For several years, I have avoided to write about The Issue of women in physics on this blog. Frankly speaking, I have the impression it's sufficiently talked about elsewhere and that fruitlessly already, so why add to the noise. But besides this, despite being one of these women in physics, and despite finding the lack of women in the field depressing, it's not a topic I am tremendously interested in discussing. Given a choice, I'd rather talk physics.
As things are however, I was invited to the upcoming APS meeting in Denver to speak in a session on "Women and Minorities in Gravity: Science and Career Paths." And since I have somewhat of a bad conscience for never having been at never any APS meeting, not to mention never having been of any use for The Issue, I thought I should go. Now that the meeting is coming closer, I wonder what I know about women and minorities in physics (not sure what "in gravity" is supposed to mean). And their career paths. Or absence thereof. And as if that wasn't enough already, I further learned that the purpose of this session is to bring together three speakers from different types of institutions: research university, teaching-oriented institution, and pure research institution. So I am afraid I'll be representing the pure research institutions.
Now I do of course have a personal perspective on The Issue, but I am always afraid I don't represent very well one of the standard positions, even less so that of pure research institutions specifically. People seem to assume if you're a women in science you need to have an opinion. I have however never found it a big deal spending my worklife mostly among men. I like men. I get along with them quite well. They seem to get along with me. Maybe having three brothers has helped in this regard. I liked climbing on trees. I prefer sneakers over high heels. Maybe I'm just not the girly type. Who knows.
It is somewhat of a mystery to me why there are still people in this world discussing something like a "scientific ability" of women, as if that was a term that could be defined in any sensible way, or if it was defined, be of any relevance for scientific progress. It seems redundant to say in the 21st century but I feel like I have to spell it out explicitly: women are as capable as men are of being scientists.
That is not to say women, on the average, do work and think like men. There's little doubt we're different, for social, cultural, biological and genetic reasons. And truth be spoken, I am glad we are, for wouldn't the world be utterly boring without these differences? But fact is, nobody has a recipe for how science works best, what mode of thinking is preferable, or what attitude towards research is the one and only right one. Thus, job-related diversity is generally favourable to keep all doors open, whereas any sort of artificial monoculture is likely to be an obstacle to progress by missing points of view. (On job-related diversity, see also my post: Diversity in Science.)
It might well be that women and men have an evolutionary developed predisposition to be interested in different topics which also reflects in their job preferences. And since that might be the case, I don't see why the composition should be fifty-fifty, neither for physicists, nor nannies, truck-drivers, or secretaries. But there are many reasons to believe that the present female to male ratio in physics doesn't even remotely represent where the natural ratio would be, there are too few women. And though there are many factors that play into this, two of them are most relevant.
The first is a chicken and egg problem. If there are few women, few will follow. This has less to do with the often called-upon lack of "role models" for girls, but more with the awkwardness of being the odd one out. Even after all these years, coming into a room with some dozen men as the only one wearing a dress strikes me as a completely unnatural situation. If I laugh, I hear my voice fluttering an octave higher than everybody elses. It's not so much that it bothers me, it just feels like a relic of medieval times.
The second point is the hostility of the work environment for family planning. Nowadays, even if you are lucky and eventually make it onto a permanent position, chances are you'll be in your late thirties already. Until then, you will have to jump from one short-term contract to the next and move around the world. And while this isn't a great situation for anybody, I believe women are (on average, always on average!) less inclined to take crap for such a long time and draw consequences earlier. The price to pay is just simply too high. As a result, the longer it takes, the less women will remain.
There are lots of other points one could raise. The most often discussed one is certainly prejudices against women. But luckily, the men who grew up with these are simply dying out, at least in the Western Civilizations, so I am confident this problem will resolve by itself. The only prejudices I had to face myself were, ironically, based on support I obtained through programs specifically meant for women in science and engineering. That probably explains why I am not usually overenthusiastic about many initiatives to help alleviate The Issue for they can blacklash. Remains to say catching childrens' interest in early times makes a big difference, so I believe this is one of the most important points to tackle. And if you are a women and considering to become a physicist, let no one tell you what you're supposed to be interested in but find out yourself.
I guess I could summarize my opinion on The Issue as: Embrace the differences.
PS: I used to think the registration fee for the meetings of the German Physical Society was quite high. They want 60 per day - and that's already the reduced fee for members. The APS wants a stunning $235 for a single day.