Howard Georgi gave a colloquium at Fermilab last week, and the slides and video from his talk are now online. He has gathered quite a lot of interesting data about women in the various sciences at the undergraduate and graduate level, and he discusses his experiences at Harvard over the years as he became more aware of the problems experienced by women studying physics. As chair of the department and in other capacities, he has tried to understand why there are so few women studying physics, significantly fewer than in the other sciences, concluding that “Many of our women physics concentrators were trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship with the Harvard Physics Department!!!”. He also concluded that it was “past time to outgrow the hypermacho lone-ranger approach to physics”, and that this would make the field more fun for everyone.
The whole issue of why so few women study physics (and math) seems to me a complicated one since it is mostly about the very complex and tricky ways in which people deal with how others expect them to fit into certain behavior and roles appropriate to their gender. I don’t think the “emotionally abusive relationship” that Georgi describes the Harvard department as having with its students is limited to the female ones. While I can say that in many ways I very much enjoyed my time as an undergraduate there, the great majority of the faculty were less than friendly to the students (with Georgi a prominent exception), and the general level of social skills of both the faculty and many of one’s fellow students left a lot to be desired. According to Georgi, changes have been made to the culture of the place and it is much more encouraging of its students. This is part of a general trend at many US institutions, partly because of increased sensitivity to gender issues, partly just because the students are paying a lot more to be there than they used to, and their increased dollars get them increased attention and respect.
Then again, they now have Lubos Motl, so the Harvard department’s traditions of hyper-aggressive behavior have not totally been lost.