# Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?

Normally I avoid writing about the topic headlined here, not because it’s not of interest or not important, but because the usual discussions it attracts seem to me ideologically-driven, containing far more heat than light. The New York Times Magazine however has just published an excellent article on the subject, by Eileen Pollack. Pollack describes in detail her experience as a physics student at Yale, including that of having a senior thesis supervised by the great representation theorist Roger Howe. This includes her decision not to go on in the field, with this description of the perception of the Princeton graduate program:

By the start of my senior year, I was at the top of my class, with the most experience conducting research. But not a single professor asked me if I was going on to graduate school. When I mentioned shyly to Professor Zeller that my dream was to apply to Princeton and become a theoretician, he shook his head and said that if you went to Princeton, you had better put your ego in your back pocket, because those guys were so brilliant and competitive that you would get that ego crushed, which made me feel as if I weren’t brilliant or competitive enough to apply.

I think Pollack very much gets it right, including emphasizing many of the subtleties of this problem, and urge anyone interested in this to read the article. A couple comments though about two aspects of the issue she doesn’t really address.

• There is a serious effort at an institutional level to have an impact on this problem, but it takes place mostly only at specific points where the institution can measure what is happening. In particular, in my experience academic departments do take seriously the issue at the point of the graduate school admission process, with often a careful attempt to identify promising female applicants. This isn’t at all inconsistent with Pollack’s story, which explains why she didn’t even apply to graduate school.

At the point of hiring faculty, university administrations often provide serious incentives to departments to hire women (i.e. by providing faculty lines that can only be used for female or minority candidates). Again, this is often past the point where the problems Pollack identifies have already worked to make the number of viable female candidates small.

• Pollack repeats the claim of a serious shortage of students in STEM fields:

Last year, the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology issued an urgent plea for substantial reform if we are to meet the demand for one million more STEM professionals than the United States is currently on track to produce in the next decade.

something which is actually only a shortage of talented people willing to work for low wages. She opens her article with the all-too-plausible results of a Yale research study showing that

Presented with identical summaries of the accomplishments of two imaginary applicants, professors at six major research institutions were significantly more willing to offer the man a job. If they did hire the woman, they set her salary, on average, nearly $4,000 lower than the man’s. This is good evidence that attitudes (women’s as well as men’s, since they were just as biased) remain a problem. But Pollack doesn’t comment on the absolute value of the salaries chosen as typical ($26,508 for a lab manager with a science bachelor’s degree), which is less than what a typical Starbucks barista makes here in New York (see here, where my location automatically gives the NYC data). Part of the story may well be women’s differential willingness not only to deal with competitive ego-crushing Princetonians, but also abusive, badly-paid working conditions for many parts of the science job market. If the pay, hours and coffee are better at Starbucks (and your co-workers are nicer…), lots of people are going to reasonably make the decision to work there instead.

Update: As anyone could have predicted, allowing anonymous comments on a topic like this soon becomes untenable. On a more positive not, Sabine Hossenfelder’s reaction to the NYT article is highly recommended.

Update: From Fabien Besnard

I’m in a special position with respect to this question, since my institution, l’école polytechnique féminine was formerly for girls only. Up to the 1980’s, the vast majority of french female engineers were formed in this “grande école”.Then, since the other grandes écoles were gradually more and more open to girls, the EPF began to be perceived not as “the engineering school for girls”, but “the engineering school for girls who can’t go anywhere else”.It reacted by opening itself to boys, while keeping its name “féminine”. Few boys came at first, but the proportion gradually rose, until a point where the EPF was not anymore perceived as a “girl only” institution. Then the boys massively came. There is a now about 60% boys among the students, a proportion which is roughly constant for the last 10 years.

The proportion of girls is still the highest in a school of engineers, and when you ask a student why she came, a very frequent answer is that it is precisely because she knew there would be many other girls. Another interesting aspect is that among the top 25% of the students, the proportion is rather inverse : 60 % of the best students are girls. The reason is that the best among the girls could have applied to one of the more selective “classe prépas” but refrained to do so for fear of being confronted to a stressful environment, with a lot of competition and… boys. Many of them seem to underestimate their chance of success in such an environment.

Lastly, in the final year of our formation (which is the fifth), the students must choose an option that will largely determine their future career. We offer a wide range of choices, from aeronautics to medical engineering and computer sciences. It is a fact that girls do not evenly distribute themselves among these different options. However, there is a fair amount of girls in each one of them.

So my experience largely confirms that the “negative feedback” effect of having too many samples of a single sex in a class acts as a magnifying glass on the small differences of taste between boys and girls, which nevertheless do exist. Also, the girls tend to underestimate their talents.

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### 46 Responses to Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?

1. CIP says:

But this mostly ignores the fact that women have suceeded very well in lots of fields filled with giant egos and mysogynistic males, like law, medicine and pop music. The real question is what makes the situation in physics different.

2. tt says:

those fields all pay better ?

3. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

You would do well to solicit women in physics and mathematics, and only women in physics and mathematics, to comment on this post. Otherwise, you are right to avoid the topic. The discussion is inevitably both depressing and uninformative. With a female contingent feeling safe to open up simply state their impressions and experiences without being grilled over them, you might well still end up depressed, but you have a chance to actually learn something.

4. Peter Woit says:

LMMI,
Excellent advice. Please, women with something to say about this are highly encouraged to comment. Men, on the other hand, are equally highly encouraged to first reflect on whether or not they really know what they are talking about if they feel compelled.

5. she physicist says:

In my opinion, the main question asked in the article was answered in the book Pitagora’s Trousers. Yes, as the book amply demonstrates, the physics as done by teams of men is a sort of unisex religious congregation where women trespassers are regarded as disturbances of the holy male soul.
As a female physicist who has worked both in a former communist state and the US, I encountered the most (in fact, the only) adversity and prejudice in the US academic environment.

6. Koray says:

I am a man, so I don’t know what I am talking about. But, this post’s last article makes an excellent point: perhaps there are few women in STEM because they know better. I sympathize with women who hear discouraging remarks and face discrimination, and I don’t dispute their experiences, but I don’t think anybody cares whether the men in those fields treat each other also like crap.

Everybody knows Steve Jobs’ reputation. He’d totally crush the even the best of his people. Perhaps these fields are generally hostile & unrewarding (pay, social life, etc.) to everybody, so it takes the kind of person more commonly found among men to stick with it despite the abuse.

7. Bill says:

Those in power must encourage women at the highest level. For example, giving the Fields Medal to a woman would do more good for mathematics in the long run than “getting it right” (whatever that means).

8. Jerry Moore says:

I read this article about an hour before finding your post here. I agree with your analysis, it is a very well written article, but also has those groaners about the 1 million STEM “shortfall” and blithely mentioning the shockingly low salaries, although I wonder how much of the latter is because the people being polled were faculty, who are used to paying grad students?

Currently I have a female relative who is considering engineering as a college major. I want to encourage her, but also let her know what she faces (at least the salary issue isn’t so bad). What a shame that such a thing has to be a mixed message, and that like the young women quoted in this article “we don’t care what people think” is a necessary attitude.

9. LV says:

As a female physics graduate student from Canada, I thought I’d chime in with my (very positive) experience. In my last year of undergrad, when I was feeling particularly awful (who doesn’t when they are panicking over exams while also trying to figure out what to do with their life?) I had several profs ask me in utter bewilderment why I wasn’t applying to graduate school, and then offer to be my supervisor. Then, during my Masters, I had the most encouraging supervisor, the sort of professor who takes his teaching and mentoring responsibilities very seriously. Halfway through, I was feeling particularly inadequate and unable to do the work, but I felt comfortable enough to talk to him about my concerns, and it was thanks to him that I decided to continue on to do my PhD. I don’t know if maybe the climate in Canada is different from in the US, or if I just managed to luck out, but I just wanted to point out that there are definitely physicists out there who are very supportive of their students, whether or not they are male or female. Emphasizing the good this does could maybe encourage others to start taking mentoring seriously as well. So many students I know drop out because their professors did not pay attention to them, did not take the time to provide access to data and information, and did not send them to conferences or schools where they could collaborate with and learn from others in their field.

10. X says:

I wonder if solutions to the problems of bias might be more welcomed if they weren’t specifically indicated as being against sexism. Plenty of people are going to argue that they know they’re not sexist, but no scientist would try to argue “Blinding isn’t necessary for this experiment, because I know I’m not biased.” There are plenty of biases (race, class, gender, attractiveness, social connections), and we could stamp out the lot at once using standard techniques that remove systematic error.

11. I think we need enough women in physics to set off a positive feedback loop; this seems to have happened in biology where the initial concentration of fuel “seeded” the next generation. Plus the article’s point that culturally women seem to be much more discouraged to go into physics rather than biology seems very relevant. So is the point that both American men and women themselves seem to think of looks and intelligence in a woman as mutually exclusive properties. This has to change.

12. averageGuy says:

There’s a blog set up that describes women’s experiences being a professional philosopher and the amount of wretched sexism and misogyny they experience (http://beingawomaninphilosophy.wordpress.com/). Jordan Ellenberg blogged about it and asked if the situation was similar in mathematics. Izabella Lada chimed in and said that it was comparable. I imagine the same thing can be said of physics as well, and I would guess that one of the main issues with women avoiding STEM professions. Just from anecdotal experience, I am a male software developer, and I have a surprisingly large number of female colleagues (~60%), but they all hail from different countries that encourage women to participate in STEM-related subjects. Not a single American. It’s not hard to see that the issue is specific to our cultural attitudes towards women and what their place is in society.

13. another woman-physicist says:

I see as a great problem the aging male majority in physics, which is still in charge (and getting even older by the minute). They have grown in time when there were even fewer women around in the field and they never learned to relate comfortably with women in professional setting. The fact that they feel uncomfortable with female students means that these students will not get sufficient encouragement or mentoring. We will be stuck with these unfortunate old guys attitudes for yet many years to come.

14. Hack says:

I have seen chauvinist pigs in action and it cracks me up that the supposedly brightest and most educated people on the planet are still a bunch of neanderthals! Those neanderthals should enter the 21st century, maybe they need to go back and take Sociology 101.

No I am not a woman, but I have seen women get marginalized quite often and drop out of graduate school or decide to leave their field after they graduate.

15. Hack says:

Sorry, have to add one more thing, if you have not noticed that women get marginalized in the sciences, you must either be at an extraordinary department (where it doesn’t happen) or have your head in the sand.

16. M says:

A statistics from the European Union shows that women are the majority in soft sciences (such as psychology) and are the minority in hard sciences (physics, mathematics, engineering…), where success criteria are more objective. The difference increases in countries (such as Sweden) where people have more freedom to follow personal preferences.
The reason of the difference is simply that males and females have, on average, different interests, as confirmed by sociological and biological studies. The “gender” ideology that postulates no sexual differences and wants to explain differences with discriminations is wrong.

17. lun says:

While this topic is superficially different from the main thrust of this blog, some parallels do come to mind.
Most theoretical physicists will swear up, down and sideways that their field is the most meritocratic on earth, that it is truly the community of the smartest people in the world (as Arkani-Hamed put it in the lecture you blogged about a few posts ago) united in pursuit of the most basic problems in existence, and nothing except ability matters.

When you point out that this ultra-meritocracy is less diverse than Wall Street and most country-clubs in New York, theoretical physicists tend to get very uncomfortable and defensive, but not budge about the supposed meritocracy of theoretical physics. Many will never ever admit it, but quietly do believe that if there are few women and blacks in physics, it is ultimately because for whatever reason they are not good enough (Wink wink, what could this reason be? This is a great illustration of how “political liberalism in the abstract” and a desire for positive social change “in one’s own backyard” can be very different things).

Fair enough. Except it is amusing that “the most intelligent and meritocratic people on earth” have made practically zero progress on all of the profound questions they spent the last 30 years pursuing! In fact, the people being defensive about physics ethnic/gender lack of diversity and people being defensive about string theory are often the same (there are, to be fair, quite a few commendable exceptions).

Is there a relation between the two phenomena? While the factors in lack of diversity in STEM are many and non-trivial (the article above is very good), group-think, self-selection (quality-by-reference-and-citation), a one-dimensional view of intelligence (intelligence=problem solving ability within the framework set by the senior people) and a view of academia as a rat-race contributes to both amplifying any pre-existing lack of intellectual diversity and enforcing group-think with regard to a particular idea.

An academic structure a bit more intellectually diverse and a bit less of a pressure-cooker would probably become more socially diverse too, for better or for worse.

18. Peter Orland says:

I once heard that the situation for women in astrophysics was better than in physics as a whole. Can any woman astrophysicists verify (or vehemently contradict) this statement?

19. Kavanna says:

Often, this situation is grasped at the wrong end of the stick.

Let’s not underestimate the “bullheaded stupidity” factor, which males in their 20s exhibit to a greater degree than do females of the same age. How many of those male students will make it to tenure-track positions, much less tenure? The majority will drop out, either from their doctoral programs, or later on the academic career track. My experience is that the female students simply size up the academic job market better and sooner than do their male counterparts. They finish with either a bachelors or, often, with a masters, then leave academia for better and less chancy opportunities elsewhere.

This reality is closely related to the push to get more STEM graduates and immigrants, to allow employers to hire a continuing flow of younger and lower-salary workers, rather than be forced to hire older and more experienced workers at higher salaries.

That said, there’s no doubt that prejudice is still a factor, although far less than 40 years ago. Much of it is a function of age, also abundantly confirmed by my own experience. Senior faculty under 60 or 50 are less prejudiced in the way described in the posting. It also varies significantly by field; for example, chemistry and biology have more women in them at the career level. But more women are attracted to those fields as students in the first place.

20. Anon says:

M above says it perfectly: “The reason of the difference is simply that males and females have, on average, different interests, as confirmed by sociological and biological studies. The “gender” ideology that postulates no sexual differences and wants to explain differences with discriminations is wrong.”

How true. Most women I know are totally disinterested in science and would rather die than work in a field they consider completely boring. As ever, men get the blame, but this is nothing to do with discrimination. Women prefer doing other things.

21. Peter Orland says:

Anon,

“Most women I know are totally disinterested in science and would rather die than work in a field they consider completely boring.”

So are most men. So what? Anecdotal evidence is a great debating tool, but it can’t be used to establish facts (and there is nothing you said above which is factual). For that you need statistics.

22. CU Phil says:

This comment thread has developed in the most predictable manner possible.

23. Z says:

The situation is slightly better in astronomy, but only observational astronomy. There are very few distinguished or even tenured female astrophysics theorists (and the ones I know work at NASA as research scientists, where supposedly bias is less tolerated or overt than universities).

Then there is the whole LGBT issue which isn’t even being commented upon in this discussion. I know of one physics/astronomy graduate student that is biologically male but psychologically female and is undergoing hormone therapy. I have been asked by one older male faculty member “what” this person was at a conference, with their face aghast. LGBT people, as far as I know, are nonexistent in tenured physics/astronomy faculty even compared to women and far far more needs to be done to recruit and retain them.

24. averageGuy says:

@Peter Orland: Agreed. Not only that, but if we are going to value anecdotal evidence then we should rely on the testimony of women because they are the group of people who are being pushed out of STEM occupations. From the article, women say the following:

pg 2:

Another student was the only girl in her AP physics class from the start. Her classmates teased her mercilessly: “You’re a girl. Girls can’t do physics.” She expected the teacher to put an end to the teasing, but he didn’t.

Other women chimed in to say that their teachers were the ones who teased them the most. In one physics class, the teacher announced that the boys would be graded on the “boy curve,” while the one girl would be graded on the “girl curve”; when asked why, the teacher explained that he couldn’t reasonably expect a girl to…

pg 3:

After the tea, a dozen girls stayed to talk. “The boys in my group don’t take anything I say seriously,” one astrophysics major complained. “I hate to be aggressive. Is that what it takes? I wasn’t brought up that way. Will I have to be this aggressive in graduate school? For the rest of my life?” Another said she disliked when she and her sister went out to a club and her sister introduced her as an astrophysics major. “I kick her under the table. I hate when people in a bar or at a party find out I’m majoring in physics. The minute they find out, I can see the guys turn away.”

And I’ll stop quoting because I’ll end up quoting the entire article. Frankly I find it a bit disturbing that women’s first-hand testimony is being dismissed so callously.

25. Peter Woit says:

Please all, unfortunately I agree with CU Phil. Unless you’ve got something particularly insightful to say about this, please restrain yourself. The phenomenon of men convinced that their voice must be heard on any topic is actually part of the problem.

And bringing in other hot-button topics that are not really relevant and guaranteed to draw dumb arguments is not helpful (no, I don’t think the solution to the gender-diversity problems in science is that we need to do more to encourage biological males, but just the ones interested in gender transformation).

26. srp says:

Based on the original post, most problems in the field would be solved if physics departments served lattes in addition to their other functions. Or perhaps a chain of CERN cafes?

27. Jeff M says:

Just a couple of reasonably well informed (I hope) comments. I’m chair of a math department, I’ve been involved in a bunch of searches. I don’t think the issue can much be that women don’t go into physics because they realize that there’s no future in academic physics – while the job market in math isn’t great by any stretch, it’s much better than physics and we have the same problem finding women. In my experience plenty of places are trying, but not so much at the highest levels. A “critical mass” of women somewhere really good would definitely help, it already has. Carolyn Gordon has been at Dartmouth since I was in grad school (a long time ago in a galaxy far far away) and she has produced a ton of great female students, many of whom have stayed in academia. A few of them are at research 1 schools. Lipman Bers (my thesis grandfather) had about 50 PhD students, 15 or so were women (he was active from the 40s to the 80s, mostly at NYU and Columbia, top schools). A number of them (Tilla Klotz, Linda Keen, Lesley Sibner at least) went on to have students of their own.

28. LogicFan says:

This is indeed a problem, including in my field, philosophy. It is a problem which thankfully we are all waking up to. There is not much research on the reason for the gender imbalances, and I think figuring out, empirically, why women are not present in equal numbers should be the first step. We have little data on the problem in philosophy, but that which we do have suggest that we “lose” women at the undergraduate level, before they declare their major. We don’t know why this is the case.

One totally unhelpful approach is to ask only “women in physics and mathematics, and only women in physics and mathematics, to comment on this” and then to regard that as “Excellent advice”. That is terrible advice. This is a problem that confronts our professions as a whole, and the solutions are going to come from the professions as a whole. I certainly agree with Peter Woit’s assessment that discussions like these become “ideologically-driven”, but that’s partly owing to a lack of diversity of opinion. The idea that only women know why there are so few women in science is ridiculous (e.g. some of the leading researchers on gender imbalance are men).

One important question to address is this. I tend to think that the reason we lose female philosophers at the pre-major declaration level is that women do not find the career attractive. In just the same way that women do not find being a plumber an attractive career. If this is true, whose interest are we serving in promoting greater equality? It may be, as lun interestingly observed, that the academic mission may benefit from greater gender diversity. I believe this to be true in philosophy. But then we are not doing it for the sake of women. This may be unobjectionable, but it does imply that the women are the means rather than the end.

29. Anonyrat says:

In response to CIP:

Women in law in the US: (PDF file)
http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/marketing/women/current_glance_statistics_feb2013.authcheckdam.pdf

While they’re doing better than women in physics, it isn’t yet a bastion of equality.

Likewise, women in academic medicine in the US: (PDF file)
https://members.aamc.org/eweb/upload/Women%20in%20U%20S%20%20Academic%20Medicine%20Statistics%20and%20Benchmarking%20Report%202011-20123.pdf

Seriously, pop music? In any case, women went through their difficulties there as well. e.g., (powerpoint)
http://virtual.clemson.edu/caah/women/ws301/ppt/wopopmus/Women%20in%20Pop%20Music.ppt

It is still within living memory that women could not join the Musicians’ Union.

I suppose physics is on the lagging edge of society as far as opportunities for women are concerned.

30. Peter Woit says:

I’m deleting all of the flood of incoming comments from men explaining that the answer to the question of the title is just that women are stupider than men. Sorry, but such a discussion is great for getting people worked up, but never leads to any insight about anything,

31. usually amused' but not this time says:

“In particular, in my experience academic departments do take seriously the issue at the point of the graduate school admission process, with often a careful attempt to identify promising female applicants.”

At my university (somewhere in Asia) we had an outstanding female undergraduate student. She completed the 4 year maths honors program in 3 years, and still graduated as the top student of that year. To put this achievement in perspective, at this university we are able to recruit some of the best students from China and elsewhere in the region thanks to our many undergraduate scholarships (approx 30-40 per year). The standard of these foreign scholarship students is very high, most of them are very ambitions and motivated, so graduating as the top student in that group is quite an accomplishment.
Besides that, she demonstrated ability to do maths research at a high level: The research problems she solved for her undergraduate thesis led to 2 publications in the quality maths journal C.R.Acad.Sci.Paris, joint with her advisor. (Her advisor gave her the problems, she solved them.)

I and others strongly encouraged her to apply to top universities for PhD, telling her that she belongs at such a place (which she clearly does). (I’m not her thesis advisor but know her from other contexts.) But there was no need to encourage her because she was already very motivated to do exactly that. Her dream was to do PhD and postdocs(s) at top universities in USA and then get a maths faculty position at one of the best universities back in China.

Well, she applied to Princeton, Harvard and other top universities for PhD and was turned down by all of them.

Her reaction was to assume that it was because she just wasn’t good enough to be admitted to those universities. While she she had 2 publications in a quality maths journal, the students who get admitted to Princeton etc probably have 5 or 6 such publications as undergraduates, right?

I’m puzzled about why it didn’t work out for her, considering that we’ve had (male) students admitted to top universities for PhD in the past and her accomplishments are better then theirs. One factor could be that her undergraduate thesis advisor is a non-famous person and I have doubts about his ability to do a good job with the recommendation letter. But that shouldn’t matter if the selection committee is really making “a careful attempt to identify promising female applicants”. Relatively weak recommendation letters for strong female applicants is the most obvious thing to identify and adjust for.

Another thing that makes this disappointing is that, despite the hype, the average PhD student at Princeton etc is really nothing special. E.g. many of the physics PhD students can’t manage to publish a paper on their own in PRL, and some of them can’t even do research without having their hand held/riding on a coattail…. It’s ridiculous that the talented female student in this case is probably going to go through life thinking that she wasn’t good enough for Princeton while the reality is that she is probably better than the majority of the PhD students who were admitted there.

32. NumCracker says:

The title is quite biased. There is still so few women in HEP physics, not in Science in a broad context.

33. woj says:

Our 8 year old daughter has joined CAGIS (Canadian Association for Girls In Science)

http://www.cagis.ca/

This is from their website:
Many years of research throughout Canada and the United States has shown that girls begin science education at a disadvantage and fall behind in school, not because of lack of interest, but because of lack of exposure. A recent University of Michigan study found that giving girls hands-on science activities helped close the gap.

34. Andrew Foland says:

So I’m a man, but would like to pass along a talk by a woman that helped me at least understand some things: http://www.cfa.harvard.edu/cfawis/kathryn_johnston.pdf

(I think you might even have mentioned this talk before, Peter)

35. Kavanna says:

My experience of divergent science careers of men and women in other countries is limited and somewhat out of date. But it’s worth relating.

European countries gave me the impression of being divergent themselves. Germany seemed moderately negative for women, France quite negative, Britain and other northwestern European countries modestly positive, with Spain and Italy the most positive (surprisingly). I don’t know much about eastern Europe.

One commonality between France and the US is that, at least in the universities, the culture is very hierarchical, with a rigid pecking order, and a long path to getting a tenured position. The other systems seem less rigid. Contrary to what many Americans think, the US academic system is one of the world’s most rigid, as many scientists (mostly male) have related to me over the years. The rigidity has an effect on everyone, but differentially more so on women. The French system is famously rigid.

Everyone should also think about science outside academia, in government and industry. The sex differences are generally less, sometimes strikingly so. We spend too much time obsessing about academia, instead of seeing how odd academia is.

36. Peter Woit says:

Also being deleted: all the people who want to go on in general terms about the “nature of men” or the “nature of women” and how they are different. Hardly anyone I know well fits into such mindless categorizations, and these have nothing really to do with the specific experiences and issues raised in the article I linked to.

37. Anonymous Math Faculty says:

To “usually amused”:

I’ve served on the graduate admissions committee for a top mathematics program in the U.S., and one of our hardest problems is evaluating applications from China. The recommendation letters are all uniformly glowing, and all the applicants do very well on the GRE. So the only things we have to go on are the grades, which it seems really only tell us anything useful for the top few schools in China (and apparently not even then if the applicant is “well-connected”).

38. Anonyrat says:
39. Lynne Jolitz says:

Peter,

I am a Berkeley physics alumna. I also have a daughter who is completing her senior year at Berkeley in physics and mathematics (double major) and preparing for graduate school. She is also President of the Society of Physics Students chapter at Berkeley, so she interacts with many physics majors, men and women.

Because we have both gone through the program, we have shared many perspectives on how things have changed for women in physics and how things have stayed the same.

One thing we both agree upon is that the Berkeley physics department is, overall, receptive to women, with women in both leadership and research positions. When I was a student, there were few women but they were actively recruiting. Now there are quite a few women at the professorial and graduate student level.

But socially, physics has not improved among the students. Even though there are many women physics majors, it was difficult for my daughter to convince women to join in SPS activities, such as faculty-student lunches and special seminars. “Are there any other women involved?”, would be the usual tentative question. The fear of being the only woman in a sea of men (many of whom are still very immature and vulgar — even in front of faculty) has made it unattractive to many women.

I saw the exact same problem (and we *did* have only a handful of women) in physics when I was at Berkeley. It was especially acute in plasma physics. I ended up as the only woman student in my senior year plasma physics course due to the difficulty of the course and the winnowing effect of small numbers (my professor, though, was an absolute gem and did not allow any misconduct in his class). I ended up doing all my upper division lab work alone because I could not get anyone (all men) to be my lab partner even though I was an excellent lab student. I never was invited to a study group, and I did all my problem sets in the library alone.

Unlike the other few women in the major, I had the support of family and an active entrepreneurial life outside the university. I made an effort to attend seminars (both in physics and CS), ask questions, and meet faculty and people in industry so I would not feel isolated nor uncomfortable at being “the only woman in the room”. This has served me well in my career in Silicon Valley.

It is through seminars, courses and events like faculty-student lunches where students, men and women, develop the relationships to get advice and encouragement towards graduate school. My daughter is working to encourage both professional interest *and* civility with the encouragement and assistance of faculty, but she says it isn’t easy.

Bullying at the undergraduate and graduate level is a severe problem, and misogyny and harassment is a common attack point to undermine perceived rivals. I don’t claim this is induced by the study of physics, but instead this is an ugly reflection of our society. To ignore it or belittle it (the old “toughen up” nonsense) degrades the professionalism and scholarship of any program and should not be tolerated.

Ironically, I was also Treasurer of the Computer Science Undergraduate Association at Berkeley at the time and there were plenty of women in that “male” major (approx 40%) who would tell me about immense amounts of harassment and vulgarity, yet they endured it because CS was an exciting field. Now the percentages are reversed, so the progress in physics and math has been met by a drop in CS and engineering.

CS and engineering, frankly, never did deal with their “woman” problem. The “toughen up” approach to harassment and bullying was endured while it was a lucrative career option, but it was never a sustaining one.

I love physics. And I loved my experience in the Berkeley physics department. It gave me the tools and the courage to look at problems and solve them in new and innovative ways.

I would hope we will continue to face openly that bullying and contempt for individuals studying physics based merely on their gender, their race, or their beliefs is damaging to physics, to scholarship and to our society.

40. Thomas Themel says:

I think it should also be mentioned that the quoted anecdote took place in or before 1978 according to the article.

41. usually amused' but not this time says:

Anonymous Maths Faculty,

Thanks for responding. The situation in this case is a bit different from what you seem to be imagining. I understand the problem you mentioned since I have to deal with it myself when assessing PhD applications from China. But ours is not some random unheard of university (and not even in China). We are in the top 100 in the world in a couple of rankings, and our best maths/physics graduates regularly get admitted to top universities for PhD. In the past we have had students accepted at Harvard, MIT, Berkeley, Stanford,…(I don’t remember hearing of anyone accepted at Princeton but there might be someone).
So when our top graduate, who happens to be female, doesn’t get accepted for PhD at any top university, even though her accomplishments are clearly superior to our other graduates who were accepted at top universities in the past, then it is very puzzling… Especially in light of the claim that there is “a careful attempt to identify promising female applicants”.

You mentioned the problem of assessing students from foreign universities – glowing references from faculty you haven’t heard of, and stellar grades in academic systems whose standards you aren’t familiar with – and I understand the difficulties that causes. But I think you know the quality of the maths journal C.R.Acad.Sci.Paris… This student had 2 publications there from her undergraduate thesis research (as I mentioned)… So your excuses are void in this case.

In your experience, how many publications in quality maths journals as undergraduates do the successful PhD applicants to top universities have on average? (My guess is less than 0.5.)

Isn’t it true that, when assessing PhD applications to top universities, recommendation letters from famous people at illustrious institutions trump demonstrated research ability as documented by publications in quality maths journals as an undergraduate? This is a significant consideration for the general issue of gender bias and other biases, since recommendations depend a lot on the “gut feeling” of the writer, in which all kinds of biases can manifest themselves. On the other hand, quality research publications are a much more objective indicator of the quality of the candidate.

Isn’t it also true that the “careful attempt to identify promising female applicants” in PhD applications to top US universities is intended for American female students from elite undergraduate institutions in cases where they are less confident and/or motivated, causing them to do less well than male peers, but does not include highly motivated and confident foreign female graduates who massively outperformed their male peers and published papers in quality maths journals as undergraduates, etc.? For those foreign female applicants it’s business as usual as far as gender biases go, right?

42. anonymous says:

Question for usually `amused’ but not this time:

Did any slightly less qualified students from your university get accepted to the same top graduate programs in the same year that the woman who was rejected did? Sometimes schools accept fewer students in general, especially foreign, during economic dips. Depending on the year, it’s a possibility. That said, the situation you describe sounds like a quite unfortunate failure of the system.

Anyway, speaking as a man, I think I agree most with woj that the main problem is lack of exposure. This imbalance begins long before college. And by the time students get to college, how many physics survey courses cover what physicists actually do? Pre-meds learn about springs and pulleys and levers and spherical cows in a vacuum. Actual physicists learn about (and actively study) dark energy and dark matter and Bell inequality violations and non-Abelian anyons, and… People (and by that I mean Americans) grow up in a society where physics is considered a boring subject, where only (white) men have the time and privilege to concern themselves with – nay, are expected to be responsible for – the boring stuff that nobody else wants to waste his or her life doing. Thankfully my many female labmates and collaborators (integrating through the years even two open lesbians and a bisexual) have seen through this social construct. They are at once totally excellent at physics and totally girly or at least comfortable with who they are. And I assume that springs and pulleys are as equally boring to them as they are to me.

43. Paul says:

I am in the MIT math department. Do you have an outstanding female undergraduate student who you’ve taught personally (!), and who would do great in our PhD program? Email me in early January and give me the applicant’s name, so I can double-check. Nothing specific to us, I’m sure it would work elsewhere as well.

44. anonymous says:

Here’s another way of framing the argument I said about lack of exposure. How many times do parents think, “My child is a girl, so she’s probably not interested in visiting the science museum this weekend”? You would hope that her science classes in school would counteract this tendency. Then again, how many science teachers at the elementary or middle school level know anything at all about dark matter? Not many, I imagine, because their education major didn’t require it. So young students end up learning that physics is either something esoteric that Newton, Einstein, and a few other great, white men have already solved, or just a bunch of boring springs and pulleys. This is a safe approach for an elementary science teacher who doesn’t want to be confronted with students’ questions about dark matter that the teacher can’t answer.

I believe it would be much more helpful to portray physics as a list of mind-boggling open questions that are so difficult that only diverse, multi-gender, multi-racial, international collaborations can solve them. Really? We only understand a small fraction of the universe? I personally can grow up to be one of the team players who discovers the rest of the universe? And I can even levitate frogs and shoot lasers at shiny objects along the way? This approach might be outside the comfort zone of the existing pool of elementary science teachers who like to give their students the illusion that they know everything. But I believe it’s the right way to do it, especially because it has the benefit of being true.

With this new approach, once there are enough “seeds” at an earlier level, you can eventually reach a critical mass of women by the time you get to the college or professional level. Sure, there might be some remaining bias against hiring, for example, a pregnant woman. But at least with enough women around in general (and enough of the old, white men dying off) the bias will be at a level more comparable to what exists in other fields.

45. vmarko says:

IMO, there are apparently at least two diferent effects at play here. One is the society-level bias, discouraging females from getting interested in physics via a passive gender stereotype images all arounsd us. This starts from an early age, and continues throughout life, making too few women getting professionally involved in physics to begin with. The second effect is the professional bias in academia, that happens to that already small number of women who did get involved in physics.

We can fight against the latter inside academia, but the former needs to be addressed at the level of global society, which is much more inert, and needs much more time to fix.

Best, 🙂
Marko

46. Banona says:

Paul says:
October 5, 2013 at 11:39 am

I am in the MIT math department. Do you have an outstanding female undergraduate student who you’ve taught personally (!), and who would do great in our PhD program? Email me in early January and give me the applicant’s name, so I can double-check. Nothing specific to us, I’m sure it would work elsewhere as well.

This is without a doubt the most disgusting comment I have ever read in this blog. Someone willing to bend the rules because an applicant is female.

All this talk of too few women somewhere always evolves into this. Special access to people that just can’t cut it and want to game the system through sociological excuses.

BTW Peter, remove this again and I will post it again, and again, and again. I will never let go because quite frankly, this is too bad to just ignore.

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