A boys-only STEM event at an Orlando elementary school, a men-only physics education award, and FSU’s Provost search

It was a disturbing week for those of us who are concerned about the lack of girls and women in the pipeline leading to careers in engineering and the physical, mathematical and computing sciences – the best-paying careers in the new economy.  It’s 2015, but sometimes it seems as if it’s 1955.

The Orlando Sentinel reported earlier this week that Orlando’s Audubon Park Elementary School has scheduled a mother and son night of “awesome” STEM activities.  According to the school, the event was intended to complement a father-daughter dance.  Some (but by no means all) of the Audubon Park parents objected.  According to the Sentinel, Audubon Park parent Helena Zubkow said that the contrast of the two events sends a terrible message to girls, that “Girls don’t need to know about science. … You get pretty and go to a dance.”  A change.org petition was generated, and the issue was reported by both the Sentinel and Jezebel.

It would be easy for me to be smug about Audubon Park, except that my own colleagues in the physics profession do some inexplicable things as well.  Consider the George B. Pegram Award for Excellence in Physics Education in the Southeast, which is given by the Southeastern Section of the American Physical Society.  This year’s award, which will be formally given at the section’s annual meeting next week, was won by a man.  That isn’t news, since only 20% of Ph.D.’s earned at American universities are earned by women, and the percentage of women among college and university faculty in the U.S. is lower than that.  But here’s what is interesting:  This is the 32nd time in a row that the Pegram Award has been given to a man.  That isn’t to say that many of the recipients aren’t richly deserving.  Some of the Pegram awardees have been game-changers at the national level (although if you happen to look at the list of winners, you might notice that the 2002 winner is quite questionable).  But still.  If five Pegram winners in a row are men, that wouldn’t seem odd.  Ten?  OK, the field is still overwhelmingly male, and a winning streak like that might be inescapable.  But 32??!!  C’mon.

The Southeastern Section gives two other annual awards as well.  One – the Jesse W. Beams Award – is for research accomplishments.  In the 43-year history of that award, it has been given to a woman once.  That happened in 2010, when I was the Chair of the section’s Executive Committee (That is not a coincidence.  I will say no more about that.)  The other section award is the Francis Slack Award for service.  In its 16-year history, it has been awarded to a woman once.

Which brings me home to Florida State University again. During the next week-and-a-half, the university will be conducting interviews with the finalists for the position of Provost, the institution’s chief academic officer. There are four finalists – two men and two women. The academic fields of the men – computer science and economics – are both dominated by men nationally. The two women finalists come from fields where women traditionally play large roles – foreign languages and art history. In short, our Provost search finalists fit the traditional stereotypes. On a campus divided as male-dominated STEM fields vs. arts and humanities (in which women play a much larger role), the Provost search was an opportunity to build bridges. Instead, the outcome will probably reinforce the existing tensions between the two sides of campus. That’s a shame.

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