Published: March 16, 2022

Women’s history snapshot: Patricia Rankin initially assumed when told that she didn’t ‘look like a physicist,’ they were complimenting her on being well dressed

When Patricia Rankin became the sole female faculty member in the Department of Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder, in 1988, she did not expect to become a leader in the efforts to recruit and keep more women in science. But she rose to meet the moment.

Rankin, who later served as CU Boulder associate vice chancellor for research and now chairs the physics department at Arizona State University, said she was initially unaware of some forces that discouraged women from pursuing a career in physics. Later, she looked back on her early days in physics:

When people told her she didn’t look like a physicist, “I assumed they thought I was much better dressed than many of my colleagues and wore fashionable clothes. It was a long time before I realized they were surprised to meet a woman physicist.”

As a university student in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, Rankin’s professors actively encouraged her to stay in physics, hoping she’d become a role model, she said. Once on the faculty, she was not prepared to learn that “not all women were having such great experiences.”

Patricia Rankin

Professor Emerita Patricia Rankin was the only female faculty member in the Department of Physics at the time when she became an assistant professor in 1988.

Similarly, she did not expect students to assume she was an administrative assistant when she showed up to give a lecture, “nor to be asked to bring a dessert to the physics Christmas party—since that was ‘expected’ of the other women coming to the party—all of whom were faculty spouses.”

An internal review of the CU Boulder physics department completed in 2008 noted the improvement made in gender and ethnic diversity since the 1980s and emphasized the progress yet to be attained.

In 1990, two women were on the department’s faculty, Rankin and Anna Hasenfratz. By 2001, the number had doubled with the addition of Margaret Murnane and the late Deborah Jin. By 2010, nearly 17% of the faculty was female. In 2020, 18% were female.

The physics department tripled the number of women on the physics faculty in the intervening through careful hiring processes and mentoring, the report said. Additionally, the department reported actively searching for qualified candidates rather than simply waiting for them to apply.

“The department recognizes that there is fierce competition among universities to hire women, and we cannot wait to attract outstanding candidates only in regular searches,” the report said.

Rankin’s passion for equity led her to become one of 17 committee members who provided advice and input to a report from the National Academy of Sciences published in March 2020. The effort outlined new strategies for reversing the disparities between men and women in physics and other scientific fields, all in the hopes of getting more women into the field.

As Rankin was setting up her lab in CU Boulder, women earned just 10% of the PhDs awarded in physics in the United States, according to the American Physical Society. Today’s numbers aren’t much better. In 2017, fewer than 20% of all doctoral degrees in physics went to women—a far cry away from the roughly 40% in fields like earth sciences and chemistry.

There are a lot of reasons for that shortfall, Rankin explained. 

Some of it comes down to culture. Physics, for example, has long held a reputation as being a pursuit that’s suited only for geniuses: You’re either born a physicist or you’re not. Research suggests that such an attitude can disproportionately discourage young women and members of other underrepresented groups from getting into the field. 

“If you believe that to succeed in physics you have to be a genius, that belief is going to attract a different group of people than if you believe you can succeed in physics by working hard and, ultimately, getting through it,” Rankin said.

Sexism and sexual harassment also play a big role, she added. In 2017, for example, a team of researchers conducted a survey of hundreds of undergraduate women studying physics. Nearly 75% of respondents reported that they had experienced some form of sexual harassment in their careers.

“For me, that report was a wake-up call,” Rankin said. “It is clearly not acceptable to have that level of sexual harassment in any field.”

If you believe that to succeed in physics you have to be a genius, that belief is going to attract a different group of people than if you believe you can succeed in physics by working hard and, ultimately, getting through it.”

Recently, Rankin said, many institutions have tried to fix this gap by providing women with skills to survive in a male-dominated world—a strategy that Rankin calls “the fix-the-women era.”

She said it’s time for a different approach. 

One of the biggest hurdles to nationwide success may come down to honest conversations, Rankin said. She said faculty members should start talking openly about difficult issues like sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia in meetings—even if it risks ruffling a few feathers.

“If you don’t have those conversations,” Rankin said, “you don’t get things on the table, and you can’t discuss them at all.”

“Over the past few years, I’ve moved toward thinking that the slow and steady approach is not going to get us there anymore,” she said.

“I think we’re seeing a switch now to the realization that women are not just randomly dropping out of science,” Rankin said. “They’re dropping out because of the accumulation of negative experiences.”

Addressing the imbalance is good not only for women but also for everyone, she said. When it comes to the big challenges facing the world, she added, “you’re not going to solve them with only half the population, and you’re certainly not going to solve that with a vanishingly small demographic.”

Sources: Colorado Arts and Sciences Magazine archives and CU Boulder Today.