We Know Physics is Largely White and Male, But Exactly How White and Male is Still Striking | Smart News | Smithsonian
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We Know Physics is Largely White and Male, But Exactly How White and Male is Still Striking

Most current physics students will likely never have an African American physics teacher, says a new survey

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In the entire United States, of the thousands and thousands of college physics and astronomy faculty, only 75 are African American or Hispanic women, says the American Institute of Physics. According to a new survey by the AIP, female racial minorities make up less than 1% of the 9,050 physics faculty members in the country. 

According to the new survey data, just 2.1% of physics faculty in the country are African American and 3.2% Hispanic. Those values come nowhere near the representation of those groups in the general population, where 13% of Americans are black and 17% Hispanic. The overwhelming majority--79.2%--of physics faculty are white. “[M]ost physics students will never see a black faculty member,” says the AIP report. And the situation doesn't look set to change: the number of African American faculty members has flatlined since 2000.

Last year, a separate report from the American Institute of Physics found that women aren't doing any better. They found that the representation of women in physics is still incredibly low. But unlike the lack of movement in physics' racial diversity, the outlook for women is slightly more optimistic: while 14% of all faculty members are female, more than 25% of the new hires in 2010 were female. 

Minority women in science “have traditionally been excluded because of biases related to both their race or ethnicity and gender, constituting a double bind,” explains a 2005 report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Maleness and whiteness, even separated, hijack diversity efforts says the AAAS: “[W]omen's science organizations are overwhelmingly white, and the minority science organizations, overwhelmingly male.”

The number of staff on the payroll, though, is only part of the picture, says the AIP:

Counting numbers of faculty members cannot tell us about the everyday experiences and workplace environments of academic physicists. It also does not tell us about possible inequities in salaries and in promotion and tenure rates. 

As a 2012 study showed, biases are often unconsciousness. In their study, the researchers found that both female and male faculty members were less likely to hire an "applicant" for a lab position when the resume had a female name at the top.

The roots of bias run deep, and in some part stem from the idea that physics is a select club, the exclusive realm of brilliant, excentric white men: “The image of Einstein, with his shock of white hair and seemingly superhuman intellectual accomplishments, is not one that most people would gravitate toward nor view as achievable,” says a 2005 International Conference on Women in Physics presentation. A 2006 American Physical Society presentation expands: “And for African American Women this image is less attainable than for most, for we have less in common with him than the majority of the physics community.”

We revere people like Einstein, Newton, Hawking and others because their intellectual pursuits broke the mold of the time--their thinking expanded our knowledge of the universe and helped us to understand our place in it.

Yet just like for these great white men, new ideas often come from new ways of thinking. The different perspectives and experiences of those who--by nature of their gender or skin color--have tred a different path through life should be valuable to all people who care about scientific discovery. Not just because diverse ways of thinking could set the stage for new scientific ideas but because, at its heart, physics explores the underpinnings of the universe, and the keys to the cosmos should be accessible to everyone.

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About Shannon Palus

Shannon Palus is a science writer, and a researcher for Popular Science. Her work has appeared in Discover, Slate, Ars Technica, and elsewhere. She is based in Philadelphia.

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