Oh, RIT. Relentlessly teased for its obviously skewed gender ratio. While this uncomfortable problem is usually brushed under the rug, RIT's School of Physics and Astronomy has decided to bring the the issue to the forefront. After months of exhaustive planning, RIT will host the northeast sector of the American Physical Society’s Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) on January 12–14. Selected out of a pool of numerous universities, RIT will be organizing the event for the very first time.

The Planning Process

In order to secure the position, faculty, undergraduate and graduate students all collaborated to submit a proposal. According to astrophysics Professor Dr. Jeyhan Kartaltepe, RIT was able to distinguish itself with a particularly enthusiastic student contribution.

“It was great to get the student perspective,” Kartaltepe said. “They were super excited about it. As part of their proposal they wrote up their own letter of support saying, ‘Hey, we think this great, we want to do this, we want to help.’ I think it was really important that so many students were involved.”

Since guaranteeing the spot, the Astrophysics and Physics departments have teamed up in order to plan all of the events. Around 150 attendees from all over the Northeast are expected to be present, and RIT wants to make sure they do not leave disappointed.  

“It’s been busy. Some of the organization is centralized by the APS — the American Physical Society — and that helps a little bit because it takes some of the load off. But other than that, we can do what we want,” Kartaltepe explained. “We had to decide what speakers we wanted to invite, what kind of things we wanted to talk about, what workshops we wanted to run.”     

What’s in Store

Some of the planners, like second year Astrophysical Science and Technology Ph.D student Brittany Vanderhoof, attended multiple CUWiPs as an undergraduate. According to her, the conference played a fundamental role in her academic future.  

“It turns out the things I learned at CUWiP ended up being instrumental for me getting into grad school."

“There were very little resources at my small liberal arts school. I was only one of two women in my entire department, with one woman faculty. So it’s already a male-dominated situation, and it’s very intimidating in general,” Vanderhoof recalled. “It turns out the things I learned at CUWiP ended up being instrumental for me getting into grad school. Not only did I get into grad school, but I was able to get in to almost all of my top choices.”

Most of the events that take place at CUWiP are geared at just that — helping women in physics make the jump from undergraduate to graduate school. The conference will also focus on a variety of other topics such as imposter syndrome, being a minority in a male-dominated field and how to pursue careers in the industry.

Out of all the events taking place that week, second year Astrophysical Science and Technology graduate student Victoria Butler is most excited to hear from the keynote speaker, renowned astrophysicist Meg Urry.

“She was leader of AAS [American Astronomical Society] and has been a role model for a lot of women. For people in the astronomy field, it’s like having a female CEO of a company like Google,” Butler explained. “It’s a big deal because she’s someone who has a lot of experience in our field and grew up and went through a program like ours, at a time when the men to women ratio was even more unbalanced.”  

How Does RIT Compare?

By volunteering to host this conference, it’s clear that RIT acknowledges and strives to mitigate some of the challenges women in physics face everyday. However, it’s hard not to wonder how the school compares when it comes to the gender ratio, given its already skewed percentages. According to Kartaltepe, the School of Physics and Astronomy's ratios are about level with national averages.

“Nationally, for Physics, I think it’s about 20 percent [female]. I think our numbers are slightly less than the national average, partly because RIT is a tech school and overall the population is already male-dominated,” said Kartaltepe. “For astronomy, overall nationally the numbers are a bit better — more women go into astro than just pure physics. I think it’s about 40 percent, and here we’re about 50 percent.”

Overall, the students interviewed were mostly positive about their experiences when it came to gender dynamics.

“I think we’re definitely on par with other universities. We have the Women in Science program and a lot of support groups. I think that the university takes it as something to be aware of,” said Butler. “A lot of our faculty are also very involved in outreach. The school is very on board with hiring professors of those mentality and spreading those messages.”

Third year Astrophysical Science and Technology graduate student Chi Nguyen agreed in part with Butler, but thought it was still an area that the school could work to improve upon.

“In my case, I feel like I can always find support. The culture in the department is really open,” said Nguyen. “But we don’t have as many female professors than male professors. So when we have issues related to being a woman, there are fewer people to talk to.”

However, Butler was still optimistic about the direction RIT is heading.  

“From what I’ve heard, it’s shifting. There’s starting to become more women in the program,” Butler said. “I think that’s pretty consistent across the country — I think it’s a nation-wide phenomenon. People are joining and staying in their respective programs.”

"It's about letting women experience in their personal and academic career something men experience everyday, which is the comfort of being majority and not the minority."

That being said, there’s still a lot of work to be done. For Vanderhoof, these nationwide and internal percentages just serve as a reminder of why conferences like CUWiP are so important.

“Having conferences for undergraduate women — it’s not about having a special place for women, it’s not about having a special women’s club. Men can come too,” Vanderhoof said. “It’s about letting women experience in their personal and academic career something that men experience everyday, which is the comfort of being the majority and not the minority.” 

While RIT sill has a long way to go before its gender ratio is balanced, efforts like CUWiP are certainly a step in the right direction.