Thursday, October 11, 2018

Yes, women in science still have a disadvantage.

Women today still face obstacles men don’t encounter and often don’t notice. I see this every day at my front door, in physics, where women are still underrepresented. Among the sciences, it’s physics where the gender-balance is most skewed.

While women are catching up on PhDs, with the ratio now at roughly 20% (US data), women are more likely to leave higher education for good. Among faculty, the percentage of women is down to about 10%. The better the job, the more likely it’s occupied by a man.

Source: APS.

The reasons for this “leaky pipeline” are manifold and no one presently knows for sure which factors are most relevant. Therefore, the question what, if anything, to do about it is hotly debated.

Source: AIP statistics.
On one end of the spectrum are those who think that the current gender-balance correctly reflects qualification and nothing needs to be done. People in this camp explain differences between genders by women’s lack of performance and not discrimination. On the other end are those who think the world will only be a good place if half of physicists are women. In this camp, any under-performance by women is caused by discrimination.

I think both of these extreme positions are unreasonable.

The current gender balance almost certainly does not correctly reflect qualification because a) women have to push back harder on gender stereotypes and b) are more likely to have difficulties combining academia with family life.

Consider this: Last time I got my hair cut, I was informed that women can’t do physics because they can’t think logically. This insight was delivered to me matter-of-factly by a middle-aged, female hair-dresser after I answered her question what I’ve been up to lately. (Wrote a book – About what? – Physics).

I didn’t pursue the matter because I don’t like to argue with people who use sharp instruments near my eyes. But I was glad I didn’t have my daughters with me. They’re still at an age where by default they believe what adults say.

Gender stereotypes like this are everywhere and they almost certainly influence career choices. We all want to belong, and if women feel that science is for men, they’re less likely to pursue this avenue. They lose motivation more easily. They call it quits sooner. This means we are missing out on qualified women and instead fill up the pool with lesser qualified men.

Men tend to underestimate how pervasive these stereotypes are, and how tiresome it is to always be the weird one. It wears you down; doubly and triply so for women who are also members of minorities.

Example: I am constantly accused of being rude, aggressive, and snarky, and have been advised multiple times (by men) to not express myself with certainty. Because that’s offensive, you see. If men behave this way, they’re brilliant geniuses, and one cannot blame them for what is merely an expression of their enthusiasm. I’m left to constantly apologize for being who I am. Or figure this: Last time I won an award, the speaker who was supposed to summarize my achievements felt the need to point out that I do great work despite being short.

Yes, I have a lot of anecdotes, and they can be summarized as a pronounced lack of respect. I’m as much a professional physicist as the men around me, yet I’m not treated the same way. I’m LOOK-A-WOMAN!

However, I try not to draw conclusions from my own experiences because the very fact that I’m still working in physics is evidence I’m not suffering all that greatly. I’d go so far to say most of my colleagues are nice guys, and even the assholes don’t normally mean to be assholes. But I hear what my female colleagues have to say, and most of them are really frustrated about the nonsense they have to deal with. And, yeah, I too have been mistaken for the secretary.

The other major disadvantage that women face is that they are hit harder by the family-unfriendliness of academia. Turn it how you wish, women are still responsible for procreation, and female fertility rapidly declines past the age of 40.

Unfortunately, the years between 35 and 40 are also critical to establishing yourself as researcher. Most physicists presently don’t secure permanent positions until their early 40s. Up to then, job-hopping and frequent international moves are the norm. Taking time off to raise kids is difficult, and the inevitable decrease in academic output and flexibility is a competitive disadvantage. A priori this disadvantage exists both for men and women, but women are on the average the younger part of the couple, and, needless to say, pregnancy and nursing is an extra burden.

Arguments that women just perform worse than men are fundamentally flawed because they’re based on shaky interpretation of data that don’t quantify what they’re supposed to show. Data say, for example, that women in science publish less and their papers are cited less often (references here). Does this mean women are less capable of doing science? No, it means that they publish less and their papers are cited less often. To put it differently, it means that women’s papers are less popular with their – predominantly male – colleagues. How about not judging women by how much their work appeals to men?

The recent case of Alessandro Strumia is an example for such shaky interpretations of data. There’s no simple way to measure whether women are having a harder time with their research. There could be all sorts of reasons, from the lack of role models to difficulties getting funding to being more frequently asked to sit in committees because, well, we need at least one woman, you see? None of these difficulties will reflect in publication records in any obvious way.

Besides, there’s no agreed-upon measure for academic success. Indeed, it is well known that rewarding a high number of publications and citations creates perverse incentives, and therefore many scientists now compete to excel on meaningless performance indicators. So why are we even talking about this?

This is not to say that the differences between publications of men and women are not interesting or should not be studied. Just that one shouldn’t jump to conclusions from them.

But I am also not an advocate of a gender-balance of one-to-one. Biological factors, such as muscle strength, arguably play a role for some professions. I find it highly questionable that a profession like physics, which mostly deals with abstract ideas, is much influenced by genetic factors. But it’s a controversial subject and, as they say, more research is needed. Regardless of whether the reason is nature or nurture, however, women demonstrate preferences different from men, and it doesn’t make sense to push them into disciplines that they might not currently feel well in.

For this reason I cannot support policies that aim to increase the ratio of women based on the premise that 50:50 is the “correct” target. It’s not only that this risks we’ll hire women who are less motivated or qualified than some men who don’t get jobs, it also pisses off the men who feel like they are now the ones at a disadvantage. And this creates yet another bias, namely the belief that women now have an easier time rather than merely having less of a disadvantage. Again the recent Strumia-case is a good example.

Having said this, some people tell me it’s justified to risk hiring lesser qualified women, at least temporarily, to restore what they consider fairness in the long run. But at this point we are down to a value-decisions. What is more important to you: That science works most efficiently, or that women catch up with men as quickly as possible? I think this is the key question which no one wants to discuss.

Be that as it may, the easiest way to disqualify yourself from any discussion on the matter is to simply disregard the existing hurdles that women face. The problems are real, and they’re far from vanishing.

If you want to make a difference, check out the Practical Guide to Improving Gender Equality in Research Organisations by Science Europe, and raise awareness for the therein proposed changes among your colleagues.


  1. A really excellent post. Clear minded and fair.

  2. I tend to think we will always have injustice in the world. But I do also think that with freedom of the press, free markets, and free elections that over time many injustices, such as difficulties women have in academia, will resolve. I don't think anyone, any great power, or great intelligence will be able to chart a pathway for the trillions of decisions that will need to be made for decreasing these injustices. As for me, I don't want to be involved in politics, I don't want to run any large corporation, or be some professor working 100 hours a week to seek fortune or glory. I like the simpler things in life, like family. I think talking about these injustices are important as it will keep these problems in mind every time someone makes a decision.

  3. Using sexism to combat sexism is not a lasting solution.

    Gender does not equate to qualification. Employing the opposite tactics of past injustices (be they real or imagined) will not produce superior candidates.

  4. Neither chromosomes nor dermal pigmentation are problems.

    1) Discoverable value is rare, and unpleasant toward spreadsheets (costed venture versus projected gain) and "accepted theory." 2) Employ, or the discipline dissipates,

    3) Managers control funding and advancement. Managers cherish managers. 4) Being a loud, stupid, and above all gullible mob is a fundable vocation,

    5) Mandatory hire of unqualified people dumps them in Human Resources, hiring their own kind. 6) UNKNOWN RISKS! versus guaranteed protracted failure. The only trusted employee is one whose sole marketable asset is loyalty.

    YInMn Blue. GOAL: Polymorphism to an acentric hexagonal crystal structure offers improper geometric multiferroic behavior via trigonal bipyramidal coordination. RESULT: Sloppy grad student plus pushy PI create intense, inert pigment blue broadband IR emitter – cold roofs. The university owns patent and royalties. Management!

  5. A sensible post and, so far, sensible comments. :-)

    "I find it highly questionable that a profession like physics, which mostly deals with abstract ideas, is much influenced by genetic factors. But it’s a controversial subject and, as they say, more research is needed."

    Just because something deals with abstract ideas rather than muscles doesn't mean that there can't be a genetic component nor that there can't be differences between men and women.

    I think that some progress might be made by focussing not just on physics but on all professions or other groups which have an imbalance (in either direction): rock musicians, Michelin-star chefs, chess players, YouTube influencers, criminals, people with certain diseases, whatever.

    When asked what puzzles him the most about the universe, Stephen Hawking said "women". :-)

  6. David;

    Any "lasting solution" will be characterized as "sexist" by those who benefit from the current situation.

    I think we all agree that "gender does not equate to qualification" but currently scientists act as if it does. They'll never admit it, but that's how they act.

    The goal of fixing this problem is not to produce superior candidates; it's to treat all candidates fairly so that actually-superior candidates can emerge regardless of gender.

    sean s.

  7. "Last time I got my hair cut, I was informed that women can’t do physics because they can’t think logically."

    During all the time I studied physics and worked in academia, I never had my hair cut. :-)

  8. The stereotypical physicist is male. He is also many other things. Choose someone who differs from the stereotype in some respect (say, has hair dyed blue). Is the fraction of blue-haired physicists the same as the fraction of blue-hairs in the general population? If not, why not? Discrimination? Because people who dye their hair blue are not interested in physics.

    Lather, rinse, and repeat for any number of other criteria.

  9. Jordan Peterson on why there are so few women at the top:

  10. Thank you for this very balanced post, Sabine.
    It should be obvious to all intelligent people (but apparently it isn't) that the question of gender imbalance in physics is a complex one, likely to have a multifactorial origin (social and biological, motivation and ability). The only interesting thing, from a scientific perspective, should be: what is the BALANCE among all these factors. And we should keep an open mind about that.
    There was obviously a lot of discrimination in the past. Surely it is still a factor today, but how important?
    Personally, I think it is not such a determinant factor any longer. If we look at some hard facts (not flimsy studies that are hard to reproduce, and often go in opposite directions), we see that:
    - There is an inverse correlation between how free a society is (including for women) and the number of women engaging in physics.
    - Number of women in physics has increased dramatically in the mid 20th century, but stagnates for 20 years. Why?
    - 20 years of actively promoting physics to young women has yielded little results. Why?
    - Number of women in topics like law or medicine has surpassed that of men in the same discipline. Why this difference with respect to physics? Layers and doctors less machos than physicists ? Come on...
    - Larger variability in skills for men is also established (although it probably explains only a small part of the gender imbalance, and only for the most mathematically oriented disciplines).

    To me, all this points to the fact that the gender balance we observe today in Western societies is close to what women (and men) actually want for their lives.

  11. A nice blog post as usual.

    I wanted to give an argument which I don't think you included, which is that if you want to have an environment where you do not constantly hear that women are not meant to do physics (or at least not meant to be leaders in physics) that you need to encourage and provide counter examples. By creating a better environment for women, better science will be done by women now (things like parental leave help both men and women over a lifetime, even if it might cause lower productivity for a year) and more talented women will decide to do physics rather than other things. This is why I support 'diversity hiring' for people with African ancestry, First Nations anscestry or Latin American ancestry and women.

    There is also the point that currently in physics (at least experimental particle physics), generally many people who apply for a given permanent position can be successful in the position and have the resume for the position. Currently the person selected is generally selected based on networking or a former selection process. I have heard it expressed to me as 'we have many excellent candidates so we hired the one who went to Harvard'.

    In such an environment, why not use sex or race as the deciding factors instead of networking or past selection process?

    I am not disagreeing with you about the desire of the 50/50 benchmark, rather I am arguing that we (physicists) should hire with diversity in mind and I am not generally concerned about unqualified hires.

    And I have repeatedly heard colleagues say things like women are fine as professors but not as top researchers. I think that despite the improvements that have been made in the past decades (my advisor and both my postdoc supervisors are women) that there is still a strong bias against women being leaders in physics.

  12. Words from the trenches, indeed.

    "For this reason I cannot support policies that aim to increase the ratio of women based on the premise that 50:50 is the “correct” target."

    The solution I see advocated here (Dutch University) is to strive for proportions that reflect the pool of talent. That is, PhDs should reflect students, post-docs PhD, etc. If 20% of MSc students are female, you should try to hire at least 20% of female PhDs etc.

  13. Hi Sabine!

    Apart from discrimination and ability/performance inequality (both of which are controversial), there can be another factor in play. As far as I know, it is rather well-supported and less controversial that on average women have less appetite for risk-taking.

    And modern fundamental physics arguably is a high risk occupation. Not in the same way as firefighting is risky, but the risk of investing a huge amount of time and effort and gaining not so much. And not just financially, but in terms of making meaningful progress as well (if you care about knowledge and not the number of papers).

    ...Once could say that even Witten can be seen as an example of somebody with huge ability and very hard working, who did not get where he wanted in physics :)

    I wonder if this can even explain in part why the percentage of women in e.g. biology is much higher than in physics, and there is less "leaky pipe" effect in play there. Biology is still in its "Age of Discovery" and a talented and hard-working person is almost guaranteed to make an impact.

    But to choose physics as a career these days one has to be a tiny bit crazy, no? :)

  14. Dr. Hossenfelder
    So I believe that the awfulness of being a woman operating in "a man's field" is as bad as women say. I can't say I understand the depths of miserableness it causes as I've only got a few instances I've witnessed colleagues encounter in person and fewer then that of instances I've been trusted with by some of those colleagues. And by all accounts of women I trust and other women who comment on the seen it's worse then I will ever see directly.
    There is of course the butt... I think that aptitude is the red herring in the debate I think that inclination + existing culture drives a huge part of the imbalance. To say "I don't want to subject my self to those fat-heads in that field any more!" is very similar to the affirmative statement "I just like {insert female dominated field here} more". And the two statements can both be true or both not and the sentiments feed on each other recursively.
    I have been asked in the past by young women fresh out of high school who were sure at the time they were not on the college track for some guidance on how to break into the job market and have a few distinct memories of suggesting that the trades (electrician, carpenter ect) pay well and always need people, I got blank looks. I sorta know better now but at the time I was baffled (I like to think I'm less ignorant these days) I have stopped suggesting that to young women.
    The other thing is, the main benefit of grater diversity (gender or otherwise) never seems to come up. The German word is Umwelt I believe. When engaged in technical problems just coming at them from a different angle Any different angle is often worth a few days of work if not more so the broader the team (in the cognitive difference sense) the faster it goes. Why doesn't this last point ever come up? I don't care if you're good at it or not if you can point me down another path that I wouldn't have thought of. In short 'Different is better then good' I can't be the only one who see's this?
    I get the inclination point not coming up as it is hard to state in a way where you don't come off as a champion for the status quo at best and unconscionable ass at worst but the other thing let's have that discussion.

  15. Dear Sabine,

    I couldn't avoid blinking then staring when I read someone introduced you as " short" when delivering an award you won. It gives another meaning to your video " I'm not a toy'. I am no physicist, but a man, and a middle-aged one at that. I hope I never behaved like that. But, thinking about it,I believe I could have. It's good to hear women speak up. Because a man never has a chance of knowing what it's like being a woman in this world.We need to be told.

  16. I definitely think trying to achieve parity through employment hiring ratios is a bad idea. For reasons not the least of which is the problem can’t be cured by waiting until women reach college and employment age.

    As I’ve mentioned here before, I spent the first 20 years of my career as an electrical engineer and never worked with another woman until I switched to environmental engineering.

    It’s instructive to look at data about environmental engineering. You will find that about 70 percent are male, but that among recent graduates the gender ratio is near equal. Consider why these young women choose environmental engineering instead of another engineering discipline.

  17. dr B, you're going into issues beyond physics.
    sociology maybe.
    Same in your latest book, gone through the first 90 pct
    and thought it was awesome, highly readible, fun, and
    at the same time an overview of modern issues in physics
    and astronomy for the laymen. Then at the end comes a
    rant, that it 'stinks in the tent'. ah well, i guess
    physicists also are human, after all.
    Glad you gave an appendix C how to improve the situation,
    applicable in other businesses as well btw.

  18. I work in finance where women are not as common as well. One factor I've observed is that women are simply less willing to destroy their lives to play the fiercely competitive/stressful game that is the world of hedge funds. I'm not sure why we view this as a negative...when someone tells me there aren't as many women in finance i tend to think "good for them...they keep life in perspective."

  19. Just reading these comments, and given the large amount of well done research out there on the topic, I'm quite surprised that so many working physicists still think that women drop out of physics because of inability. The arguments for this are evermore sophisticated and we now have the variability hypothesis as a new salvo against women in STEM.

    But ask yourself, even among men, are the students who pursue graduate physics really composed only from the top 5% of undergraduate students? Are they composed mostly from that very small percentage of men who skew every so slightly (in the supposed variability hypothesis) above the distribution for women?

    My husband is a graduate from MIT in electrical engineering. Some of his professors were Hermann Haus, Jin Au Kong, Bernard Feld and Reiner Weiss. If you look at the graduating class of MIT in STEM today, more than half the graduates are not going into their fields of study. That's been the case for about twenty years now. They're heading to Wall Street, start ups, and business. Kathy Early (the daughter of James M. Early), a top MIT PhD graduate, is now a well known Buddhist monk. Lisa Su is CEO of AMD. They're not professors.

    In my observation in physics and electrical engineering, many undergraduates that carry on into PhD studies do so because:

    -They come from families that are well off enough to absorb the ten or so years it takes at reduced pay to absorb the near term financial hit of doing a PhD and then post doctoral studies,

    -They are good (but not necessary great) students who have a cozy relationship with a faculty member who finds support for them to do graduate studies.

    Many excellent students never do a PhD because:

    -They don't fit in.

    -They are uninterested in the very insular and political nature of academic culture

    -They find better opportunities outside academia

    -They exit physics for another field, such as the often more lucrative fields of computer science, electrical engineering, computational biology, etc.

    -They are harassed by someone in the power structure of academia who finds their work, their beliefs, or something about their person threatening

    That's a very short list of why excellent people don't carry on to do a PhD. There are a lot of reasons why very exceptional people leave academia and good (but not necessarily very exceptional) people stay on to do a PhD, post doc, and eventually become professors.

    Given these observations, I find the variability hypothesis unlikely as the reason that women compose only 20% of physics PhDs, and < 5% of leading physics professors.

    In any case, it shouldn't be too hard to figure this out. The exit statistics for physics graduates from top universities like MIT must be available. Why is it that apparently analytical people so easily accept the variability hypothesis as the reason for women's absence from physics, without presenting data and analyses of exit statistics from physics undergraduate and graduate programs?

  20. I dont understand physics, what I find with physicist is that they always seem to have found a one best way, and so they can close there minds to any other possibilities. My understanding of this is that Foucault's normalising power is in the hands of the men. they are not prepared regardless of the ability of the female, to have there power reduced by allowing women to rise to higher positions and the easiest way to do this is to not let them establish a base at the lower levels, Which overall simply weakens the discipline. Women have in general a more open minded approach, more ready not to accept a one best way, I know everything attitude which is what I find in male physicists, they tend to work better in a team situation, what this argument needs badly is a feminist writer from the social sciences who can explain it better to explain it to you all. Nice post, fair post as this one has been described are condescending comments from male colleagues, sort of well get it off your chest then we can all go back to our little world and play our boys games. I don't think this issue is being taken seriously by the men, simply because they are frightened of the competition. The majority of physicists I have been in contact with are men and I don't like them. You need more firepower Sabine to make headway with the mens vested interests which is their sole concern.

  21. Published data put women at a statistical disadvantage for being autists, profoundly gifted, and criminally insane. Given the US recently, the fair sex has gained significant ground on that last one. Forced hiring of the almost adequate is a terrible downhill slope.

  22. I think any such analysis requires consideration of how much women want to do physics? (Or anything else, for that matter.) Of course some do, and the is great, but many do not. My daughter would to consider science - she went into medicine because the money is better, and the job security is extremely better. My son also said to me, "I don't want to have to put up with all the things you've put up with."
    On tej question of advancement, my limited experience makes me think it depends a lot on acquiring funding, and recognition, and both of these involve established networks. Perforce, thanks to history there are not the established networks that push women forward, which makes it difficult. For what it is worth, if you are a man and do not subscribe to joining such a cabal, you find all sorts of difficulties too. The problem here is to separate the variables in the analysis and make sure the right ones are focused on.

  23. Olly,

    I understand the point you are making about risk-taking, but you are conflating two different risks: The one the lack of job-security (which I mention in my blogpost), the other the risk that one's research project turns out to be useless, fails, and doesn't make a contribution to progress. The former is a structural problem that can be fixed. The latter comes with the profession. Yes, maybe women find that off-putting, but I don't think that the studies that have been done on risk-taking behavior have much use for real-world situations. Best,


  24. bee:

    "Men tend to underestimate how pervasive these stereotypes are, and how tiresome it is to always be the weird one. ".

    EVERY theoretical physicist i know, including myself, knows how tiresome it is to always be the weird one. We all know what it is to tell someone what we do (physics) and invariably trigger a compulsion for that person to confess to: (1) their ignorance of the subject, (2) their inability to 'do' mathematics, and (3) how impressed they are by our brilliance. Women are subject to additional knee-jerk responses (as in automatic responses by jerks), as are those of us who are identified as being jewish. and if the person is moderately educated) the classification of being (or having) Asperger's almost inevitably follows. The last step is, of course, for the person to retreat from conversing with us.

    it brings to mind, the old joke (and true story) about being told that "it must be terrific to be the smartest person in the room" to which the appropriate response is "no, it's not".

    and it is only a matter of degree as to whether, women, blacks, or jews are subject to more stereotyping (some of which is positive but most of which is negative, at least by connotation) by virtue of being theoretical physicists (the layperson thinks all physicists are theoreticians).

    my own experience is being told "i'm glad i'm not smart because smart people are unhappy". i probably should not have responded as i did, by saying "we're unhappy because we have to deal with dumb people like you". which didn't endear me to wife's family.

    naive theorist

  25. @Mark
    "women are simply less willing to destroy their lives to play the fiercely competitive/stressful game". Very good point indeed! I observe the same in academia, and, like you, I don't understand why this is perceived as negative.
    Some activists simply take the typical male behaviour (competitive, workaholic, obsessively focused) as the ultimate role model. I just fail to understand what is "feminist" in believing that women should uncritically ape men's less likeable traits.

    Higher gender variability in men is indeed established, see here (this result was even shown by one of the female presenters at the CERN workshop on gender!). As I said in my earlier comment, this probably explains only a small part of the observed gender imbalance, so I'm not using it as an argument to justify anything.

    As to the rest of your comment, of course many excellent students leave academia, for all sorts of reasons! But for those who stay, the greater-variability rule still applies and may explain a (small) part of the gender imbalance in their future academic achievements.

    Generally speaking, I think we are talking about at least two different issues here: 1) gender imbalance at the moment of choosing one's undergraduate studies (fewer girls choosing STEMS) and 2) gender imbalance later in academic careers (fewer female professors, even accounting for the smaller initial pool of female PhDs). I think the ingredients to explain both effects are the same, but not necessarily in the same proportions.

  26. I have three sons, the first two are daughters, and I would say substantially gifted, cognitively speaking (but ok, I am just her father).

    I remember when the oldest was still in middle school, my father-in-law was worried because she was getting too high marks, and that could compromise her future relations with boys and men.

    Just to give a sense of all the bullshit that women some time are getting from the men, even with the best intentions in mind!

    P.s.: for the curious among you, my daughter is mastering in physics and she is thinking to try a PhD.

    And she's got a boyfriend too!

  27. There are many obstacles in physics, Sabine, but I'm not personally aware of a gender-based one (not the same as me saying there isn't one). The insecurities of some men (ref: "... left to constantly apologize...") admittedly get into all aspects of life. When I obtained my degree, though, there were two women awarded first-class honours degrees, and overall this was actually a higher proportion of the women on that course than the equivalent for the men. I suppose you have to ask why students on physics courses are already skewed in terms of men/women ratios. I was hoping that my eldest daughter would study physics, but apparently I'd already bored her stiff with it and so she's just started a mathematics degree instead.

  28. Sean, thank you for your comment.

    "I think we all agree that "gender does not equate to qualification" but currently scientists act as if it does. They'll never admit it, but that's how they act."

    Identity politics bears the risk of inflicting on others what it claims to be evil. The risk is enhanced when the guilty are guilty by virtue of accusation.

    In a college "diversity" class, I was tasked with finding a quote by a famous figure that was an example of color-blind racism. I chose, "I have a dream..." and was received negatively. The reason? it is impossible for a Black person to be a racist. Period.

    Is it also impossible for a female to be a sexist?

    Humans evolve, and as such, find past ethical transgressions to be unthinkable today. Identity politics, no matter how satisfying emotionally, is repeating what we should moving away from- qualification via what we are instead of who we are.

  29. A theme in the comments here is that, to borrow the phrase David English used, “Using sexism to combat sexism is not a lasting solution.” Exactly – not a lasting solution, because affirmative action (i.e., taking steps to redress historical invidious discrimination) was never intended to be permanent. It can’t be, because it is ultimately untenable politically, because it puts relatively innocent people at a disadvantage in the present to redress discrimination committed by their forebears in the past, and because (if used longer than necessary) it becomes unfair.

    Put simply, affirmative action isn’t about rights; it’s simply a remedy to be applied until the evil it addresses is eradicated. In the U.S., we are surely about to watch a fundamentally wrongheaded Supreme Court dismantle affirmative action on the basis that decisions should be neutral as to factors like race and gender. The problem here is one of perspective. In the case of racial discrimination, it took us 300 years or more of human slavery to create the grossly unequal system we now live with. Why on earth should anyone expect that it can be fixed in less time than that? And yet we will be asked to believe that justice requires race-neutral policies, even though their effect is to perpetuate the inequality that racism created.

    No one disputes that ultimately a system based on merit, judged in a way acceptable to those with a stake in the outcome, is best for science. And that system, as Dr. Hossenfelder notes, need not result in a numerical reflection of the population data with respect to the category involved, since other factors besides invidious discrimination may be in play. But the time to employ that system is only after historical wrongs have been addressed. In the gender case, if a few less-qualified women are admitted over a few more-qualified men, that’s not great for them or arguably for science – but it’s much less of a problem than the monstrous evil that preceded it from the 1600’s to the recent past, the results of which must be eliminated root and branch: the wholesale exclusion of qualified women from (education and) science.

    To return to the racial case in the U.S., when the Supreme Court throws out affirmative action and holds that decisions must be scrupulously race-neutral, it won’t be wrong -- it will just be a century or so too early. That’s why affirmative action needs to continue in science as well.

  30. What I do not see here are statistics on how many women entering college declare physics as a major as a benchmark with respect to how many graduate with a BS/BA in physics. My prior teaching experience with teaching undergraduate courses is the gender balance was pretty skewed towards males.

    What also is not being mentioned is our world in general is filled with a social-psychology of scarcity. In the United States this is most shamefully employed, as seen in the whole political circus over health care. In a coming age of automation and fears of jobs disappearing we will be seeing more of this. In the coming decades we may see fewer employment opportunities as the wealthiest and billionaire class becomes ever more wealthy. If there were more democratic structure within the Republics and Parliamentary systems in the west we might see more in the way of cultural development as people have more opportunity for education and the pursuit of intellectual developments. This might dilute some of this ideology of scarcity that is manifesting itself in the political movement to the right.

    This social-psychology of scarcity is employed usually to exclude people who do not fit certain criteria, whether that be gender, geographic origin (aka by the false term of race) or age. As things stand if I were to present myself in a feminine gender this would impact me in negative ways. This restriction impacts people in other ways, which can be based on culture or other forms. For women there are certain default conditions that occur in professional work and societies in general, by which there are certain limitations imposed.

  31. Seems to me the situation is pretty obvious. Women naturally gravitate toward nurturing efforts, men toward those less so. Much less so. This 'men and women are equal' is exponential ridiculousness, as ridiculous as some whacked out lawyer/politician/'judge" assertion that D-11 Cat's and dolphins are equal (not fantastical at all. I can think of many in that group who'd say precisely that if they saw reelection or political advantage in it, if they thot their intended audience dumb enough to swallow it).

  32. David English: “Identity politics bears the risk of inflicting on others what it claims to be evil. The risk is enhanced when the guilty are guilty by virtue of accusation.

    Identity politics is what gender discrimination is; it’s what the academy has been doing all along; it’s why women are disadvantaged. (I think you acknowledged this at the end of your comment.)

    Yes, using “identity politics” to rectify an old, old wrong has risks; but I haven’t heard anyone here offer a reasonable alternative, and doing nothing is not acceptable. Blacks and women have been judged guilty by virtue of accusations; why is judging male-dominated institutions likewise “unfair”?

    You utilized a red herring when you wrote,

    In a college ‘diversity’ class, I was tasked with finding a quote by a famous figure that was an example of color-blind racism. I chose, "I have a dream..." and was received negatively. The reason? it is impossible for a Black person to be a racist. Period.

    Your choice should have been received negatively. Black people can be racist, but that quote you selected is not racist; color-blind or otherwise.

    I don’t know or care what fool taught that class; they don’t speak for anyone but themselves. Black people can be racist. And women can be sexist. And college instructors can be idiots.

    But all this is a red herring. That blacks or women are morally comparable does not relieve whites or men of their guilt. What’s wrong is wrong; regardless of who does the wrong.

    Identity politics, no matter how satisfying emotionally, is repeating what we should moving away from- qualification via what we are instead of who we are.

    Ok; and those harmed by white males who continue to play identity politics; what do we do for them? Doing nothing is not acceptable. The risks from doing nothing are too great. How should we respond to the on-going harm?

    sean s.

  33. JimV: “A theme in the comments here is that, to borrow the phrase David English used, ‘Using sexism to combat sexism is not a lasting solution.’ Exactly – not a lasting solution, because affirmative action (i.e., taking steps to redress historical invidious discrimination) was never intended to be permanent.

    Thank you for this comment, you are quite correct. I am not a fan of Stanley Fish, but long ago he compared affirmative action to chemotherapy; neither of which are supposed to be permanent. It’s a good comparison.

    It can’t be, because it is ultimately untenable politically, because it puts relatively innocent people at a disadvantage in the present to redress discrimination committed by their forebears in the past, and because (if used longer than necessary) it becomes unfair.

    The crux of the problem is determining when affirmative action (by whatever name) is no longer needed. There will be those who have an interest in ending it too soon, and others who have an interest in prolonging it. I don’t know that X years of discrimination will take X years to be resolved, but without a more optimal standard, it’s as good a method as any.

    sean s.

  34. I just think that if women are interested in physics, then they will study it. And the women who have a passion for it will succeed. I don't think the fact that fewer men are nurses means that there is a disadvantage for them. I think it means fewer men find it interesting. Men make perfectly good nurses and women can make perfectly good physicists.

  35. @Luca,
    "I have three sons, the first two are daughters": is that a typo, a joke, or some kind of Freudian slip?

    More seriously, your anecdote would rather show that there is no discrimination. There are all sorts of societal pressures of course, going in all directions, but in your case the net effect was nil, as your daughter did go on to study physics.

  36. This discussion has a very US centric approach. Many assertions made about gender preferences cannot be extrapolated to other countries.

    When you look at the enrollment of girls in different regions and countries you see a large variation. For instance, in Slovenia, girls make up 60% of the students taking courses in advanced mathematics, in Italy and Lebanon it is only 37% (USA: 49%).

    Cracking the code: Girls’ and women’s education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)

    If you scroll down in this publication to section 1.3 (page 24 and after), there is a plethora of graphs showing that the grade differences between boys and girls vary a great deal between countries. The situation in the US is in this respect far from typical.

    All in all, the gender biases in STEM are strongly determined by country, which means that they are cultural and can be amended.

    PS, an obvious reason for the gender bias in nursing would be the low pay and bad career perspectives. Men tend to be more career and pay sensitive than women. Given the level of training and education needed, there are better career options available than nursing (or teaching).

  37. Sean,

    "How should we respond to the on-going harm?"

    There is no good, massive response- however, I do know that hostile acts beget hostile acts. Therefore hostility- in any form (such as employing the same tactics) won't work.

    I'll employ another Red Herring: People at work think I like them. Such an environment is necessary for me (and the company) to succeed.

    Perhaps the best option is to trust that people who deserve to be where they want to be get there despite the obstacles- such a thing is not unknown.

    1. "Perhaps the best option is to trust that people who deserve to be where they want to be get there despite the obstacles- such a thing is not unknown."

      This sounds like you do not oppose affirmative action? As you write Men "who deserve to be where they want to be get there despite the obstacles".

  38. David English:

    There is no good, massive response ...

    Sure there is; look for and hire more women (or other disadvantaged people).

    ... I do know that hostile acts beget hostile acts. Therefore hostility- in any form (such as employing the same tactics) won't work.

    Why do you think the desire to be treated fairly is a “hostile act?” Or is it only “hostile” when it’s a woman? Or a black?

    Perhaps the best option is to trust that people who deserve to be where they want to be get there despite the obstacles ...

    Best for whom? Certainly not for those who are actively prevented from achieving what they deserve.

    Best for those who discriminate.
    Best for those who create the obstacles.
    But not best for most of us.

    ... such a thing is not unknown.

    Expecting women (or other disadvantaged persons) to be extraordinary just to achieve what ordinary men get is a ridiculous expectation.

    sean s.

  39. There are a few other factors that affect both men and women, and I guess women a bit more than men. A very negative thing that we tend not to find all that bad for obvious reasons, is the public image of scientists doing extraordinary difficult jobs when it's actually not all that different from most other jobs. When I (as a man) talk to people explaining what I do, they think that you need an IQ of 200 to do what I'm doing. I sometimes try to explain that this is not true, it is far more a matter of being interested in the subject, not "missing the boat" when you are in school.

    I know of plenty of examples where talented students didn't make it while mediocre students went on to become professors. So, you simply need to work hard; what is talent now is perhaps for more than 90% the result of studying years earlier. E.g. if you liked math at high school and worked your way through some university level books then, that is also studying, but because this was fun, you tend to forget how many hours of studying you did then.

    This mistaken image of needing to have some extraordinary talent to go into science, is putting off both boys and girls from considering studying a scientific topic at university. Parents tend to not encourage their children from pursuing a pure science subject or a pure mathematics, they may be more open to engineering or some other, more practical subject.

    The lack of good role models is also relevant here. The fraction of people who have studied a pure science subject is much lower than the fraction of people who have studies a subject like, say, law. So, studying a subject like law looks like a normal thing to do as you'll have many friends or family members who have done that. Studying pure math, or theoretical physics looks like taking a step into the dark, there is typically no one in your immediate environment who has done that.

    This then leaves you with theoretical physics role models like Hawking, Einstein, Noble prize winners mentioned in the news etc., which are not the sort of role models that are going to be helpful for the reasons I mentioned at the start of this posting.

    The way physics and math are taught in school doesn't help either. You learn very little about the work modern physicists or mathematicians actually do. In case of other subjects, e.g. biology, history, English language etc. this is far less of a problem.

    In the former Eastern Bloc, this situation was different. The educational system at the high school level included a lot more physics and mathematics. In Russia, this is still the case today. People who are not physicists or mathematicians know a lot more about these topics than people with similar backgrounds know in the West, either because they have studied these subjects themselves or learned a lot more about these topics when studying for their profession.

    These ordinary people are the real role models that we need to get more children interested in science. I think girls may be more susceptible to such peer pressure from society, not per se from other women, but simply from anyone in their neighborhood, be it their father, mother, uncle etc. If consider the situation in the former Soviet Union, we can see that there were indeed a lot more female physics and mathematics professors there compared to Western nations.

  40. Doesn't this mix results with causes? the underlying assumption is that women want the same thing as Men, and the only reason for less Women in sciences is some discrimination. That assumption needs proof.

  41. Unknown: “... the underlying assumption is that women want the same thing as Men, and the only reason for less Women in sciences is some discrimination. That assumption needs proof.

    We have plenty of testimony from women in science as to what they want and what they experience; that’s proof enough. Or do you think what women say about themselves and their wants is unreliable?

    Your underlying assumption is that Women want different things from men, and that’s the only reason for fewer women in science. Where is your proof of your assumption?

    sean s.

  42. The problem with the current system is that it makes too many men look like they only got the job because of their sex, not their competence. How can one have confidence in a field when most of its practitioners have been chosen for their genetics rather than their abilities? You'd think that physics departments would recruit more women and make the workplace more woman friendly just out of sheer embarrassment.

  43. Women quickly learn that whatever they do gets discounted, typically by about 30%. Anything they say gets ignored. Any contribution gets downgraded as unimportant. Hard work is taken for granted. The general rule for women who want to achieve is to get into a job with a solid, objective metric. That's why a lot of women go into real estate. You sell the property, you get your share of the commission. Even then, they'll pass over you for someone lower on the metric if they can, but at least you'll be harder to ignore and something to show another employer who might give you a better deal.

    Academia is no exception. My limited experience in academia is that citations are like 'likes" on social media. Then more important ground breaking paper is often ignored for citation when there is a more popular paper with a more popular author in a more popular journal to cite. I often pointed this out as a reviewer, and it is one of the reasons I never took an academic career seriously. It seemed to be one big popularity contest. Not being facile in social situations, I figured I'd do better focusing on making money.

    Physics is no less social. That's one of the reasons string theory does so well in funding and citations. It may not have anything to do with the real world, but it is popular with other physicists. If you are a woman and doing string theory, you have to overcome the 30% or so hit and be that much better to hold your own.

  44. @Unknown - I don't think you actually read the link you posted.

    For example: "The work does not address why women and men overall scored differently on these traits — for instance, whether this gender gap is biological or if it is imparted by the culture."


    “We find enough variability across countries to indicate that people respond to the conditions in which they grow up,” he said.

    and most importantly, the conclusion: "But Hermle said the results do rule out a theory that suggests these personality traits are dictated entirely by genetics and evolutionary biology."

    i.e., culture overrules biology

    As a woman raised in the US (born in 1955), I can attest that I was brought up to believe that my only role was to be a wife and mother, and educated accordingly.

    The situation has been much improved since I was raised but it still left a vacuum of role models until very recently to prove to young women that the risk of choosing a man's field was worth the rewards, and hence affects a woman's risk assessment. Although I think women are wrong for avoiding professions that are typically male - my experience as an electrical engineer is that even if I was discriminated against (which if I was, I didn't perceive), I still fared better financially than I would have if I had chosen a traditional female profession, especially given that I have no interest in the social skills those professions require.

    However, I did avoid physics which I perceived as being substantially more subjective than engineering.

    And then there's the "sugar and spice" effect, where girls are raised to believe that they must be nice, which I've suspected had much more to do with nurture rather than nature, primarily because I tend to avoid other women, because in my experience, they tend not to be nice at all, and the link you provided supports that at least in benevolent patriarchies:

    "The authors found that gender differences among the six traits were largest in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Australia. They were lowest in Ghana, Iraq, Tanzania, Pakistan and Iran."

    My interpretation of that quote is that being nice is a luxury rewarded by the benevolent patriarchy, and while those countries scored lowest are also patriarchies, they aren't benevolent.

  45. @unknown

    Not enough room to say that (hit the 4096 limit) to say that the traits measured were "altruism, trust, risk, patience, and positive and negative reciprocity" all which are sugar and spice traits.

    The study would make more sense if it included snips and snails and puppy dog tails:

    What are little boys made of?
    Snips and snails
    And puppy-dogs' tails
    That's what little boys are made of

    What are little girls made of?
    Sugar and spice
    And everything nice
    That's what little girls are made of


COMMENTS ON THIS BLOG ARE PERMANENTLY CLOSED. You can join the discussion on Patreon.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.