Graphic representing the lack of gender equity in the physics department. Credit: Olivia Frazier / Mustang News

The origin story responsible for shaping Denvir Higgins into the dedicated physics senior she is known as today is unconventional. Higgins’ passion for physics derives from her high school physics teacher, who consistently made jokes about dumb blondes amid class lessons. 

Denvir Higgins has blonde hair. She wanted to prove a point.  

“My journey with physics started in spite. What continues to keep me studying physics is also spite, but now, I know I also love it,” Higgins said. “I have found I’m really passionate about astronomy, so I stay in the major. I feel like I can make space for myself.” 

Historically, the presence of women in physics is comparatively lower to men. 

Research from the American Physics Society showed only about 23% of United States physics bachelor and doctoral degrees in 2020 were awarded to women.

In 2011, Mustang News reported that only 15% of Cal Poly’s Physics Department identified as female. 

10 years after that story came out, the number of female students in physics has seen improvement, but it has only increased to an estimated 26%, according to physics professor Colleen Marlow.

“As a physicist, you’re supposed to be objective about what the world looks like. If only a subset of people are looking at the scientific question and calling what they see. That’s not objective,” Marlow said. “Why are there not as many women in physics?”

As an alumnus of Cal Poly’s Physics Department and now a physics professor, Marlow saw evolution with her own eyes. 

“For my first couple of quarters as a student, there were no women in any of my classes,” Marlow said. “Eventually another female student transferred in, but then there were only two of us.” 

Besides lacking peers of the same gender identity, Marlow faced additional challenges. 

“Back then, there were professors that essentially sexually harassed the female students,” she said. “A couple of students even made us feel incredibly uncomfortable.” 

Physical Review Physics Education Research found in a 2019 survey of 455 undergraduate women in physics in the U.S. approximately 74.3% of survey respondents experienced at least one type of sexual harassment.

“Those were powerful experiences, ” Marlow said. “When trying to think of my future career, if I was going to stay in physics, it was going to at least be working hard to change that experience for women in the future.” 

This is Marlow’s first year as the faculty adviser of the Cal Poly Women in Physics (WIP) club. 

WIP is open to all students in the major, regardless of gender. The club hosts social events, professional development, conference attendance and research opportunities open to all physics majors, according to the website. 

WIP president Higgins has used her executive board position to address gender equity within the major. 

 Cal Poly physics students attend the Women in Physics Madonna Cake x SAFER event. Credit: Courtesy of Denvir Higgins

WIP hosts their annual Madonna Cake Day event, which originally began as a chance for women in the department to gather and enjoy cake. As the club event gained popularity, everyone in the department was encouraged to attend. 

Although Higgins was “really excited for the event,” that excitement left when she arrived at the event to see WIP’s board women serving cake to men on the balcony of the physics department. 

“The event had kind of reverted to being a little microcosm of sexism,” Marlow said.  

Together, Higgins and Marlow planned to create change in fall 2022 by combining WIP’s annual Madonna Cake Day with a discussion led by Cal Poly SAFER to discuss gender and equity in physics. 

SAFER is an on-campus resource that provides education and advocacy for topics regarding gender and power-based violence. 

“That event was my first step into leading conversations about gender equity in physics,” Higgins said. “It really made me feel like my voice was important and the experiences I was feeling in my major were important.” 

Physics Department Chair Jennifer Klay admitted to feeling intimidated by her female physics colleagues, and wary of becoming friends with them in her own undergraduate years. Quickly, she realized she was wrong, and she made good friends, who could relate to the challenges she faced as a woman in physics. 

Cal Poly’s female presence in faculty and staff is above average compared to other collegiate physics departments. 

Across the United States, the average female faculty in physics departments is approximately 18.5%. The faculty of Cal Poly’s Physics Department is 32% female.

I definitely feel there’s a strong sense of support among the female faculty in our department. I definitely picked Cal Poly and was glad to become part of this community because of that.

Physics Department Chair Jennifer Klay

Within the field of physics, African American, Native Americans and Hispanic Americans are particularly underrepresented.

The American Physical Society identified only 16% of physics bachelor degrees were earned by individuals marginalized by race and ethnicity. 

Cal Poly’s Physics Department is involved with three national initiatives for “increasing diversity, embracing equity and committing to inclusion,” according to the department’s website

One of these initiatives is the department’s active participation in the Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Alliance project of the American Physical Society, which supports physics departments, laboratories and other organizations to identify and enact strategies for improvement. 

The department is also taking charge in eliciting change on their own. 

“Most students in the major won’t take a physics class until winter quarter, and away from other physics majors,” Klay said. “They really had no way of building a sense of community with our department.” 

To help students establish community within the department, freshmen get block scheduling into major courses with fellow peers of the same major, so they can start to form connections with each other.

“To be a physics major, you just have to want to study it,” Klay said. “We want everyone to make sure everyone gets to know each other.” 

Although the presence of women in the physics department may not be as high as many would hope, Higgins said she is still happy to see a community who supports underrepresented voices in the field, and she will keep advocating for women in physics.

“My ultimate goal is to help women feel like they have power in the department that I didn’t necessarily feel like I had at the beginning,” Higgins said. “I want to make them feel like they have a good foothold to continue to promote equity in our major.”