Topic 5: Learning From Regional Differences

Pia Thörngren Engblom1*, Karen Janssens2, Ann Marks3, Sue McGrath4, Elsa Molinari5, Sharon Stephenson6, Ulla Tengblad1, and KarolineWiesner1

1Uppsala University, Sweden; 2University of Antwerp, Belgium; 3Women in Physics Group, Institute of Physics, UK; 4Ireland ; 5INFM and University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy; 6Gettysburg College, USA;

Abstract. There is a widespread notion that there are more women physicists in some parts of the world, e.g., the south of Europe. We address the question of to what extent this is true and for what reasons women are more successful in climbing the academic ladder in certain countries. We summarize the discussion sessions, present the recommendations that emerged, and suggest what can be learned from regional differences.

To assess what the obstacles are for the advancement of women in science in general and in the physics community in particular, it is valuable to know what regional differences and similarities there are. The goal is not to present a top list of best countries, but to find effective means to embark on a road for gender equity everywhere. A global perspective is necessary today, and learning what works to improve conditions in one country will serve as an inspiration for women physicists all over the world.

About 80 conference attendees from 42 countries participated in the discussion. We divided ourselves into four subgroups led and recorded by the coauthors. Because, to our knowledge, little has been documented comparing conditions for women physicists in different countries, we had, prior to the conference, made a short email survey by contacting the team leaders of a few representative countries. The intention was merely to gather some background material for the discussion leaders to transmit to the discussion subgroups formed at the conference. Other sources of information were the ETAN report (, based on data from the European Union member countries; data concerning development over time from the American Institute of Physics; and, of course, the conference attendees themselves. The importance of gathering over time consistent demographic data on women physicists was stressed in several of the topic discussion summaries. Conditions in different countries must be taken into account, for instance the deterioration of the socioeconomic status of women in the newly independent states.


What Are the Regional Differences?

Figure 1 shows the current participation of women physicists at different levels of academia, as estimated by team leaders. The accuracy of the numbers is thus uncertain; still, some general trends can be extracted. In Europe we found an asymmetry favoring the southeast of Europe, while there are fewer women physicists in the northern and western parts of the region.

This trend extends into Turkey, where 35.3% of bachelor’s degrees in physics were received by females from 1982 to 1990. For the same period, 36.2% of all bachelor’s degrees in Turkey were awarded to women, whereas for the same time span in the United States, 51% women earned a bachelor’s degree but only 13% of those who gained physics degrees were women. In 1998 this number had increased somewhat to 19% in the U.S.

Figure 1. Currently estimated participation of women at different levels of academia.

The reason for the north to south increase in Europe was discussed in one subgroup and found to be linked to, among other things, the fact that teaching is a highly valued profession for women in the southern countries, and female physics students here tend to go into teaching after graduating. This seems to be true for many African countries as well, where there is a lack of opportunities outside the educational system and research is not a government priority. The conflict between the immediate needs of survival of large portions of the people and state funds for a traditional university is also a burning issue in countries like Brazil.

In the former communist countries, women physicists are found in greater numbers. In Bulgaria, for example, there are 50% women at the undergraduate level. Even though there is a “leaky pipeline” in these countries as well, the percentages of women physicists at higher levels are still high compared with those of the western hemisphere. Women were encouraged to go into science and to have a professional life the same as men under communist ruling, but the inequity persisted at higher ranks of the academia. Old structures of male dominance are not so easily changed, which was described in a very moving and honest plenary talk given by Prof. Ipatova from Russia.

Furthermore, there is nowadays a “brain drain” of male physicists to the west, which renders the women in greater relative numbers in the less developed European countries. Eastern European research is often suffering from low financing. In Latvia, for example, state support for science is so low that the paramount problem is a severe lack of funds and equipment; even computers are scarce. However, the governments of the other two Baltic countries seem to have recognized the value of research and university education and they have a larger contribution from women scientists. It is worth noting that Estonia retains one third of its women Ph.D.’s at faculty level. A system with entrance tests for admission to the university and a mandatory advanced level of mathematics and science tuition in high school were pointed out as two reasons for the competitiveness of female students in some countries, such as Turkey, where women physicists make up 20% at both the Ph.D. and faculty levels.

In Iran and India the percentage of women is also high. Physics is not thought of being a male subject and no barriers prevent women from entering the field. The relatively low prestige of the physics profession is a somewhat depressing reason for the number of women being high. This also seems be true for Italy and some other countries.

Common Threads for Success/Failure

What are the most important positive and negative influences in different regions for women in sustaining a successful career? A few important common traits were found. The main positive influences for countries with a relatively high percentage of women in permanent positions are, according this discussion:

  1. Strong state social support (e.g., well functioning child care).

  2. Supportive families (husbands, mothers. etc.). Also stressed as an important factor by many respondents to the survey conducted by AIP before the meeting.

  3. Flexible working hours (this can be detrimental if expected to stay very late at the workplace, as in Japan).

Among the most negative factors common to all countries—but with a stronger impact where few women physicists hold permanent positions—the following were mentioned:

  1. Age discrimination. Given that most women give birth to babies and are still mainly responsible for their upbringing, age limits on grants and other opportunities work against women, for combined age/gender discrimination. In developed countries some women, due to the lack of role models, do not discover the opportunities of a physics career until later in life, resulting in an even more delayed career path.

  2. The hiring process not being transparent. The rules for promotion are neither well defined nor known to all. Jobs in academia are often inherited in an old-boys-network fashion. This is most detrimental when permanent positions are being filled.

  3. Too few opportunities for travel. Particularly true for developing countries and the former communist countries. Membership in EU does not help with acquiring funds because age limits are generally attached to traveling grants. As one conference attendee from Latvia put it: “Before we could not travel because of the iron curtain, now we are hindered by lack of travel money and because we are too old!”

  4. Late appointment for permanent positions. The child-rearing period coincides with the period in life when it is expected of a dedicated physicist to go abroad for one or more postdoctoral assignments. In some developed countries the social security system works against women pursuing a scientific career. The academic ladder in Sweden, for example, contains another four- to five-year temporary position after the ordinary postdoctoral period. Using Sweden as an example: the parental leave is 13 months with pay. If you are employed you get 80% of your previous income up to a certain limit, otherwise you get $12 per day. The difference can be as much as $19,000, which does not favor having an insecure job situation if you are expecting to have children. The cost of living in Sweden requires two incomes. Another barrier is that if you go abroad you are without all social security benefits, such as unemployment compensation and sick leave.

  5. Open sexual harassment was reported to be a problem in two countries. It is a very serious issue that must be dealt with directly and promptly by the academic leadership.


The following recommendations were drawn from the discussions of the four subgroups:

1* Corresponding author and topic chair: