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Points of Derailment: The Making of a Female Physicist

By D. Elizabeth Pugel

Being a physicist is not simply an occupation, but a manner of living that carries with it a distinctive mind set. Physicists question, investigate and scrutinize all systems. This same scrutiny should be applied also to interactions between members of our field, addressing any problems and determining their nature. In attacking problems, physicists look for the statistical anomalies and demand explanation for a state. The disproportionate number of men over women in physics is just such an anomaly, worthy of investigati

Historically, the number of women in physics in the U.S. has been small. Currently, 12 percent of the Ph.Ds awarded in physics in this country are presented to women. Several articles in Physics Today and other prominent physics journals have attempted to address this issue through statistics, but have not been able to elucidate the distinct sociological deterrents for women. Thus, if we are to understand the roots of this dilemma, it seems that the use of statistics alone will not provide substantial insight.

As physicists, we are used to reams of data to characterize behaviors. In the study of the male-female asymmetry in physics, we must acknowledge that there are few studies in existence capable of discussing in statistical detail the sociological aspects involved in the process of becoming a physicist. The inability to quantize this problem does not lessen its magnitude. We must scrutinize the education and socialization processes of physicists, to further pinpoint the mechanisms which result in such a small number of women in this field. In this article I will outline the progress of a young female physicist in the U.S., attempting to pinpoint the times in her life where she may be derailed from her track to become a professional physicist.

Nature vs. Nurture

An important argument for the small number of women in physics rests in most familiar differences between men and women: the tug-of-war between social and biological forces (nature vs. nurture). The nurture-governed destiny to be a physicist has been distilled by sociologists to four main issues: parental interaction, toy selection, and both childhood and adolescent interactions with peers.

Parental expectations direct the child's notions of appropriate or inappropriate behaviors, and these set the stage for a life of pre-determined actions, where girls expect to become the passive object of adoration and boys become independent innovators.

The invocation of Melville Feynman's comment to his wife while she was pregnant with Richard Feynman should be sufficient evidence: " If he is a boy, he will be a scientist." Feynman's father started to hone Richard's physical intuition at an early age, showing him patterns in colors of floor tiles when he was only a few months old. At a few years old, Richard was provided with simple explanations of fundamental physical phenomena, such as why balls roll to the back of a moving wagon. Thus, Feynman is an example of parental expectations shaping the course of a child's future.

Both great physicists such as Feynman and mere mortal physicists are shaped by their experiences as young children with toys and with their first friends in elementary school. Before school, young friends and toys are the outlets for personal expression. It is claimed that toys such as blocks are believed to develop logical and spatial skills, while dolls develop social skills. This is not so terrible an observation if we assume that the possibility to be a scientist is linked to the development of social as well as logical skills. Unfortunately, parents may falsely assume that the choice of dolls eliminates the possibility for logical thought, thus limiting their daughter's exposure to physics.

As a young woman enters elementary school, she is faced with gender expectations of new-found friends and teachers. Female teachers tend to carry their own ideas about gender appropriate behavior, and some come from a generation where science education was emphasized less for women. In fact, the majority of K-8 teachers, who are predominantly women, suffer from insufficient science training or a fear of teaching science. Thus, they may have difficulty serving as female role models, or in articulating that science is a viable career option for young women.

In the middle and high school years, pressure to conform reaches its peak. There are few female role models in our popular culture to encourage young women to pursue or maintain their interests in the sciences. Rather, the common images of women as supermodels or seductresses serve to lure adolescent females from a path of science.

In addition to the social aspect, studies have shown that high school teachers selectively call on boys more than girls, compounded by the socialization of boys in earlier stages to be more aggressive and confident in their capabilities. All of these notions continue to inhibit women as they enter the undergraduate and graduate levels of education, painting a dismal picture for the female physicist-in-training, who is unlikely to pass through secondary education unmarred by social pressures.

There are three main fallacies in the nurture aspect of the problem. The first is that the development of social skills inhibits the ability to become a physicist. The very basis of physics is to communicate ideas regarding the natural world and validate or disprove these ideas via experimentation. As the interdependence of scientific groups rises, communication is an essential skill. The second fallacy is that social people do not possess the skills to be physicists. We often mistake intelligence as a trait associated with social maladaption, but the human mind is not polarized. The presence of social capacity does not limit the logical skills of an individual. The third fallacy is that since these differences exist, it should come as no surprise that women are minorities in physics. To claim that women are not geared for physics because of social conditioning is to believe in the status quo that has persisted for centuries, and to believe that it cannot be changed.

With regard to nature, biology is an oft-abused tool to deter women from entering into the intellectual world. For centuries, women were considered members of a "lesser species," incapable of surviving in the mental world of their male counterparts. The few women who managed to be physicists during the Victorian era of science in Europe, the golden age of quantum mechanics, or the post-War era in the U.S. went unnoticed or were thought of as genetic aberrations. Even today, remnants of the abuse of biological theories remain.

Gender-Biased Bureaucracy

If a young female physicist survives and achieves her Ph.D, she is now deeply involved with "the system": organized Western bureaucracy. Perhaps she is seeking a postdoctoral position, tenure, or an industry position. In all of these situations, she will encounter an organizational structure that maintains her work environment. In most, she will notice that the members of those structures are predominantly male and that the policies which govern the structure tend to exclude the needs of women.

A high percentage of professional women end up with positions such as full-time lecturer, associate professor or technician, unlike their male counterparts, who usually end up in full professorships or in senior research positions. A young woman's dream of a full professorship or senior research position are dashed by a system which views women as primarily social beings who are incapable of the harsh competition inherent in the research venue, or of sole responsibility for a laboratory. In addition, sparse policy on maternity issues, child care, and sexual harassment do little to promote women to senior positions. With few support structures in place, the edifice of the bureacratic system implicitly favors those who have someone to care for existing children, someone who is not pregnant, has no glass ceiling, and is not different from the other members on the board: a man.

To change the bureaucratic system while in the thick of it is a delicate task. It is best to change the system once one has made it to a higher position, but many women neglect this option and ignore the issue of bureaucratic bias. This is known as the "Queen Bee Syndrome," where women who have attained senior positions do not use their power to assist struggling young women or to change the system, tacitly validating it. Change, however, is the essence of survival for women seeking success among the bureaucratic ranks.

Any growing system requires competition to survive. One must have the willingness to make some sacrifices and deal with their consequences, regardless of gender. Denial of femininity, however, does not seem beneficial for the young physicist or the system. Successful women who have broken through the glass ceiling must be immune to the Queen Bee Syndrome in order for progress to occur. They must be willing to talk with male counterparts about benefits for women and men during and after maternity, reasonable options for child care, and perhaps even a different mode of achieving tenure for women who choose to have children during that time. Policies that are gender-sensitive or gender-free will be the policies that support our young physicist and her sisters of the future.

Gender-Free Thinking

Becoming a physicist should be about becoming a person: a bright, competitive innovator in touch with nature. This genderless approach, where we acknowledge people, not men or women, has been mentioned as a possible solution to the small number of women in physics.

This is a lofty goal, that requires generations of change. Right now, we are far from a gender-free society and must deal with the current conditions. To live in today's society in terms of a genderless model would commit the flaw of internalized sexism. We must acknowledge, for now, that society still thinks in gender-stratified terms. Thus, using a genderless model would be devastating rather than helpful in promoting women to study physics, given the standards and stereotypes the majority holds.

We are living in a time of transition, where our forefathers have realized the importance of supporting women and our foremothers have realized the poor logic used to keep women from pursuing their dreams. We live in a time where people are starting to acknowledge that stereotyping at any stage from birth along the way of career development is neither helpful nor appreciated.

Our young physicist cannot be a queen bee. She must act upon her ideals and promote change at several levels. For example, she can raise her children, male and female, to be curious about the world. Knowledge has no gender-specific limitations. She can encourage their interests, and insure an education that does not carry with it a gender-based bias. She can mentor middle, high school or college women to buffer their struggles and to provide a challenging intellectual environment. She can even argue for representation by the mass media, so that young physicists can find inspiration from her work or life.

Within the system, she can strive for equal pay, or a shift in the age for tenure in women. Child care, maternity policies, and standards for admitting and retaining female graduate students could also be addressed. Our young physicist, aware of the struggles involved, can stay on course in pursuit of her heart's desire, working within a system in transition and seeking to change not only her understanding of nature's interactions, but interactions among members in her field.

D. Elizabeth Pugel is a graduate student in physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A longer version of this article, with source citations, appeared in the July 1997 issue of Physics and Society.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin