Saturday, October 05, 2013

Women in Science. Again.

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.


  1. By far the most interesting thing I've seen on the topic.

  2. Women are more vulnerable -it's not so easy for them to do stuff that requires isolation from society compared to men. A woman alone probably feels more threatened than a man alone

  3. Do not confuse empirical ability with social advocacy. Emily Noether was meteoric. Watson and Crick (1953) got their 1962 Nobel Prize after Rosalind Franklin was thoroughly dead (1958). "But first, please, the maternity leave". Making babies is important. Social advocacy worships (for a cut of the cashflow) the lame, halt, dim-witted, and proven unable. If only the worst are allowed to reproduce, boring tyrannies obtain. Objectively earned positions in science are imperative. Rejecting the Severely Gifted to install the Officially deserving is catastrophe. If ability arrives with pink toenails, motivating others to bathe more often, that is not compulsory degradative egalitarianism.

    Sex ratio: Females whose childhoods played with dolls and dressed up are deeply not the same as males who caught balls, drove screws, and came home dripping blood. Males do stupid painful things to establish dominance among their kind and learn about reality. Women seduce the winners. Reality cannot be seduced, for that would be magic. Magic is crap. Kinder, K├╝che, Kirche, Kirchhoff's laws are not contradictory, merely rare.

  4. In the modern world girls don't play with dolls and boys don't play wih cars (exclusively - duh!)

    I've explained the difference above for all time, any society anywhere - women can not be as solitary as men

  5. /* take in contrast a problem like black hole information loss or the recent firewall controversy. Clean, neat, intriguing. So much easier. */


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  8. Excellent writing, and reading. Your personal reporting of the why you went into the sciences should be the only criterion... and an inspiration for the next generation.

    Now I have to look at what the firewall thing was all about, missed that one.

    Honesty and objectivity is refreshing and essential for good science.

  9. Dear Bee,
    Great essay, though a few sentences can be read as though you retreated into physics, unable to handle people. Was that what you wanted to convey?

    Best wishes,

  10. Dear Arun,

    I wrote this to provide some context by which to gauge my experience. I think it matters to see what is probably the difference between me and the author of the NYT article and I want readers to understand this. I'm happy to be alone with a pile of books though I would appreciate a pen and a notebook in addition.

    It's not as bad as that I'm unable to handle people. It's also certainly gotten better as I am getting older. But I think I would be pretty bad in any job that requires a lot of communication and negotiation. Best,


  11. One of the most sensible things I've read on this topic!

  12. "pad my shoulders"

    That should be "pat". "Pad", in the context of "shoulder", refers to an aspect of 1980s fashion which you probably avoided, even if you paint your toenails pink.

  13. "Most of the time I’m not consciously taking note of them having a crinkly chromosome I don’t have"

    As long as it's just the crinkly chromosome. :-)

  14. What annoys me most about articles like the New York Times piece is that they concentrate on one field---usually, physics or astronomy---and spin all kinds of theories to explain that there are fewer women than men in this field. But if we look at all jobs in the world, there is practically none with equal numbers of men and women: some have more men, some have more women.

    I agree with Sabine that a quota is not the way to go. But if there is to be a quota, then it should be 50%, for both men and women, in all fields. Anything else is not worth considering.

    Yes, things were bad in the past, like when Max Planck told Lise Meitner she couldn't work at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute because there were no women's toilets. But it is wrong to assume than every gender imbalance today is the result of discrimination.

  15. What I have learned from women is that they are usually more practical within their lives than men. Thank God for that! Being practical sometimes mean risk aversion with the choices of one's life.

    Pursuing academic career in hard sciences might be somewhat risky. You can earn more money easily by doing something else in case you have the capacity needed with academic career.

  16. Phillip,

    Thanks, I fixed the typo. Regarding quotas and discrimination. The problem is to find out whether or not an unequal fraction of men and women in any profession is due to discrimination or not. There are certainly studies claiming that in science such discrimination does exist and that's unfortunate. Quotas try to cure the symptom, not the disease. Best,


  17. I agree: even if the imbalance is due to discrimination, a quota has the effect that many people who get in after a quota is in place will be perceived as not having been able to get in without a quota, even if the latter is not the case.

    Perhaps women in physics are, because there are so few, like men with pink toenails. People don't know how to react and choose to be on the safe side, even though, in both cases, there is no objective reason to do so. Would you have married Stefan had he had pink toenails? :-)

  18. Great writing, indeed one of the best I've read.

    I'm myself a young "woman in physics". I got the NYT article forwarded too, asking for my opinion. And, as each time I talk about the topic, my answer was "first, please, kindergarten". Not so far from your " first, please, maternity leave".

    Two points I wanted to make:

    1. I don't think there are less women in theoretical physics than in experimental physics. At least in my field, the number of women in theory is considerably higher. In experiments (at least in those involving a lot of technology) the major difficulty is not to interact with colleagues, but with technicians from infrastructure facilities and workshops. Women there need to proof that they know what they are talking about, whereas this is taken as given for men. A situation that can be very challenging at the beginning of your career, but which certainly pushes you to develop much better technical skills.

    2. Women and minority quota are, in my opinion, a very bad idea. I am absolutely fed up of hearing from some colleagues that "being a woman might have helped you in getting your position", or "don't worry, you will easily get your grants through because you are a woman and come from an unusual country". I want my work to be considered (well or not) for what it is. Plus, I don't think that quotas help much: if one wants to change the situation, one needs to act at an earlier stage. For example, to get sure that women don't stop their postdoc for the wrong reasons. Again, "first, please, kindergarten".

    To finish, to Philip Heilbig: concerning women toilets, things have not changed so much since Lise Meitner's times... I know several physics departments that don't have them at all floors "because they are anyway not used much".
    Thus, there are basic things to fix before wondering why women are not attracted to science. Let's start by those ones.

  19. Experimentalist,

    Thanks for your comment.

    1) I don't have any numbers on whether there are fewer women in theoretical or experimental physics. My impression has been there are more in experimental physics, but impressions can be misleading. It would be interesting to see some data on this.

    2) I agree with you. I've seen the worst of women quotas in the time that I worked for the youth organization of a German party. They had a hard quota yet very few women. The result was that any female newcomer was handed up the levels almost immediately. Inevitably, many of these women were plainly incompetent. Not necessarily because they were stupid, but because they had only been around for a few months or so! Luckily this was so obviously a bad idea they dropped it rather quickly. And then there was the conference where they had a policy that men and women had to speak alternately, disregarding the fact that there were 10 times as many men as women present. In the end some women took pity on the long male queue and just stood up to say irrelevant sentences. (Hard to believe this nonsense unless you've seen it.)

    And yeah, I know such institutes as well where there are women's restroom only every other floor or so. Alas, at our institute we have mixed bathrooms. There are days when I feel like running around screaming at everybody to put down the damned seat... Best,


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  21. "Alas, at our institute we have mixed bathrooms."

    Glad you mentioned it. Yes, mixed public toilets are quite common in Sweden. (On the other hand, mixed public saunas, the rule in German- and Dutch-speaking countries, are extremely rare in Scandinavia and the few that do exist usually insist on the guests wearing swimwear, which hits people familiar with proper sauna culture like Europeans who encounter beer with ice cubes in the States.)

    "There are days when I feel like running around screaming at everybody to put down the damned seat."

    There are signs you can buy urging men to always sit down. Buy some and hang them up. (I'm surprised that this is a problem. Maybe, like Krauss slouching in his chair, it is only the foreigners who are the problem.)

    The real question, though, is why the toilet seat can be raised at all. Why not just have it the same shape, but in one piece?

  22. "Women and minority quota are, in my opinion, a very bad idea. I am absolutely fed up of hearing from some colleagues that "being a woman might have helped you in getting your position", or "don't worry, you will easily get your grants through because you are a woman and come from an unusual country". I want my work to be considered (well or not) for what it is."

    Couldn't agree more. Recently, a blog directed me to some web site about women in astronomy (cue snide remarks about heavenly bodies) and there were some interviews, of course with the question "Has being a woman hindered your career?". One very well known woman astronomer (with no children, I might add) surprisingly said that it had probably helped her because, being a woman, she was somewhat unusual, and this made her stand out and people remembered her. (This only helps, of course, if one is quite good to start with.)

  23. Very interesting and well-written post, as usual.

    "How awesome is that? And where if not theoretical physics do you find this?"

    Very awesome; I've found it, in a minor way, in engineering (because there is a lot of physics in engineering). For example, I was testing a new design of turbine vanes on a test rotor, and found an unexpected vibration frequency among the standard vane vibration modes (first tangential, second tangential, first axial, etc.). The row used a hollow tie-wire connecting the vanes, split into four long segments. Our in-house calculation programs modeled tiewires as pinned beams between vanes, but didn't account for stretching and compression of the wire, so I made a vibration model which included that, and wrote a computer program (Fortran) to calculate the eigenvalues and eigenvectors and print them out (on dot-matrix paper). The output showed what I called the "accordion mode" at close to the test frequency.

    When I started working as an engineer in the 1970's there was about one women per a dozen men. In the 1990's the ratio increased to about 25% (in General Electric Power Systems).

  24. Having searched SU, UU and LU hompages I can declare that subject wise statistics is scarce, only finding the following:

    "For example, within Astronomy and Space Physics the first female PhD graduate was as recent as 1996, and the first, and only, female lecturer was appointed around 2003. The division of Theoretical physics has no female permanent academic staff member, Applied Nuclear Physics one, and Nuclear and Particle Physics two. This is to be compared to a total of 146 permanent and non-permanent academic staff members."

    I think at Fysikum Particle physics is also the leader, with three permanent females (trailing administrative personnel of course) and other groups having ~ one.

  25. Forgot the source:


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