Preposterous Universe

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Our physics colloquium today was a departure; instead of a distinguished visitor telling us about forefront research, we had a talk by our own celebrated cosmologist Michael Turner. But he wasn't talking about cosmology; for the last six months Michael has been in charge of the Mathematics and Physical Sciences Division at the National Science Foundation, and came back to tell us what life was like at the NSF.

At the end of his talk he left us with assignments: what tasks, in his opinion, were most important for the physics community at this moment. Number one in order of importance was to "broaden who we are," by which he means to diversify away from domination by white males. To get an idea of the importance he was placing on this, the number two task was "do great science."

Physics has been dominated by white men throughout its modern history. This fact doesn't necessarily set it apart from other disciplines; but the depressing reality is that the situation in physics is improving only exceedingly slowly, if at all. Michael showed this picture of the University of Chicago physics faculty in 2000; more than thirty faces, none of them female. (At the time we actually had two women faculty, neither of whom happened to be present for the photo; now we have three, out of more than fifty faculty total.) We are not unrepresentative; less than ten percent of physics professors in the US are women, and it's much worse at the senior level.

The graph shown on the right plots the percentage of women earning Ph.D.'s in selected fields, between 1980 and 1998. (Click the figure for more details.) It illustrates that the situation seems to be getting a little bit better, but also highlights how far we are from most other fields.

Why is it like that? I really don't know. Anyone who has actually interacted with bright female physicists and students knows that the best women are just as good as the best men. There are also dramatic differences from country to country in the percentage of women in physics. So whatever the problem is, it's not inevitable; there is something about our system that dissuades women from going into physics (and math, and engineering, and computer science).

My suspicion is that there is no one focused obstacle, and this is what makes the problem so hard to solve. Certainly there is sexism within the physics community, in all sorts of manifestations. I have seen straightforward examples of outright discrimination, where a male physicist would downgrade the abilities of a student or colleague simply because she was female; more commonly, a kind of unconscious sexism is at work, in which insecure men will simultaneously flirt (awkwardly) with women while not taking them seriously as researchers. This is the hardest to eradicate, since the perpetrators would never possibly accept that they weren't extremely supportive of women in science. But in addition to direct sexism, there are elements of the scientific environment that are hostile, or even just uninteresting/unattractive, to female students, who subsequently leave the field of their own accord.

Unfortunately, the situation won't be fixed by well-intentioned university departments aggressively pursuing the best women students or faculty (although they should). The problem begins back when children are very young, and girls are gently but persistently diverted away from science by a million subtle pressures. It might be that the only way to achieve gender equality in science is to completely overhaul the society, which strikes me as a big project (although worth undertaking).

Of course women are not the whole story when it comes to diversity; African-Americans, for example, are equally badly under-represented. But in that case the problem seems less subtle to me; it just doesn't seem very surprising, since the economic conditions in which African-Americans grow up are often much worse than for whites, and the educations are correspondingly poorer. Physics, or academia more generally, is not a common career choice in families where it's a struggle just to get a decent education. So to increase the representation of African-Americans in physics, all we have to do is to end economic inequality between the races in America. Easier diagnosed than accomplished, I suppose.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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