The discovery of quantum mechanics in the early 20th century spawned a revolution that tore through scientific disciplines with abandon. It helped to explain, among many other things, the structure of the atom; the periodic nature of the elements in chemistry; and why some solids conduct electricity while others do not. Armed with this foundational knowledge, scientists and engineers developed transistors, which were assembled into integrated circuits, which became the central architectural elements of sophisticated processors of information.
Computers initially filling up entire buildings and cost many millions of dollars; now they fit comfortably fit into the pocket of a teenager. Our understanding of light and subsequent invention of the laser led to fiber optic networks, satellite communication and the physical underpinnings of the global internet. Physicists do not use the term “revolution” lightly.
Now, scientists and engineers are excited about a “second quantum revolution,” one whose impact could potentially eclipse the first. An outgrowth of our quest to understand and control quantum behavior has given rise to remarkable developments—the idea of a “quantum computer,” and a “quantum internet.” Quantum computers can solve certain types of problems exponentially faster than ordinary computers. If a sufficiently powerful quantum computer can be built, it could factor numbers (e.g., 15 = 3 x 5) faster than any known supercomputer. This “quantum party trick” could completely undermine the encryption schemes currently used to send information securely over the internet. And if a quantum internet can be built, it could completely replace these insecure communication protocols with ones whose reliability are governed by the laws of quantum mechanics—the ultimate rules of our universe.
The race to develop these quantum technologies is global. China has already demonstrated a “quantum satellite” that can transmit video over a quantum-secure channel. Spooked by this “Sputnik moment,” the U.S. quickly launched a National Quantum Initiative, which recently celebrated its second birthday. Other initiatives include the European Quantum Flagship program and a major quantum computing effort in Australia.
However, we are losing ground in the race to develop these technologies, in part because of a highly limited pool of trained scientists and engineers. Why? There are many reasons, including restrictions of international STEM talent, but a glaring omission is what I call the “factor of two” problem. Physics, computer science and engineering have only about 20 percent of degree recipients identifying as women for the last decade. We are largely missing out on the talents of half of the population.
Many theories have been put forward for the low representation of women in these disciplines in the U.S. But a major reason is the chilly climate and culture. I am a woman physicist. I know firsthand what it is like to be part of the “physics culture.” When I attended college in India, I was one of nine women out of 500, the same ratio as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg when she attended Harvard Law School. I worked hard, excelled, and applied to graduate schools in America, the land of milk and honey, where surely the situation would be improved. To my dismay, I learned on the first day that I was the only woman in a class of 36.
Looking beyond my own circumstances, the entire field of physics has always been permeated by the mythology of brilliant men making incredible discoveries. And it is true—men did make the vast majority of them. But who encouraged women to pursue physics in a serious way? The culture of physics is steeped in stereotypes about who belongs and who can excel. Hit TV shows such as The Big Bang Theory perpetuate the male-dominated culture of physics to this day.
Physicists, when told about the need to improve the climate and culture in their discipline, often deny that there is a problem to begin with. Some argue that physics is an objective science—those who are interested will show up and pursue it, and those who don’t show up aren’t interested. There is also the stereotype that you are either good at it or not. Why should the culture be blamed if very few women survive the rigors of a physics career? Those who never showed up or those who quit must not be deeply committed, or capable.
These views are not just harmful; they’re not true. I know firsthand of the challenges women experience in physics, on a daily basis. We are talked over by the male peers. Our ideas are dismissed, unless the same ideas are articulated by a male peer. I have heard the stories of countless women physicists describe the cold blank look of their male colleagues when they run into them in the corridors and coffee rooms, which reinforces the feeling that they do not belong in physics. These personal experiences and interactions are fully corroborated by large-scale surveys conducted by the American Institute of Physics.
My own research shows the impacts of stereotypes about who belongs and who can excel in physics. My research has found, for example, that women who receive an A grade in a physics course have the same self-efficacy about their own performance as men who earn a C grade. Feelings of self-efficacy are important for determining whether an individual will want to have a physics-related career, regardless of their performance.
My research also shows that women have a lower sense of belonging and they feel less recognized by their physics instructors as people who can excel in physics. This lack of recognition is more likely to drive women out of physics, since they neither have role models, nor encouragement, nor an equal sense of belonging and self-efficacy compared to their male counterparts.
What can we do to fix the culture of physics? First, we need to recognize that being complacent about the status quo actively perpetuates the current culture that turns women away from science and engineering disciplines. Positively recognizing students who are underrepresented—and not just women—is particularly important, because insufficient encouragement has negatively impacted their entry and retention in physics and related disciplines for decades. Instructors and research advisors should have high expectations of all students, but they should not be parsimonious in providing micro-affirmations to students whenever an opportunity arises and praise them for their effort instead of brilliance or intelligence.
Building an inclusive and welcoming environment, being empathetic, learning students’ names, offering mentoring, guidance and support for next steps that focus on individual student’s strengths, interests and growth are all measures that can help in improving female students’ self-efficacy and sense of belonging. Without explicit thought and action to appropriately recognize and support students as people who can excel in physics, the gender gaps in self-efficacy and sense of belonging are likely to persist. Also, established leaders our science and engineering communities should tackle issues of bias or instances of microaggression head-on, rather than staying silent.
The culture change will unfortunately be a gradual process, which is inconvenient for a quantum revolution. But it is never too late to embark upon this important task of improving the climate and culture of physics and related disciplines that have prevented many women and other underrepresented groups from contributing. If quantum computers can factor numbers of unfathomable size, then surely the scientists and engineers who build them can handle a factor of two. For the second quantum revolution to succeed, we need to make sure that women succeed.