If a physics department has no women, does that mean there is hiring discrimination?

Only if your job in sociology is to find discrimination. Simple statistics shows that is not true or there would be claims of discrimination in psychology, where lots of departments have no men. Yet when it comes to gender equality advocates, physics is always mentioned and psychology never is.

A new analysis by the American Institute of Physics (AIP) Statistical Research Center debunks the claim that the existence of all-male departments is evidence of hiring bias. Labor statistics have backed that up; not only are women hired equally for faculty and tenure jobs in science academia, they are over-hired based on their representation. 

Statistical models insead find that the actual distribution of women in physics means there are more departments than expected with at least one female faculty member, and concludes that the real reason for the lack of women in many departments is the small number of women in physics overall -- currently only 13 percent of all physics faculty nationwide, though obviously much higher in graduate school and undergraduate levels.

What it means is that there once was bias, and a lot of men were not immediately fired and replaced with women. Bias would be if women were not hired to replace men who died or retired. The statistics show just the opposite.

"We do not mean to imply that there is no discrimination against women, that hostile environments do not exist, or that issues of gender representation do not need to be continually addressed in American universities," said Dr. Catherine O'Riordan, ocean scientist and AIP vice president of Physics Resources. "But we should no longer point to the absence of a woman in a physics department as evidence of bias."

Discrimination happens, even in liberal academia. The lack of conservatives is evidence of that. But if faculty must match the population, every field in science is discriminating against Hispanics, black people and the handicapped, along with Republicans. Discrimination is instead more often invoked  by people to mask other shortcomings.

Why some departments have no female faculty

"We wanted to evaluate whether the absence of female faculty members in physics departments is an appropriate measure of women's progress in physics," said Susan White, research manager in the Statistical Research Center (SRC) at AIP, who conducted the study with Rachel Ivie, associate director of the SRC.

If a hiring bias did exist, White said, one would find women in fewer physics departments than would be expected if all women in the field were distributed randomly across the academic landscape. White and Ivie found, however, that more departments than expected have at least one woman. It follows that many female faculty members will be the only woman in their department.

While it is true that over one-third of physics departments have no women among their faculty, White points out that this is the result of the low number of women among physics faculty and the fact that many departments have fewer than five faculty members. Even if half of all faculty members were women, she notes, we would still expect to find over 100 departments with either all-male or all-female faculty.

"We believe the issue of gender equity in physics is complex and nuanced," said Ivie, "It is unwise to try to simplify it by examining whether or not a department has a woman among its faculty."