Sunday, April 12, 2009

Women in Physics

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. 


  1. The experiences that made me truly appreciate The Issue are what my friends in, e.g. Psychology go through. They start with 90% Women undergrad but by the time you get to tenure they're down to 10%.

    At university level The Issue is much more of an issue in those kind of subjects.

  2. I guess that was off topic.

    And for the record: I certainly don't mean to say that Physics is magic wonderland where no issue exists.

  3. Bee,

    I guess you will like this:

    It is a project to promote science and tech talents from black africa. Here is the webesite of the project:

    One of the people that promotes this is your actual director, Neil Turok.

    Stephen Hawkings is another promoter.

    A lot of people (you can surely guess who is one of them) think this is a hopeless project because the average IQ of african nations is too low to yield competente people in reasonable numbers .

  4. "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."

    Hahahahaaa.. <--- sarcastic laugh.
    The first words that were spoken by the professor in my first ever college lecture were "Women should go back to the kitchen". Literally. I'm unfortunately not kidding. Yes, in a Western "Civilization". Not all that long ago.

    And the situation at the institution where I'm currently working isn't much better, albeit not as openly hostile. People don't even say hi to me in the hallway.

  5. Embrace the differences — hugs are good!

  6. Anonymous: I didn't say they are already died out.

  7. Hi Bee,

    It’s strange yet from how you have come across in the writing of this blog I think this may indeed be one of your greatest challenges in identifying with the attendees of this meeting. Yet to tell you the truth I wouldn’t know what would distinguish a gathering of female scientists from a gathering of male in times of ours. After all, the days of cigars and brandy are long gone. Though as you say, all is not perfect, yet it’s long since David Hilbert had to shout down the objections of Philology professors to Emmy Noether being allowed to lecture with saying :

    "I do not see that the sex of the candidate is an argument against her admission as privatdozent. After all, we are a university, not a bath house.”

    Can you imagine a mathematician having to remind a bunch of Philologists to watch their language :-)



  8. As a female math and physics student I agree with you regarding these specific support programs you mentioned. Today, already for high school girls there is a lot of events like Girl's Day or (girl-only) summer schools on scientific topics, which are meant to spread interest in science and engineering, and this sort of programs continues to exist through each step of an academic career. In my opinion this just helps supporting inequality between men and women. *Real* equality of chances doesn't exist as long as skin color or gender is still a topic.

  9. The France-Japan Particle Physics Laboratory will be named Toshiko Yuasa Lab. May 21st (KEK, Tsukuba, Japan) in memory of the first Japanese women physicist who also played a pioneering role in the franco-japanese cooperation in nuclear/particle physics.
    A special session "Women in Physics" will take place before the ceremony.
    see here)
    Everyone invited

  10. Sarcastic laugh II. I've seen plenty of sexist behaviour from young guys.

  11. Bee, I suppose all you can do is present your unique experiences and warn the audience against easy generalization?

  12. I find it hard not to be sexist in physics when it is so much easier for women than for men to enter the highly selective graduate school. Knowing that, it is almost natural to expect much less from a women at a big University than a man at the same big University (of course this is a misleading generalization, I am fully aware that some women are way better, whatever that means, than some men in physics).

  13. The two vital issues for women in science are coordination of lipstick and eye shadow plus delivery of dialectic to the masses.

    The sciences are tragically oversubscribed. Professional societies want ever more members, then flense the able to gorge the Officially Sad with emoluments. Grant funding only tolerates zero-risk business plans or publicity orgies (Raymond Chiao - go away; arXiv:0903.3280, 0903.0661).

    Management is about process not product. String theory, the Higgs, SUSY, SUGRA... disaster. Who watches the Watchers? Entropy.

  14. Low Math, Meekly Interacting12:29 PM, April 13, 2009

    Leaving aside the issue of prejudice (to which I don't think I could add much of worth that hasn't already been said), the problem of family planning is, IMO, a huge one. My sense is we lag considerably in the USA in our efforts to mitigate its severity, though it would be interesting to get Europeans' perspective. As I see it, while male partners can always be encouraged to do more, there are some things they obviously can't help a woman with, and the only reasonable way to deal with this biological inequity is give the woman more time off during the critical peri- and postnatal periods.

    I know many women here in the states who didn't follow a particular career track precisely because they wanted to have children. They knew they could never get the job security they needed in that field to nurture their babies in the manner they felt was required. We've had measured success in addressing inequality of attitude, but making adequate allowances for the unavoidable biological inequalities (without descending into pseudoscientific absurdities over innate intellectual abilities) is remedy we've failed miserably at implementing.

  15. The attitudes of the old-line men are now being adopted by females in positions of authority. I see the most damage coming both from the expecation that female role models are enough and will do enough. All of see success in attributes that are stereotypes of men. We are often uncomfortable with how that "shows" on women.
    The basic structures of the education and employment we have inherited are just wrong for so many people and will not die out so quickly.

  16. Easier for women? Yeah, right. The first 10 years that I watched very average guys being patted on the back (while I struggled to feed myself as I taught myself everything) I didn't think much of it, so long as no one stopped me. Then 20 years went by.

  17. For those of you who speak German, Spiegel has a very interesting article today about differences between boys and girls MÄNNER IN DER SINNKRISE - Das vergessene Geschlecht (sorry, the article is too long to translate it). They make an interesting argument that is that the vast majority of elementary and middle school teachers are women. Since teachers are besides relatives one of the most important adults in a child's life, this might actually influence on their development. In some sense, it's the boys who lack role models at that earlier stage. In the article they argue this might have something to do with the generally larger difficulties boys have at school.

  18. Women as elementary school teachers now blamed by the German authors for how boys have trouble in school?! On top of professional women who are mothers being torn between child care and work...

    I am against segregating and having women deal with The Issue. They can't solve it, being largely from outside The Institution. But women seem to always be the easy route to everything (and the forgotten "minority"). The image out there is that they have it easy, can change and make The Issue better, while constantly being blamed for ruining children, no matter what they do. The men, meanwhile, don't have to do anything. They are not even invited.

  19. To your two points, I would add that men and women who start a PhD program already have 20+ years of vastely different upbringing. Years of watching tv, and seeing mostly men in the important roles, and mostly women in the decorative ones: men with ties and women with bras.

    And in a mostly male straight science world, the chances for a female grad students to have comments focusing on her body rather than her science are much higher than for a male. As a grad student, I avoided anything remotely tight-fitting because of that.

    @Phil: "I wouldn’t know what would distinguish a gathering of female scientists from a gathering of male in times of ours. "

    Have you tried? You should have seen the faces of the two men present to an all female conference. It was the first time in their life they experienced being on the minority side of the gender imbalance. They were VERY nervous, even if all the talks where just about science.

  20. I always encourage any females I know who are interested in physics and science to pursue it as far as possible. Although most of the girls I knew in high school weren't in to science at all.

    If I take a look at my current physics class here at UWaterloo(including co-op students) there are maybe 5 or 6 girls out of the 40 or so people in total. I look around my mechanics class and it is 80-90% male dominated. Looking at the past grad photos there is normally 1 or 2 females in it but still it's mostly male dominated.

    I've been to some colloquium at PI and I have to admit I was impressed by the number of women there. Sure it wasn't very large but for a room of 30 or so having 6 or 7 seemed pretty high. I was pretty impressed and happy to see this since I want to see more women in physics.

    Then again, I wonder if physics still has that male dominated aura to it. Look at all the famous physicists and they all are men with the few women scattered and, with the possible exception of Marie Curie, they are names that the average person would have never heard of (like Noether). But if you take a look at biology classes or even chem classes and they have a lot of women in them and I know for a fact that the female bio-majors largely outnumber the male bio-majors. Personally, I still think this has to do with the idea that math and physics are still held in the minds of most people as male dominated subjects.

    Hopefully, especially in this day and age of mass communication, more female physicists, such as Lisa Randall, will become popularizers of physics and get more young women excited about physics.

  21. I completely agree with the article and wish more female scholars would take that healthy and enlightened attitude (which imo is the natural one to have if the world really was 50-50) as opposed to going into the tired politics and rhetoric of victimization.

    Ultimately the latter doesnt accomplish much except further segregate even if there is some truth to it.

    I'd point out there is still a culture in physics thats very masculine in the sense that people like to show off how smart they are, as well as engaging in vigorous borderline violent debate.

    I personally like that, as I find that it pushes me in a way to keep getting better as well as motivates -if for no other reason than to keep the ego nice and stroked.

    Some of the resistance to women is merely just an enactment of the above, both out of fear that it would dissappear if things were more equitable and simply b/c its an easy target with programs like AA eg "Of course im smarter than that person, ergo I deserve to be here more"

    The best possible advice I can give female scholars, is to simply ignore it or perhaps better, use it as motivation, the same way that proffessional athletes must learn to ignore trash talking.


  22. "I have to spell it out explicitly: women are as capable as men are of being scientists"

    Is there any scientific evidence for this statement?

    In sports men are systematically better than women, so that we need keep competitions separate. Maybe discrimination is not the true reason why science so far was done almost only by men.

  23. Obviously, if men are stronger, women must be smarter.

  24. I study for a Master Degree in Physics in a medium Italian University.
    What I have been stroken by is the strenght of the reciprocal collaboration and help that many of my male colleagues have been able to put up, which (together with their ability) made them reach the target definitely better, more quickly and with less effort. They naturally tend to make teams, while many times I saw girls rudely and blatantly avoid not only to help, but even to confront, as should be normal among students. I perceived an average lack of solidarity and team play (with or without men) among women and wonder whether this can be part of the issue in tough domains like Physics.
    Thanks for this blog.

  25. Hi laria,

    The lack of the ability to form groups is an interesting concept yet hardly supported in simpler times in the past. You have the hunter /gatherer model with men being hunters and women gatherers where the men worked in groups and women mostly as individuals. Then of course you have how women gathered in groups in the past for activities like quilting bees and so forth, where the social component is strong. Perhaps men gather together better in antisocial activities such as football games or war. Now what you would have to prove is physics is anti-social in nature. Then again perhaps we should avoid going there:-)



  26. In my own experience, whenever I go rambling on about physics, 95% of the men I talk to get bored in about 2 seconds.

    Among women, it's more like 99%.

    From the point of view of an average person, this is a miniscule difference. 4%. BIg whoop.

    But from the point of view of a physics professional, it's huge.

    It means that male physicists are drawn from a pool consisting of 5% of the male population, but females are drawn from about 1%. That's a 4-1 difference.

    This can hardly fail to have an effect at the professional level.

    You guys should worry more about visible, identifiable discriminatory practices and redressing them instead of trying to attain an unattainable 50-50 ratio.

  27. Whoever said he or she wanted to attain a 50-50 ratio? Did you even read what I wrote?

  28. Dear Bee,
    I guess if it is not stated in a soundbite, it doesn't penetrate.

    The goal is not 50-50 representation in physics, it is that anyone who is interested in physics is not dissuaded or in any way obstructed from pursuing that interest as far as their ability takes them because of their gender. Of course, all the usual difficulties in a career in physics are expected to apply to all also, regardless of gender.


  29. Whoever said he or she
    wanted to attain a 50-50

    I suppose it sounded like I was accusing you of that, but I wasn't, really.

    There's a bit of a kerfuffle down here in the states about applying Title IX restrictions to the sciences (originally intended for sports), which, some would say, would penalize universities for not having 50/50 sex ratios.

    That's mostly what was uppermost in my mind, when I commented.

    The mind, it does tend to wander.

  30. Hi Anonymous:

    "I have to spell it out explicitly: women are as capable as men are of being scientists"

    Is there any scientific evidence for this statement?
    The point I was making is that there is no definition of what constitutes a good scientist, and what are the criteria that make one capable of being successful or not.

    This is very unlike the example you are referring to, in many areas of sports success is strongly related to, say, strength or height, which is the reason why men are systematically better. Best,


  31. All the Girls Days in school does not change the fact that women are completely undervalued. We make getting on the tenure track to university nearly impossible for women. Women are still expected to do the majority of the hard work of caring for the children, hence it is blamed on biology that she can't dedicate as much of her time to doing research. When it has nothing to do with biology but plain old sexism. If men were expected to do their fair share of the childcare and occasionally spoke up about the unfairness of being forced to spend so much of their time away from their children that they are raising, things might actually change.

  32. Bee, I hope you'll be pleasantly surprised how many women are at the APS April meeting. When I did my PhD in particle physics and a short postdoc in early-mid 1990s, I was used to being one of a handful of women in the room. I got so used to it, that I didn't notice. Now as a science journalist, I go to the occasional physics conference and am pleased to see far more young women there. Will they continue their careers in physics, though? That's an important question.

  33. Thanks for accepting the invitation to the APS meeting, even though the topic of women in physics is not a preferred topic for you. The exchange of different perspectives are valuable for most subjects and it is useful to have very different ones presented. I hope that you will follow up this post with some comments on how you found the session, what insights (or not) you gained.

    It would be interesting as well to hear your thoughts on the issue of women in physics several years from now. Issues regarding of acceptance of women and prejudices against them in science may be tied to their seniority. You are moving from the postdoctoral track to the tenure track (congratulations!) and consequently, from the role of a protegé to that of a colleague. Your new colleagues may have a very different set of preconceptions and reactions to women in positions of equal status. Or they may not. However, some have found that prejudices against women, while not expressed or visible to them as students or postdocs, are still held by more then a few men. And these are not confined to the older generation. Of course, one always hopes that this viewpoint is truly dying out, but sometimes bad habits are hard to break, especially if reinforced in a group context. Hopefully your experience will be different, but be careful and be sure to keep an open mind to learning from others how to best deal with such a situation if it comes up. Establishing contacts with people that can later give advice may be the most significant aspect of sessions like the APS one.

  34. I'm a 33 year old mom and wife trying to get into a good physics graduate program somewhere. Let me tell you, grad schools don't look too kindly upon moms in grad school (though perhaps they're more open-minded when it comes to trying to get a woman on faculty). Yeah, they'll welcome you with open arms if you're a childless female, but not so much if you have a kid.

    One faculty member at a school here in California flat out told me to avoid any mention of children in my grad school app. Because the school wants dedicated and passionate researchers (read: someone who can be completely absorbed in his/her research...that is, someone with no life outside physics), a potential grad student with a kid is immediately regarded as being unable to meet the demands of the program. In short, they just don't think moms can hack it, no matter how awesome their undergraduate GPAs, GRE scores, letters of rec, etc.

  35. To Anonymous:
    "I find it hard not to be sexist in physics when it is so much easier for women than for men to enter the highly selective graduate school. "

    Where exactly have you read it is easier for women than men to enter highly selective graduate school? There is still a lot of hostility towards women in science out there, and science for most of history has been built only around men, therefore around their approach and needs, thus women often need to make an extra effort to adapt to this environment. Let's not forget, until half a century ago, women were not admitted to universities. Besides that, a lot of men, still have stereotypes against women in science, thus start from the assumption that they are worse, and often create an obstacle for them to use show their talent. Still many men would chose to or prefer to work with other men than with women. Your expectation is only making the problem worse. Instead of making judgements prior to knowing, be objective and let women show you what they're capable of.

    To Ilaria:
    On what basis do you believe women are more competitive? And competitive on what exactly? In Italy in particular, women seldom hold high charge positions or obtain power, therefore there is not much to compete about. If anything, they are at even stronger competition with men.

  36. Hi!

    I just came across your blog and was hoping you could offer some advice.

    I recently went to an interview at Cambridge University, hoping to study Physics there. However, the interviewer was clearly prejudiced against me as a female and made me feel worthless and incapable. Will it always be like this? How does one fight prejudice like this?

  37. Hi Beena,

    What makes you say he was 'clearly prejudiced'? Did he behave inappropriately? In my experience the problem that older male colleagues may treat you as a young woman with a certain lack of respect gets better when you've been around for a while just because you've been around for a while. Otoh, at that point other problems show up. Either way, don't let yourself be discouraged too easily. You can also send me an email to hossi at nordita dot org. Best,



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