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By Abigail Dove
For most of physics’ long history, the field has been largely male and largely white. The APS Forum on Diversity and Inclusion (FDI) is dedicated to making physics more inclusive, diverse, and equitable by identifying and advocating for the needs of women, underrepresented minorities, the LGBT community, people with disabilities, and other groups who have been historically marginalized from the field.
While the physics community has become somewhat more diverse in recent years, it is still significantly less diverse than the country at large. Statistics from APS and the American Institute of Physics (AIP) Statistical Research Center indicate that only 11% of bachelor’s degrees and 7% of PhDs in physics in the United States are awarded to people who are Black, Hispanic, or Native American, though these groups make up about 1/3 of citizens of college age. Likewise, women hold only about 20% of all physics degrees. These inequities become even sharper when it comes to the proportion of women and underrepresented minorities working as physics faculty at universities or recognized with high-profile scientific awards.
Feeling unwelcome or underrepresented in a field can take a significant toll. “There is an adage in the Black community that you have to be twice as good to get the same recognition,” explained FDI chair Carol Scarlett (Florida A&M University). Likewise, women, LGBT people, and individuals with disabilities may also experience additional barriers that make the already-difficult work of physics research more challenging. “When entering a career, you want to feel like you’re going to be as successful as you can be. It can feel deleterious when your path to the same goal is more complicated,” said Scarlett.
Though a lack of diversity in physics is an issue as old as the field itself, FDI is one of the newest membership units at APS. The idea for a membership forum focused on diversity and inclusion was first raised in the 2016 APS LGBT Climate in Physics report, commissioned to investigate the educational and professional environment for LGBT people in physics. With strong support from existing APS committees including the Committee on Minorities in Physics (COM) and Committee on the Status of Women in Physics (CSWP), an organizing group was convened in 2017 to develop the forum’s official mission and objectives. By 2019, a formal petition to establish FDI received over 1,600 signatures—well over the necessary 200—and was unanimously approved by the APS Council (see APS News January 2020).
While COM and CSWP have long been working for greater inclusion of underrepresented minorities and women in physics, APS committees of this kind comprise only nine appointed members and therefore have a limited capacity to tackle large issues. In contrast, forums like FDI are large membership units that any APS member can join. Forums also have more opportunity to garner visibility for issues of diversity and inclusion by organizing talks at major meetings and promoting the accomplishments of diverse members of the physics community by nominating APS Fellows and sponsoring prizes and awards.
Additionally, as a unit focused on diversity and inclusion broadly, FDI creates a space for addressing issues of intersectionality, that is, the overlapping of multiple marginalized identities.
After only a few years, FDI has grown to include over 2,700 members—a remarkable feat given that the forum’s founding coincided with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, severely limiting in-person networking.
A major focus of FDI’s activities is drawing attention to diversity and inclusion issues through talks at APS March and April Meetings. At this year’s March Meeting, slated for March 14-18 in Chicago, FDI will host a panel discussion titled “Surviving Graduate Studies,” featuring scientists from diverse backgrounds discussing the difficulties and challenges they faced while pursuing their physics PhDs. Notably, part of the agenda will include a listening session where APS members of all backgrounds can share their experiences. “We don’t want to just disseminate information; we want to make sure that we’re also listening,” explained Scarlett. “The ground beneath us is shifting and changing, and we want to know what people’s issues are and hear what people in the community are going through. Even if it isn’t something APS can solve, it can be meaningful for people to know that someone is there.”
Looking forward, the FDI executive committee’s main goal for the forum is to put measures in place at the systemic level to support diversity within APS. As Scarlett put it, “We want to promote processes that make diversity common—something that everyone does because it’s the best way to build a more sound scientific community.”
So far, much of this effort focuses on enabling broader participation at conferences for APS members of diverse backgrounds. Some physicists from communities traditionally not represented in the field may have given up on attending conferences after having negative experiences, and Scarlett emphasized that FDI seeks to ensure that all scientists feel welcome at APS meetings. One such measure to this end could be promoting further improvements to conference infrastructure that enable people with disabilities—for example, hearing impairment or reduced mobility—to more fully participate in conferences.
APS members have much to gain by joining FDI. As Scarlett explained, “If you’re a scientist and you recognize that there is a lack of diversity in physics—or if you’re wondering why this community is more homogenous than the general population—then FDI is a place to learn what people are going through and what barriers exist to having the US population reflected in our scientific population.”
Scarlett also pointed out that fostering diversity and inclusion can be viewed as an opportunity to maintain American competitiveness. “Globally, the United States wants to stay competitive and build scientific infrastructure. Other countries are doing the same. To be at the forefront, we have to be ‘firing on all cylinders’ and have all people represented. We can’t do that if we restrict the science community to a homogeneous population, purely out of age-old dysfunctional views. We have to make sure we’re utilizing our whole population, and not selectively cutting people out for no good reason.”
Overall, FDI stands out as an important addition to APS, challenging physics as a discipline to be open to more people in order to achieve its full potential. More information can be found online at the FDI unit website.
The author is a freelance writer in Stockholm, Sweden.
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