APS News

The Back Page

Reader Responses to Physics and Feminism, May 1998

"Physics and Feminism"
By Priscilla Auchincloss
Gray arrow The Back Page, APS News May 1998

Must We Atone for Sins of the Past?

Priscilla Auchincloss' statement that "...the idea of getting physics to become more feminist strikes most physicists as a kind of heresy" is over-wrought. Much more likely they would be puzzled. What does becoming "more feminist" mean?

Auchincloss maintains that we have to increase progress for women in physics through intervention programs and recruitment. Granted. Equity in pay and opportunity is a laudable goal. Yet to the extent that equity was ever an exclusively feminist objective, society has co-opted it completely, leaving feminists with very little to actually do. Thus, she also proposes that physics departments embrace feminism, sending the faculty to workshops to cultivate gender equity awareness, and making regular assessments of the climate for women in science. This is familiar multicultural territory.

But what will embrace of feminism accomplish? According to Auchincloss, it will attract and retain women, create gender equitable environments, and reform physics education. However, nowhere does she make a cogent argument for how feminism will achieve these goals, or what the second goal even means. Instead, she spends the bulk of her article dissecting objectivity. Apparently, physics and science in general punishes women by lacking real objectivity. The solution for this is twofold. First, atone for past sins. Second, make future science practice a more balanced mix of subjectivity.

For what sins must we atone? Simply put, science colludes against women entering science. She mentions few examples. To draw upon long discredited science to discredit science in general is to miss the self-correcting mechanisms which are sciences essential features. Although the scientific revolution failed to draw women into science in the past, it and its sibling the technological revolution, are still on going. Between them they have freed untold billions of people from oppressive social constructs and miserable lives.

Apparently our sins are original. We are born into them, which makes our escape from them impossible. Moreover, the word "colludes" suggests conspiracy, yet the only co-conspirator mentioned is the church. It is bizarre that science and religion, which engaged in open antagonism for at least 150 years, and have entirely different goals and processes, are colluding. Does science lack objectivity? Auchincloss quotes several post modern scholars on this point, for example: Evelyn Fox Keller believes that natural sciences are subject to political, psychological and social forces; Helen Longino maintains that a feminine context would produce science and more correct results; Donna Haraway is a postmodern writer of extreme murkiness whose positions are not at all clear; Finally, Thomas Kuhn's work concerns how social constructs relate to major upheavals in scientific theories. This is not strong evidence.

Even presuming that Auchincloss has proved science's results lack objectivity, she is left with the inconvenient fact that QED, or the eigenfunctions of a particle in a potential, or the laws of thermodynamics, or theories of seismology, or stellar structure, or a million other pieces of the fabric of physical science have nothing whatsoever to do with gender.

Kevin T. Kilty
La Center, Washington

A New Feminist Approach

Although I applaud Priscilla Auchincloss's willingness to tackle the difficult relationship between physics and feminism, I want to take them in a new direction. My purpose is twofold: first, to raise awareness that feminism is no longer centered around academic Women's Studies research, and second, to bring some additional practical suggestions to the table.

Auchincloss asserts that one problem with our efforts so far to recruit and retain women in physics lies with the fact that these efforts require extra work on the part of physicists that is "at best irrelevant to the practice of science." But biology has had phenomenal success attracting and retaining bright women scientists, as has the practice of medicine, so it's unclear why physics has performed so poorly in comparison.

However, if academic physicists have no time for volunteering at elementary schools or talking with panels who are assessing the climate for women in physics, how can they possibly have time to engage in a "discourse" about the ideological foundations of their discipline? I therefore disagree that a good solution to the problem of women in physics is to create stronger ties to feminist studies of physics. To the young women of today, who grew up in a world where equity with men is not hoped for but expected, these departments seem to serve the purpose of isolating feminism from the real world. A new feminism is emerging, which just as rightly calls itself "feminism," but which breaks from the older style in profound ways.

Let's look at the problem of women in physics in a fresh way. The most important question to ask is, "How is physics as a whole hurt by the extremely low percentage of women physicists?" Physics used to be a good option for those with mathematical ability and a desire for a fast-paced intellectual life. But today, physics competes for these top people with a whole host of other options including computer engineering, technical consulting, and multimedia/Web design. In fact, the proportion of people in these fields who were originally trained in physics is stunning. How does this relate to women? Women cast the same skeptical eye on the career market as men do, asking the question, "Is this field one where I can advance on my own merits and generally feel like I'm a valuable (and valued) member of an energetic, forward-thinking team?" Considering that physics still has only single-digit percentages of women, the answer appears from the outside to be "no."

Anyone who has paid attention to grad school class sizes recently knows that physics is suffering from these women's nonparticipation. We are losing not only warm bodies and intellectual talent (which would translate into more funding), but also respect because we don't compare favorably to other career options for smart, scientifically-minded women. And it's not going to get better if we ignore it.

The situation is not hopeless; there could be more women in physics, and physics could compete effectively against other career choices. We must accept that the new career options luring away potential physicists (and women physicists in particular) are valid rivals, worthy of a serious marketing effort to outmatch.

I suggest that attracting more women to physics is a matter of improving the conditions in physics in general. That will require acknowledging that physics must sell itself to smart people by highlighting its positive I also suggest some restructuring of physics department funds such that collegiality rather than competition among professors is encouraged, and instituting rewards (say, teaching or tenure credit) for those professors who are good mentors. And I'm sure a much longer list than mine could be drawn up!

Kim Allen
UCSD physics grad student and feminist

Physics and Feminism - Perhaps a Bigger Issue Looms?

Priscilla Auchincloss presented some valuable points regarding the "leaky pipeline" existing for women in physics, especially in academia. Although I agree very much with the historical and philosophical contexts she identified relevant to gender and scientific thought, I think we can take this discussion one step further and deeper.

Yes, the academic climate needs foremost examination. British sociologist Kim Thomas argued all equity issues inevitably come back to the classroom. Yet not everyone in academia understands what equity means. Equity is not necessarily equal numbers of men and women in physics classrooms; equity means equal access to knowledge, opportunity, and empowerment. By the learning activities we provide, and pedagogical practices we use, we can either nurture students' interest in physics or deny them the very learning and success we expect of them.

Scientists are notoriously labeled as "intellectually arrogant," an unpleasant yet very real perception. By institutionalizing a paradigm formulated by men several centuries ago, women and other under-represented people are denied ultimate access to physics knowledge and the profession. They participate at the fringe of the culture, but are ultimately shunned from the core. How else can we explain the numerical equity of women students at the introductory level, yet numerical disparity beyond that level? Is it any wonder some women feel unwelcome or unworthy of a physics career?

Yes, academia provides tremendous validation for physics possibly having an anti-feminist nature. The slow progress of women, as well as certain ethnic minorities, in physics is perhaps a symptom of a broader level of dysfunction, be it philosophical or cultural.

I agree with Auchincloss that "Bringing together physics and feminism... has the potential to bring about positive change in the culture of physics." However, if we are to "realize a truly diverse physics community," a cultural and philosophical revolution needs to first take place within the sciences. Until we come to terms with how science is viewed and shared within our civilization, we will continue to struggle bringing about the total equity and diversity physics and other sciences lack. Change cannot come about easily if we have not completely identified the necessity for change.

David Pushkin
Montclair State University

Physics Doesn't Need to Become More "Feminist"

I am privy to these kind of discussions at my university. There is reason for concern, I suppose. I wouldn't say that women and other minorities are "under-represented"' in physics or engineering, but I would admit that there are few women in these fields. I do not think the answer is as easy as what Auchincloss espouses.

Physics, more feminist? Physics does not need to be more anything - except appreciated. It certainly does not need to be more feminist. Yes, I have encountered bias from males in physics, as well as the occasional derogatory remark or tasteless comment. But one should be careful not to confuse the science with the scientist. Auchinclass tells us that the group provides "criticism or approval, and the paradigm to allow integration of the various parts of the puzzle." So now objectivity is a paradigm, and not a primary assumption? Is she trying to explicate the scientific method and concomitant practice of peer-review?

If so, she's done a poor job. Couching it in the language of feminist rhetoric lessens the impact of the power of reproducibility. Reproducibility means that when I make an observation, you can make the same observation independently, whether you like me or not, agree with my lifestyle, philosophy, or gender. This is where science derives its power and beauty. There is nothing exclusionary or oppressive here.

I think Auchincloss' energies would be better spent improving the overall quality of physics education. This way, when an argument is lost due to lack of knowledge, no one need cry "sex discrimination" or worse, "old boy network."

Crystal Barker
University of Arizona, Tucson

Women are Not "Other"

Years ago I read my seven-year-old daughter the story "Ronia the Robber Girl," by Astrid Lindgren. She laughed when she heard the title. "What's so funny?" I asked. "Silly," she giggled, "robber means boy!"

In her Back Page article, Priscilla Auchincloss reminds us that we have made the very same mistake. By systematically classifying women as "other than us," we have unconsciously guaranteed that females will always feel slightly uncomfortable, in spite of the profession's best efforts to "include" them.

The feminist scholars have outlined a program to reverse this trend. As Auchincloss points out, it starts by recovering lost history. Publications such as Physics News and Physics Today have made admirable efforts in this area. But even the relatively minor task of debunking invalid stereotypes is a difficult one. Making physics hospitable to all will be monumental. Cultures change very slowly, and our best hope for gender equality is through education.

Edward Finkel
Fernbank Museum, Atlanta, Georgia

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Barrett H. Ripin