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Underrepresented Groups in Physics Take Montreal By Storm

Eleventh edition of CCUWiP arrives at McGill and UdeM

A research symposium? A discourse space on gender inequality? A celebration of diversity in STEM? The answer is all of the above, and more, rolled into one.

From January 19 to 21, the Canadian Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CCUWiP) saw Canadian physics undergraduates grace the halls of McGill University and the Université de Montreal (UdeM). Over 100 delegates from underrepresented groups congregated to celebrate their accomplishments in physics and discuss an inclusive and fairer future for science.

Over three days, delegates partook in career panels, a grad school fair, and research project presentations – the usual fare at academic conferences. Student conferences have long served as meeting points for aspiring undergraduates to showcase their research and meet peers from other institutions. However, CCUWiP also served a third purpose: for delegates to share their experiences as coming from underrepresented groups in a traditionally white, Western, and male-dominated field. This shone through in the stories attendees brought to the table: tales from the many walks of life travelled by undergraduate participants.

CUWiP began in the US to “help undergraduate women continue in physics by providing them with an opportunity to experience a professional conference.” Organized by the American Physical Society and first hosted by the University of South California in 2008, they provided a unique venue for female undergraduate students in physics to meet other women in the field.

The first Canadian CUWiP was organized in 2014 by the Canadian Association of Physicists (CAP), which represents physicists across Canada. Coincidentally, this first conference was also held at McGill University by two of this year’s speakers: Dr. Brigitte Vachon, associate professor of physics at McGill; and Dr. Madison Rilling, executive director at Optonique and then-student in Joint Honours Mathematics and Physics.

This year, a decade later, physics undergraduates returned to Montreal to honour the gruelling work of undergraduate researchers and mark the progress made toward bridging the gender gap and other inequities in physics.

The Gender Divide in Physics

In physics, the gender gap is more of a gaping void. According to a 2021 analysis by Statistics Canada, women are 36.4 per cent less likely to enroll in a post-secondary STEM major than men. A 2023 report by the CAP found that women make up only 35.3 per cent of undergraduate physics majors across Canada: this figure sinks to an abysmal 22.9 per cent for doctoral students. This stands in stark contrast to other STEM fields. In chemistry, for instance, 40 per cent of students have historically been female-identifying. As a result of this gender stereotyping, many women are likely to leave or avoid entering physics careers entirely. 

“In my undergrad, there was a one-to-five girl-boy ratio in physics,” recounts McGill physics professor Bill Coish in an interview with the Daily. He notes that “the balance has improved quantifiably” though there is still progress to be made: “Conferences [like CCUWiP] are a good start. We need more outreach at an early stage […] for example, you can look at the work done by the Physics Outreach Committee at McGill.”

Early education, as Professor Coish points out, is one of the major hurdles to achieving gender parity in physics and other STEM fields. Gender discrimination in the education system represents a key factor in this imbalance. A 2020 study published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology found that “Boys are more likely than girls to say that their own gender group ‘should’ be good at STEM.’’ Self-reinforcement of gender stereotypes throughout childhood, along with long-existing cultural and socioeconomic barriers against women, have long contributed to the gaping gender disparity in STEM fields.

This discrimination continues into the professional realm. Day two of CCUWiP saw astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell share her experiences as one of the first female graduate students in astronomy at the University of Cambridge. While working toward her PhD at Cambridge, Burnell discovered a series of periodic, localized blips from radio telescope data – signals she and her team would later identify as pulsars, a type of rapidly-spinning neutron stars. Despite her critical contributions, she was denied the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of pulsars, which was instead awarded to her supervisor, Anthony Hewish, and his colleague Martin Ryle.

Gender-based discrimination is systemic in physics, and has persisted before and since Burnell’s time as a graduate student. A cross-cultural study, published in Nature in 2020, showed that women communicating in STEM were frequently characterized as “bitchy,” “bossy,” and “emotional” by correspondents. These biases, the researchers concluded, indicate that women in STEM find themselves “in a more vulnerable position when communicating publicly about their work, which could have implications for them participating fully in their careers.” This research suggests that a deep, cultural restructuring of gender attitudes in academia is necessary in order to eliminate the gender gap in STEM.

For Ivanna Boras, an engineering physics major at Queens University, such attitudes are the daily reality of women in her department. “Our voices tend to be ignored,” she says. “As a result, we try to band together. Luckily, it’s gotten better during upper years.”

Vanessa Smith, Vice President of the Dalhousie Undergraduate Physics Council, says that at Dalhousie, “the undergraduate physics body has a 50-50 split, but there’s only one [fully tenured] female professor in the Department of Physics.” For her, this highlights the need for continued and sustained progress toward gender equality in physics.

A Safe Space to Share

For delegates, CCUWiP represents an open, non-judgmental space for them to voice their experiences with discrimination in physics, gendered or otherwise. It also provides a perfect venue to exchange ideas and stories – not just academic ideas, but also personal anecdotes of their journeys through the realm of physics.

Between keynotes and workshops, days two and three of CCUWiP also saw the much-anticipated oral and poster presentations. The poster presentations were laid out in a science fair-esque manner, with delegates free to move between posters and discuss each other’s work in an informal setting. Student research took centre stage, with the projects exhibited ranging from topics like improving wildfire prediction and the acoustics of the human ear, to exploring the exoplanets orbiting distant stars. Alongside research work, initiatives in science outreach and education were also featured, as well as projects geared toward equity, diversity and inclusion.

During coffee breaks, delegates had the chance to share personal stories in physics. Michaela Hishon, from the University of Guelph, reminisces: “What sparked [my passion] was the mentors I had growing up. My high school teacher majored in geophysics: she encouraged and inspired me to pursue my current work in medical physics and outreach.”

For some, CCUWiP was a chance to speak out about issues they cared about. Raina Irons, from the University of Toronto, Mississauga, took time to highlight the importance of “creating opportunities and funding for Indigenous students interested in physics and astronomy.” She notes how socioeconomic hurdles are especially high for aspiring Indigenous students in STEM.

Undergraduates also had the chance to learn about lesser-known, yet equally crucial, careers in physics. One keynote saw Dr. Rilling speak about her work in science policy: a field which aims to bring the interests of scientists to political stakeholders and achieve support for science on a governmental level.

To many, CCUWiP stands out from other conferences in the way it promotes collaboration over competitiveness. “CCUWiP fosters a sense of community,” says Leslie Moranta, a PhD student at the Institut Trottier de recherche sur les exoplanètes at UdeM. “Being a woman in STEM can often feel isolating, and CCUWiP is a place for us to share our stories.”

For many underrepresented groups, conferences like CCUWiP are a unique chance to meet like-minded peers, share their experiences and accomplishments, and open the next page to a new, more inclusive chapter in physics.

CCUWiP 2024 was organized by Audréanne Matte-Landry, Joël de Leon Mayeu, and Pénélope Glasman from Université de Montreal; and Olivia Pereira, Simone Têtu, Sloane Sirota, and Ruby Wei from McGill University.