave. I like chemistry and math quite a bit, and although I’m definitely not the best at either, I do feel as if I am more inclined toward the quantitative sciences than humanities or biology. Maybe the reason my advisor and I have never felt extremely discouraged is because we would not have been the women told “maybe math/physics/chemistry isn’t your thing,” or “you should try something else that you’re better at.” Families like mine have historically supported us in the sciences—the case is different for first-generation women college students or first-generation women in STEM.

I spoke to my graduate student mentor about the disparity of women in the physical sciences, and we both agreed that the nature of academia is incredibly competitive. She mentioned that it is that exact competition that drives innovation so voraciously. There is little time for both raising a family and being competitive in research. I can personally attest to this—my graduate school mentor is one of the most prolific, high-functioning and dedicated people I know (probably #2, right behind my father). When her boyfriend visits her from Germany, she takes time off from the laboratory. Why not work and spend time with her boyfriend, you ask? Unfortunately, science takes time, consistency, and runs on its own schedule that you must keep pace with. The diligent researchers’ schedule is dependent on the crest and waning of cell growth cycles, breaks in between experiments, the rise and fall of each breath of science. It is just like driving: we drive under the rule of traffic lights. We can’t drive on red, no matter how much we would like to. And why would you ever stop the car when the light is green if you could drive through the green light and get to your destination a little sooner? You drive under the law of the traffic lights, not the other way around. It is the same for science.

Historically, role models have been very important in influencing women's career choices in nontraditional fields.1 Nauta et. al (1998) hypothesizes that role models are critical for helping women stay in nontraditional fields because the demands of these fields conflict with family roles and are difficult to combine: “A number of researchers have suggested that women avoid traditionally male careers because they perceive (perhaps accurately) that these fields allow little freedom to pursue family interests and responsibilities.” Citing these social theories makes me a little uncomfortable because I prefer seeing experimental data, but you cannot deny the evidence of a disparity in these fields. Perhaps if women had more role models in academia, it would share a (currently, possibly inaccurate) message that combining life as an academic and wife and/or mother is practicable.

In a conversation with a different professor, I had remarked that I was surprised that the field of academia is so intense… and a little unhealthy. It was uncommon to have your Principle Investigator (PI) support vacation, or taking time to yourself or your family. My professor remarked, “Well, now think about being pregnant. You can take time off for the baby, but then you’ll miss grants to submit and important funding opportunities that you may not get another chance for.” These grants and funding opportunities are the life and blood of academia. What do you do in that case, when you are given time off, but must pick between your livelihood as a scientist or family member? Perhaps it is not the constituents of academia (professors, scientists, students) that make it unwelcoming to women, but rather the discipline itself.

Now the question is, what do we do about it? Is it inherently wrong that a discipline is not a universal fit for everyone? Or maybe the question isn’t about women in physical sciences, but the role of women in parenthood, and its deeper implications of sexism in society. TLDR: I don’t know the answer ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. However, it is clear that we need to continue supporting young women in the physical sciences and improve the resources we have for young girls. I am inspired every day by the dedication and hard work that my female professors, lab mates, fellow scientists, and students put into making the world a better place. We have so many bright young minds with so much to offer; let’s give them all a chance to flourish. 



  1. Nauta, M. M.; Epperson, D. L.; Kahn, J. H. A Multiple-Groups Analysis of Predictors of Higher Level Career Aspirations among Women in Mathematics, Science, and Engineering Majors. Journal of Counseling Psychology 19981101, 45 (4), 483. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0167.45.4.483.


Credits: Feature, 12