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Speeding up the Long Slow Path to Change

By Meg Urry

Meg Urry
Meg Urry
It's 2002 and there are still physics departments with no women faculty, and many more with no minorities. The trends are generally in the right direction, but change is painfully slow, in marked contrast to progress in the equally demanding disciplines of biology, chemistry, engineering, mathematics, and medicine. So why has physics proved so resistant to change?

When I (gently) ask my colleagues around the country why they hire mostly or only men, they say there simply are no women available to hire. But the top 10 physics departments graduated 138 women with PhDs in physics in the five-year period 1988-1992 (10.7% of total PhDs). Twenty to thirty of the top physicists produced each year are women. In 2000, 13% of physics PhDs went to women. Women are indeed available.

Recruitment is often targeted, however, perhaps more so in the more elite universities. They want the best, and they don't expect them to float up through the applications process. Thus, hiring women requires (a) valuing their talents, and (b) thinking of them when a job (or talk or prize) is at hand. This does not appear to happen automatically. So where are we falling down? My physics colleagues are good people. They do not discriminate, they would not deny opportunity to women because they are women. So where is the problem? Let me try to answer this question with three stories.

1. The powerful act powerless- the system worked for them, and they expect it to work for everyone. At the March 2002 APS meeting in Indianapolis, the chair of a large physics department at a major Midwestern university pointed out what he sees as the problem. "At the beginning of my introductory physics class," he explains, "I ask which students are planning to major in physics, and the women do not raise their hands!" His department is responsible for graduating many physics majors and PhDs, yet he is convinced that women simply don't like physics and there is nothing he can do to change their minds. He and his colleagues feel powerless to affect gender imbalance. Another physicist nods his head in agreement, convinced that women are simply more interested in other fields, like biology and chemistry.

But the young students in the physics chair's class are new to the discipline. Perhaps they have never had a physics class before, or perhaps their high school class did not catch their imagination. Is it necessary that they know they love physics before they've studied it? Is early certainty of one's vocation a sign of one's talent for it? Should physicists come only from the ranks of those who enjoy what may have been a boring, rote-like class with little connection to modern physics research? Shouldn't physics professors take as their responsibility the mission of showing students how very interesting and rewarding physics can be?

But most professors teach physics the way they were taught. This is where the problem starts to become clear. The students in class today are not junior versions of their professors. Their paths in life have been different, their interests may be different, their approaches to science may be different. Yet we still define the best students as being those who are just like us. This solipsistic approach stems from the relative homogeneity of our physics faculty, and it reinforces that homogeneity. Yet diversity historically has led to intellectual breakthroughs; the greatest new ideas are born in the roiling waters at the confluence of different rivers of thought. A narrow set of views and styles in physics will benefit no one-not women and minorities, and most importantly, not the science.

2. "You're not a member of my club." A young woman physicist, an assistant professor at a small but excellent four-year college- energetic, smart, talented, attractive, and with a friendly personality- goes to the 2002 APS March meeting in Indianapolis to give a talk. She wanders through the convention center and separately encounters three women physicists. They all smile and offer to help her, as she is obviously just arriving. But they don't have the program and the registration desk has closed for the night. She walks over to a group of young men about her age, who are sitting and talking nearby. She stands politely waiting for them to acknowledge her. But apparently what they are discussing is so earthshaking that they fail to notice her presence. Finally, she butts in and asks if anyone has the program for the next day. "Certainly not," answers the first man, annoyed at the interruption. "Why would I carry that around? It's heavy." The second chimes in and lets her know how stupid her question is and how her presence is interrupting their important discussion. She turns away, uncomfortable and upset, and the next day is still fretting about this episode.

This story demonstrates that some young male physicists can be boors, perhaps, but more that it is all too easy for women physicists to feel ill at ease and out of place. There are few role models for most of us. There are few women faculty and few fellow female students. Women physicists have no clear path in front of them, no clear connection between where they are (pursuing physics) and where they want to be: advancing in the profession.

It is no wonder that women physicists tend to have greater self-doubt than men. In a study at MIT, graduate students in male-dominated science and technology fields were asked to rate their own abilities, and their professors were asked to rate them as well. The actual distributions of ability for men and women did not differ, according to the professors, but the self-evaluations did. On average, the women rated themselves below average and the men rated themselves above average. In physics departments around the country, women are feeling ill at ease, out of place, not at home. Often it's as simple as statements about what makes a good scientist, or what some famous scientist was like. Think of our heroes: read Feynman's autobiography and tell me what you thought. Maybe you liked him, maybe you hated him, maybe you envied him -but probably you didn't feel as uncomfortable as his women readers did. Several wives go unmentioned or at least undescribed, and women in general appeared to play a remarkably small role in his life-except for the ones he was trying to date.

3. Sociology holds some of the answers, if physicists would only listen. Studies have shown that referees judge gender of author, not quality of work. In 1983, Paludi and Bauer published a revealing study about the influence of gender on perception of excellence. Three-hundred-sixty referees, half men and half women, were each sent a mathematics paper to rate, with the author's name given variously as John T. McKay, Joan T. McKay, or J. T. McKay. The reviewers found that the man's paper was considerably better than the woman's. The neutral, initials-only designation was also rated rather lower than the man's paper, apparently because many referees believed the initials to represent a woman. Both men and women found the paper written by the woman to be markedly less good than the man's paper. So it isn't just men undervaluing women's work, it is all of us.

Gender-based bias can also be found in the literary/artistic world. The Modern Language Association referees abstracts submitted for its annual meeting before accepting them. In 1974, the MLA began "blind" refereeing, in which the referees were no longer told the authors' identities. Prior to this, women had given very few papers at MLA meetings. Within a few years of the change, women were giving papers in roughly the same percentage as in the submitted abstracts. A similar shift to blind auditions for the world's great orchestras has greatly increased the number of female musicians accepted.

A few years ago Nature published several articles about gender bias in applications for research support from the Swedish Medical Research Council. Two researchers obtained the applications and the grades and comments. They found that women had to have published much more, and had to have been rated much more highly, in order to have an equivalent chance at the fellowship. In quantitative terms, a woman had to be more than twice as good as a man to rank equally on the final list.

These results agree well with longitudinal studies of women and men PhD scientists, closely matched in ability and field, which found strong evidence of lesser advancement for even very talented women. Even taking into account variables like family status and productivity, the overwhelming predictor of success was gender. Women were paid less, were less likely to be hired into faculty positions, took longer to get tenure, and fewer got tenure than the men.

Your female colleagues are subjects of sociological experiments every day, when they are interrupted and their speech occupies a smaller fraction of the discussion, when their idea is dismissed or overlooked but lauded if a man suggests it a few minutes later, when students are skeptical of their expertise but unhesitatingly assume male professors are fully competent. The popular image of success, of competence, of science, is male. We are almost all prejudiced in the sense that we have absorbed the gender and race stereotypes that prevail in our society. The best any of us can do is to recognize it and correct for it, long enough to change the face of science, and thus to render obsolete the present stereotypes.

So what is the strategy for moving forward? Clearly, we need to raise awareness about the extra barriers for women. These sociological barriers affect many other arenas besides physics, but physics is still lower in the percentage of women and slower/harder to change. My own speculation is that physics is more hierarchical, more elitist, than other professions, and thus women's feelings of inadequacy are exaggerated. The effect on women is therefore harsher in physics. It's an hypothesis that bears testing, if we can find an objective way to assess elitism.

Meanwhile, there are a few common sense recommendations. First, let us not assume others are like us. Interest in physics comes at different stages and manifests in different ways. Female talent is out there- let's look for it and nurture it. If girls and women come forward less readily, let's not interpret that as disinterest or reluctance or lack of skill. Second, we must compensate for the lack of role models, offer better support, and teach parents, teachers, guidance counselors to encourage interest from girl proto- scientists. Third, women who have persisted past the barriers may well feel isolated, invisible, and marginalized. No women or men should imagine the playing field ever really levels out. We hope it will someday, but there is no evidence that it has done so yet.

I believe there is good reason for optimism. The percentage of physics PhDs going to women is increasing, albeit slowly. Some senior male colleagues are taking this challenge as their own, and have helped effect change. The number of women hired as junior faculty may be even be roughly the same percentage of assistant professors as of postdocs. Finally, the dearth of women in physics is receiving serious, concentrated attention, as in the national Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development report (See www.nsf.gov/od/cawmset/start.cfm) and the International Conference on Women in Physics (See www.if.ufrgs.br/~barbosa/conference.cfm). But we cannot wait complacently for physics to enter the modern era in gender equality. It is too difficult a problem and only persistent pressure will make the big beast move.

Meg Urry is a professor of physics at Yale University. This article was adapted from a longer article that appeared in the fall 2002 issue of The Gazette, the newsletter of the APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics.


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