APS News


Readers Say Georgi is "Off the Mark"

In his back page article, "Unconscious Discrimination Against Women in Science," (APS News, January 2000) Howard Georgi takes a challenging task to diagnose the root causes of "white male domination" in sciences, as evidenced by statistics, and puts forth his bold thesis of skewed selection criteria, based on "assertiveness" and "single-mindedness." It baffles me to see a respected physicist to make such leap of faith (and go further to offer "remedies") without a shred of evidence to support it.

In my career I had a chance to grade, evaluate, reference and select dozens of students, postdocs, applicants, on different levels. Rarely, if ever, did I use "assertiveness and single-mindedness" in a positive, let alone decisive way. Nor have I seen many of my colleagues use them to any extent. On the contrary, it was first and foremost (to quote Georgi) "intellectual curiosity, thoughtfulness," creativity and persistence. Yet the overall results of my (anecdotal) statistics would pretty much go along the national trends and figures, offered by Georgi.

There should be something more sinister to skew the numbers, the way they are, that Georgi dares not (or knows not) to speak. As for his "remedies," those have little bearing on two "evil criteria," but amount to nothing less than a voluntary "quota system," the way it is practiced now in the Boston city schools. To make sure to succeed, his quota system should go well beyond hiring practices, and extend to all levels of education, starting from test scores and course grades. Indeed, all those build up in a single evaluation-selection process. So the only assured way to advance any under-represented group is to institute the overall quota.

Here, however, I could cut short Georgi's optimism for the future. Never in my career have I bent or twisted the "rules of the game," based on a single list and single (blind) grading system for all (under- and over-represented) students. As long as it stays that way, Georgi's "egalitarian dream" may never come true.
David Gurarie
Case Western Reserve University

I enjoyed reading Howard Georgi's commentary on the unconscious discrimination against women in science. The article was written with good intentions, but the focus on "assertiveness and single-mindedness" is simply off the mark, because it cannot explain why the life sciences have always had more women. Assertiveness and single-mindedness are selected for in every field of science (and business). Only a physicist would be arrogant (or naive) enough to think that physicists are any more aggressive than biologists.

I know this from experience. I did my PhD in experimental low temperature physics at Cornell University, transitioned to biology, and helped launch one of the major Genome Centers for the Human Genome Project. As a result, I have known some of the biggest names in physics and biology. I can assure you that, compared to some of the people that I have dealt with in genomics (or medical genetics), physicists are downright pansies. For that matter, when it comes to aggressiveness, none of these scientists can hold a candle to some of the pharmaceutical executives and venture capitalists that I have dealt with. I'm afraid Georgi will have to look elsewhere for answers, but I wish him well.
Gane Ka-Shu Wong
University of Washington

After reading Howard Georgi's article I feel that he did not understand the problem. As a woman graduate student in physics, I know that single mindedness and assertiveness do not affect women going into physics or staying in physics. It is true that most physicists are assertive and most physicists are male, but that does not mean that women are not assertive.

One obstacle that women face comes from the way that physicists solve problems. When physicists identify a problem, they pose a question by restating it. The problem is that there is a lack of women in physics, and the question that we pose is: "Why are there so few women in physics?" If your colleagues asked you three times a week every week for 10 years: "Why do you have a beard, when everyone else is clean shaven?" you would feel that you should shave. I get asked the question "Why are there so few women in physics?" routinely, and after 6 years of being asked this question, I am now starting to feel that maybe I should leave physics. We need to rephrase the question to: "How do we attract more women?"

After posing our question, we try to isolate the variables, by separating the women from the men. Most physics departments go out of their way to group all of the women together, whether it is special e-mail lists or TA office assignments. This separation of women from the men even occurs when one enters into math and science competitions (such as the Putnam exam) where the women's tests get identifying marks like red stickers. Since we know segregation causes one to have lower self-esteem, why then would we separate the women from the men in an endeavor to encourage women to stay in physics? As it stands now, the way we are approaching the problem is only causing women that are already in physics to leave. Let's re-think the problem and not make a "list of the best women .., even if they do not rate them as highly as the top men." This cheapens a woman's professorial title and accomplishments. Why do your best, when everyone is going to assume that you got the raise, tenure, or scholarship because you were on a special list? I do feel strongly that this attitude and not a lack of single-mindedness and assertiveness causes women to leave physics.
Evelyn J. Boettcher
University of Maryland

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