Thank you, you can stop sending me the link to the NYT article “Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?” I assure you I saw it. It just didn’t seem to say anything we didn’t know already, so I wasn’t about to mention it. Alas, it seems to have triggered another wave of public commiseration about the alleged lack of women in the sciences, and it seems moreover I’m expected to have an opinion, so here you go.
I have a hard time believing this bemoaning of the current state of affairs is sincere. If Americans would take the issue seriously they’d have paid maternity leave to assure employers don’t think twice hiring women in their fertile years who haven’t yet reproduced. If you want more women in science, that’s where you should start, not with complaints about dress code schizophrenia. Everybody with half a brain knows that a pregnant or nursing woman will not be as productive as her testosterone fueled colleague. That’s not a bias, that’s capitalism.
Please don’t hold it against me that I published several papers during my parental leave – these were written much earlier and just submitted while I was learning how to ten-finger type with a baby or two hanging on my nipples.
Paid maternity leave and paid parental leave might not be sufficient, but necessary, hear me. And it’s not only the women who will benefit from this, but it’ll generally level the playing field for those who want to have children before the age of 40.
Having said that, I’m always uncomfortable to address the question of women in science, physics in particular. I’m not “women in physics”, I’m one woman in physics, and I don’t want to speak for others who have made experiences very different from mine. I don’t doubt that many women feel awkward in male-dominated environments or that they don’t like to stand out by wearing ‘feminine’ clothes or that they think it inappropriate if they get hit on by a colleague. But Eileen Pollack, who wrote the recent NYT piece, is similarly one woman in physics, so let me to add my own experience to the points she brings up just for balance.
I’ve never been a girly girl; quite possibly having three brothers played a role in that. My teachers constantly complained that I was too quiet, not social enough, did not speak up often enough, did not play with the other kids and was generally awkward around people. I spent a lot of time with books. I never had problems at school, unless you count that I was about as unsporty as you can be. As a teenager I was very into science fiction. And since I wanted to tell the science from the fiction, I piled up popular science books alongside this. You can extrapolate from here.
I studied math and physics primarily because I don’t understand people. People are complicated. They don’t make sense to me and I don’t know what to do with them. Which is probably why I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about whether or not my male colleagues behave appropriately. They don’t make sense either way. And the women, they make even less sense. Take in contrast a problem like black hole information loss or the recent firewall controversy. Clean, neat, intriguing. So much easier.
Yes, there’ve been some guys who’ve tried to pick me up on conferences but for what I understand of human mating rituals it’s the natural thing to happen among adults and I just say no thanks (the yes-thanks days are over, sorry). Indeed, there’ve been sexist jokes and I try to stay away from people who make them because such jokes come from brains preoccupied with differences between the male and female anatomy rather than the actual subject matter of the discussion. There have been the elderly guys who called me “little girl” and others who pat my shoulders. And yes, that’s probably the reason why I’m sometimes acting more aggressive than I actually am and why my voice drops by an octave when I’m trying to be heard by my male colleagues.
But by and large the men I work with are decent and nice guys and I get along with them just fine. Most of the time I’m not consciously taking note of them having a crinkly chromosome I don’t have, and my subconsciousness was not consulted for this blogpost. Yes they interrupt me when I speak and it’s annoying, but they interrupt each other as well, and I’ll admit that I too have developed the unfortunate habit of cutting off others, patience has never been my strong side. I still paint my toenails pink and I do have baby pictures in my office.
I’ve seen a bunch of do and don’t-do lists for men in academia when talking to their female colleagues. If you’d give me a set of do and don’t-do’s for how to deal with my male colleagues, I would decide it’s too complicated and just avoid talking to them all together. So I don’t think these lists are very helpful. I understand that everybody has their touchy points and they want others to respect them, but society has never worked by people giving instructions to others for how to treat them, so can we please just deal with each other as individuals?
Sure, I have a do and don’t-do wishlist for my male colleages as well. Here’s my biggest wish: Unless I know you (meaning we’ve met and talked at least a few times), don’t bring me in a situation where I have to be alone with you in a closed room. Because I’ve unfortunately made some bad experiences at an early age and a situation like this sets off a major alarm in my brain. Run, it says, get out of here. I’m really sorry about this because I’m sure you’re a nice guy and play table tennis with your kids every weekend, but my neural circuits insist you’re a potential threat. That’s my biggest Don’t. But I don’t actually expect you to know this, so I’ll forgive you.
I am aware I might be stepping on some toes here, but I’m not even sure that we really need more women in physics. Because it seems to me that most women are in fact not very interested in physics, especially in theoretical physics. Of course I think it’s a shame and there are almost certainly social and cultural reasons next to genetic ones, but this doesn’t make these reasons any less real. If some girl is uncomfortable taking on a job that has a male smell to it, I think this is an important factor for their decision and for them to be happy with their life.
The social and cultural aspects can be changed, though they change only slowly, and I appreciate all efforts into this direction. Especially when it comes to children’s education and role models I believe this can serve to spark interests that otherwise might have gone unnoticed. So I certainly approve of all means to raise interest in theoretical physics, generally and specifically among young women, but I don’t see the benefit of pushing women into professions they’re not comfortable with. Gender quotas don’t make any sense to me as they seem to make the situation worse rather than better by undermining the credibility of women that benefit from it. On the shortlist for my present job there were 5 people, 3 of them women. This gives me some faith that I wasn’t hired just so there would be at least one woman in the faculty here. That did play a role in my decision to move to Sweden and so did knowing that Sweden has laws regulating a decent maternity and parental leave. (Yes, I did have another offer which was better in some sense and worse in others, so it was not a simple decision.)
I do read the studies and so I know that by all chance I’ve been subject to stereotype bias and from what I read I have to conclude that most likely I sometimes judge other women unfairly myself. This bothers me a lot. I think the best we can do is be aware of these shortcomings and try to address them systematically when we can.
But what bothers me most about the perceived male-ness of theoretical physics is that I’m afraid some women who could find much happiness with the fundamental laws of nature or the evolution of the universe never seriously consider this as a potential profession. Part of the problem is that we, myself included, rarely if ever talk about what drives us into theoretical physics and what keeps us there.
If somebody asks me what I do, I’ll tell them about black holes or gamma ray bursts or the cosmic microwave background. I don’t tell them that even after all these years what amazes me so much about theoretical physics is doing a calculation and getting a result that describes observation, something that explains the world around us. Be that the energy levels of the hydrogen atom or the double-slit experiment, Compton-scattering or gravitational lensing – these little scribbles on a notebook capture a truth about the universe. How awesome is that? And where if not theoretical physics do you find this?
I fail to see how the fascination for this connection between math and the nature of reality is a male domain, and that’s what makes me think the present low fraction of women in theoretical physics is at least partly due to misinformation about what this job is all about. But first, please, the maternity leave.