Filling the Gender Gap

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Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics

January 17, 2014 to January 19, 2014

University of California, Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Meeting host:

American Physical Society


Kayla Bollinger

SPS Chapter:

A conference attendee shares her research at the poster session.

Over 150 female scientists attended the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) at UC Berkeley this year. As a woman, and as a quite recently declared physics student, being a part of this event was one of the most formative experiences of my undergraduate career. I have been a member of SPS since joining the physics department at California State University, Long Beach, and I was elected as the Social Outreach Advisor for our chapter. It was through the encouragement of my school’s chapter that I had the opportunity to attend CUWiP.

The three days in Berkeley were jam-packed with tours, talks, and the trading of experiences with fellow women in physics. Our first day started with an optional tour of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL). Of the one perfectly square mile of the lab, our tour focused on the National Ignition Facility (NIF). The NIF—whose slogan is “Bringing Star Power to Earth”—is home to the largest and highest-energy laser in the world. By directing all 192 laser beams (for a whopping total of 2 mega-joules) at millimeter sized targets, they are able to reach temperature conditions similar to those found in stars. Along with providing a better understanding of basic science, one of NIF’s many goals is to “ignite a self-sustaining nuclear fusion reaction and produce net energy gain—the same fusion energy process that makes the stars shine and provides the life-giving energy of the sun.

As if sustainable energy and laser beams the size of your head were not enough, the tour of the NIF doubled as a tour of the USS Enterprise. In 2012, the NIF was used as a film set for Star Trek: Into Darkness and the majority of areas we toured were immediately recognizable from the movie. The most notable of which was the target chamber, aka the “warp core” in the movie. Reluctantly, the tour came to an end with a farewell from our guides. My group had the only female tour guide, and in the nature of the conference she left us with some advice, “Don’t feel intimidated.” She described some of her own experiences working in a very male dominated setting and said, “If you are hired for the job, then you’ve already shown that you’re qualified. You’ve worked hard to get there, and you belong there. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.”

The day ended with a welcome reception from the chair of the conference, Dr. Gabriel Orebi Gann, and a chance to chat amongst ourselves and get to know other women at the conference.

The second day we headed over to the Berkeley campus bright and early. After breakfast we were welcomed by the Berkeley Physics Department Chair, Professor Steve Boggs. Speakers for that day included Nobel laureate Professor Saul Perlmutter (UC Berkeley/LBNL), Dr. Luisa Bozano (IBM Almaden), keynote speaker Professor Debra Fischer (Yale), and Professor Frances Hellman (UC Berkeley/LBNL).

A highlight was the first female speaker of the day, Dr. Luisa Bozano. She shared with us her journey to becoming a physicist with her talk, From Italy to California, my path to science and the lessons learned. Receiving her undergraduate and master’s degree in Italy, Dr. Bozano said that she did not initially notice a gender gap in the sciences since about one third of her classmates and professors were women. Her first “wake up call” to this issue came when she finished her studies and tried to apply for a job in industry. Her professors told her that they don’t hire women in science, one of their main reasons being the 6-12 month paid maternity leave they would have to give her if she decided to have a family. For this and several other reasons, she decided to move to the United States to do research at UC Santa Cruz, where she later received her PhD. Her career at IBM started a year before she got her doctorate. At the end of the talk, Dr. Bozano showed us a picture of her baby daughter and said “This is the one thing I know I did right.” She shared that the day she went to tell her boss that she was pregnant was the same day that he was going to offer her a management position. Although Dr. Bozano was worried about how her pregnancy would affect his offer (based on her experiences in Italy), he responded with “I don’t see any problem,” and she is now the only female manager in the science and technology center.

The second night ended with a banquet dinner and a talk by Kate Kamdin, a UC Berkeley physics graduate student, titled Mind the Gap: A Statistical Approach to Understanding Gender Inequality in the Physical Sciences. Kate’s presentation started with a shocking timeline of women in science showing how gender discrimination is not as far behind us as we would like to believe. This led into a discussion of why the gender gap, while narrowing, is still present to this day. She first brought up some popular, yet untrue theories behind this, such as women having a lower aptitude for science, and a higher variance among men when it comes to scientific ability.  Obviously, the first theory about lower aptitude in women is completely false, and has been proven wrong by several studies. The second theory, made famous by Larry Summers (Harvard), has also been shown inaccurate since variance of this type has been shown to vary by country and ethnicity, and not just gender. The more likely reasons for the gender gap that Kate brought up were sociocultural differences and something called the stereotype threat. This term, first used by Steele and Aronson in 1995, refers to “the anxiety and impaired performance that occurs when a person has the potential to confirm a negative stereotype about whatever group they identify with.” Basically, if someone is told/reminded of a negative stereotype about a group to which they belong, it can subconsciously affect that person’s performance in that area. Kate ended the talk by describing the term “implicit bias.” Implicit bias refers to how the majority of people might be biased in an area (such as regarding women in science), but they are not aware of this bias. This type of bias has been shown to exist independent of age, gender, discipline, and other factors. So even though we are women in science, we must still be careful not to contribute to the discrimination of women in science.

The last day of the conference was held at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.  Some of the speakers included Dr. Natalie Roe (LBNL Physics Division Director), Clara Moskowitz (Scientific American), Dr. Sofia Quaglioni (LLNL), and fellow students attending the conference. This day also included a poster session. Being able to see the work of other students was, in my opinion, the best way to end the conference. It gave the presenters an opportunity to share what they were passionate about with their fellow students. This passion for science is why we were there in the first place.