A Binder Full of Women Physicists

Scope Correspondent

Vera Kistiakowsky was not pleased. It was February 3, 1971, and the MIT nuclear physicist was sitting in the audience at the American Physical Society’s first session on women in physics. The problem wasn’t the session itself, but, as she put it, “all these idiots in the audience responding.”

Case in point: Valentine Telegdi, a Hungarian physicist at the University of Chicago, said with a big smile on his face, “If I had been married to Pierre Curie, I would have been Madame Curie.”

Kistiakowsky recalls that it “made me want to get up and scream, but I didn’t.” Instead she decided to form a Committee on Women in Physics, “so I could rub the facts in.”

Fifteen other women physicists joined in, and Kistiakowsky got a $10,000 grant from the Sloan Foundation, $1,800 more than she had asked for. “The American Physical Society nearly keeled over in a dead faint, because I was the first committee that had ever come in with money of its own,” she says.

The committee decided to compile a roster of women physicists to counter claims that there were no qualified ones to hire. They would also send questionnaires to all the women in physics they could find, asking about their employment, their employer’s child care and maternity leave policies, whether any rules discriminated against women, and if they were satisfied with their job.

By the fall of 1971, hundreds of typed questionnaires went out, and hundreds came back. Reni Engler, a former secretary in the MIT physics department, punched the data onto cards and fed them into the IBM computer in the laboratory of nuclear science, finagling computer time so as not to get in the way of other research groups.

Responses were overwhelmingly positive about the work the committee was doing. “Dear Sisters!” one woman wrote across her questionnaire, “I appreciate what you are doing. For the first time ever, I feel less alone as a ‘female physicist!’”

Women sent in their horror stories and those of their friends, qualified people who remained unemployed for years because universities and industry would not hire women. Kistiakowsky received many long letters, two postcards, and even a flimsy blue airmail envelope from two master’s students in Karnataka, India, requesting to join the committee.

Many women wanted more influence, and the possibility of being promoted. One administrative assistant with a bachelor’s degree in physics wrote that she wanted “less shitwork + more responsibility.” Another woman wrote, “it is an unwritten rule…but I will never advance to a management position.”

Salary was a nearly ubiquitous concern. An associate physicist wrote, “A man with the exact degree as mine started with a salary of $11,400 compared to my $8,200. By exact, I mean the degrees were from the same university, same department, under the same professor.”

Another woman wrote that the men in her department felt that “women don’t need to be paid as much as men for the same job since they spend their money on frivolities.”

Some described rules that discriminated against them, for example, “women are not allowed to work after hours without a guard or other man in the building.” Others experienced more deceptive discrimination, not enshrined in rules, on issues of salary and advancement.

An optical physicist wrote, “I resent being used by NASA as a symbol of their equal employment to women when in fact I feel women are discriminated against in many subtle ways.” Another woman wrote, “it’s taken me 20 years to get what a man would have had in 1 or 2 years.”

The last question on the form was, “What kind of position or change in your position would you like?” In answer, one assistant professor wrote simply, “equal to men.”

The committee’s final report and roster was a hefty two-and-a-half inches thick. Kistiakowsky printed out twenty or thirty copies and hauled them to the APS council. “I went into the spring meeting in ‘72 and banged down that box on the table,” she says. “Everybody’s eyes opened wide.” They hadn’t believed the committee could finish a report in less than a year.

The report accomplished what Kistiakowsky wanted: “When we requested a permanent committee, there was no argument.” The APS created the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics in 1972, and it’s still going strong. Kistiakowsky, feeling that her work was done, did not join the permanent committee and got back to her experimental physics research.

Crystal Bailey, the current APS Careers Program Manager, is grateful for the roster and the questionnaires. “All of those things are extremely, absolutely essential,” she says. “They have contributed a great deal to what progress has been made towards increasing the participation of women in physics.”

That progress has been substantial. Over the fifty-one years preceding 1971, the percentage of physics doctorates awarded to women actually decreased from 4 percent to 3 percent. In the forty years or so since the founding of the committee, between 1971 and 2012, that number has climbed to 20 percent. So, there is a ways to go, with the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics supporting those 20 percent and nudging that number still higher.