Women in Physics in China

Women in Physics in China

Ling-An Wu

Institute of Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100080, China

In the 1980’s a study conducted by the American Physical Society revealed a decrease in the number of physics majors, so that the future faced a serious lack of physicists. They realized that women resources were greatly unexploited, as amongst all the sciences physics has the lowest proportion of women. In 1999 the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics decided to set up a Working Group of Women in Physics (WGWIP), which at first had 11 representatives (including two men) from ten countries. Since its establishment WGWIP has conducted worldwide surveys, established working groups in participating countries, organized networks, and approved travel grants for women from poorer countries to attend international physics conferences. Two highly successful conferences on women in physics were held in 2002 in Paris and in 2005 in Rio de Janeiro, with over 300 and 140 representatives from 65 and 42 countries and regions, respectively. Each delegation presented posters, and discussions focused on six topics: balancing family and career, launching a successful physics career, attracting girls into physics, getting women into the physics power structure nationally and internationally, improving the institutional structure and climate for women in physics, and learning from regional differences.
In November 2005 an Asian WGWIP was set up under the Association of Asia-Pacific Physical Societies. Earlier, WGWIPs had already been established in China mainland and Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and so forth, and their work has already achieved concrete results in a region where physics has traditionally been very much male dominated. In China men and women officially enjoy equal rights and equal pay, and in the latter half of the last century college graduates were assigned jobs irrespective of sex. Thus in the sciences there has been a relatively high proportion of women, around 50% in medicine and 30% in physics university faculties, but the figures drop drastically with rank, as in the usual “scissors graph”. Moreover, in the Institute of Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences the ratio of full professor rank female physicists has seen a steady decline in recent years, due to retirement of the older women and few successors, while almost all new recruits, fresh from abroad, are male. In middle school as many girls as boys take physics, but at college entrance this varies from 10% for the top departments to 40% for normal (teachers) universities. An unusual phenomenon that has recently emerged is that the number of women graduate students has risen sharply, but the reason for this is not really encouraging. Women seem to perform better in exams, or maybe this is because the best male students go abroad. On the other hand, it is harder for female undergraduates to find jobs so they have to acquire a higher degree to be more competitive. It is interesting to analyze statistics from the National Natural Science Foundation, which reveal that the ratio of female to male physicists winning research grants peaks at 15% for those around 60 years of age, the ratio in the middle-age bracket dips to a minimum of less than 10%, then rises again to over 15% for young investigators. On the other hand, the ratio of women heading major grant projects is overall much lower. It remains to be seen if the rising young stars can make it to the highest positions.
With the rapid growth of China’s economy tremendous changes are taking place, and women face new opportunities as well as challenges in all aspects of society. Whereas physics used to be regarded as the most elite of the sciences, new fields such as computer science, biotechnology, business, law, and so forth are now attracting the best talents. What is really disturbing is that employment discrimination against women has recently emerged, and many job advertisements openly state that only men will be considered. In addition, with the development of the market economy, subsidized childcare facilities have been cut back, making it more difficult for young mothers to continue in time-demanding research positions. This has led to more women quitting research for teaching jobs which have more flexible hours. Even for the older generation age discrimination has appeared, as many institutions now require women who have only reached the associate professor level to retire at age 55, whereas their male counterparts can continue to 60 (as for all administrative posts; for full professors there is equal treatment).
To adapt to these new challenges the WGWIP in China has conducted surveys, organized discussion meetings at various levels, and sought to arouse awareness of the fact that problems and discrimination do exist. We are actively promoting the image of women in physics, with a special issue of Physics magazine each March devoted to women of all ranks in physics. Popularization of physics will aim to reach out to girls at an early age, and in the set of 51 posters commemorating the World Year of Physics 2005 there were two posters devoted to famous women in physics, one depicting Chinese and another international role models. A new prize of the Chinese Physical Society (CPS) has just been established in memory of Xie Xi-De, the first female president of the prestigious Fudan University and outstanding educator and physicist. This will be awarded biannually to a woman who has made significant contributions to the advancement of physics. Chinese women physicists have indeed made great contributions, with Mme Chien-Shiung Wu, the first woman president of the American Physical Society the most well known. More recent examples include Li Fang-Hua who won the l’Or_al-UNESCO Prize in 2003, and Hu Hua-Chen who was awarded the Ye Qi-Sun Prize of CPS in 2005 for work accomplished after she was forced to retire in 1989 at age 55, fully demonstrating the capabilities of women in late age!
In general, the ratio of women in physics in China is not bad compared with other countries, and the average ratio of female students and professionals in physics has not changed much. They have made considerable contributions to physics. However, there is no room for complacency, and much still needs to be done to help women enter top positions in research and university. Discrimination and practical difficulties exist, thus we must continue to strive for equity and more positive measures to support women in physics, as well as in the other sciences.