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Views From an Affirmative Activist


By Howard Georgi

January 2000

Dr. Howard Georgi is Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics at Harvard University, a winner of the Sakurai prize of the American Physical Society, and a member of the National Academy of Science. Prof. Georgi presented this talk several times as a Phi Beta Kappa visiting scholar in 1997.

AFFIRMATIVE ACTION seems to have become a divisive issue. I think that this
is sad, because I believe that there are situations in which it should not be controversial,
if properly understood. I feel strongly that affirmative action to encourage women in science
continues to be important, and today I want to explain why. In my view, there are two basic and
related issues — evaluation and climate. I firmly believe that improvements in these areas will be
good for everyone, not just women.


Let me begin by apologizing in advance about what I will not do. I will not talk about the issue of racial
and ethnic minorities in physics. This is not because I do not think that it is important, but because I have so little experience with it that I have nothing useful to say. In physics, at least, there is a chicken and egg problem here. There are so few minorities at any level that it is hard to know where to start.
Secondly, I will talk primarily about women in physics, because that is the issue I know best. I
believe that problems in other physical sciences and engineering are very similar, but the biomedical
sciences undoubtedly have quite a different set of issues, and I don't pretend to understand those as well. Finally, I apologize to those of you who have come expecting a scientific talk, with lots of statistics and graphs. I am just going to tell you stories. I would like to have better statistics, but I really don't think that any statistics can capture the essence of what is going on here.


I thought I would begin by going back a few years to when I was chair of the physics department
at Harvard, just by way of revealing my biases right at the beginning. When I began as
chair, we had no tenured women in the physics department. I am pleased to say that we now
have two terrific tenured women on our faculty, both promoted from junior faculty positions. I
played some part in both appointments. Of course, the hard part is done by the women
themselves, by being outstanding physicists. But a good chair can do some good and a bad chair
can do enormous harm, so it may be worth talking about what the chair does.


The first appointment, to Melissa Franklin, occurred while I was chair, and I spent much time and energy shepherding the appointment through endless faculty meetings and, just as important at Harvard, through our Byzantine Ad Hoc Committee system, in which the department has to convince the president of the University that the appointment is a good one. A chair who is willing to work at it and be an advocate really helps.


The second woman, Mara Prentiss, was promoted soon after I passed on the key to the
chair's office to the next victim. In this case, while I was chair, I think that I was some help as
a mentor, even though we are in very different subfields. I did my best to protect Mara from getting sucked into too much committee work, I helped negotiate for lab space and secretarial help for her. And I gave a lot of advice (some of which I hope was useful). I also made some mistakes that she had to try to
recover from. For example, when she first arrived, I assigned her to teach a big lecture course that didn't match her skills very well. My intentions were good — I wanted the undergraduate physics majors to have contact with women faculty early in their careers — but it just didn't work, so Mara had some poor teaching evaluations on her record. Fortunately, she was spectacularly good at other kinds of teaching, particularly getting undergraduates involved in research. So she was able to make the case that her teaching was good in
spite of my initial mistake.


Promoting women to the senior faculty uses up the outstanding women on the junior faculty,
and I was less successful in attracting new women junior faculty while I was chair. I was
able to modify the way we searched for junior faculty candidates. Previously, searches had been
run by individual research groups. I convinced my colleagues that all searches should be run by
independent search committees through the chair's office. Let me tell you a couple of stories
about the first junior faculty search that was done this way. I won't divulge what subfield of
physics we were searching in.


Following the suggestion of my friend Barbara Grosz, a computer scientist who was acting Dean of Affirmative Action, I wrote my search letter to specifically ask for a list of top women and minority candidates in the field, even if they were not at the same level as the candidates the writer was recommending. The request went like this:

“If you know of strong candidates, please write to us at the address above. We are particularly eager to find qualified women and minority candidates. We would be grateful if you could identify for us the top few women and minority candidates in the field, even if they are not on your list. This will help us to assess the status of women and minorities in the field.”

I thought that this request was pretty direct and unambiguous and that it was a very clever idea,
because it would encourage the letter writers to at least think about the issue of women and
minorities. The letter went out to over 100 active workers in the subfield, but the response was
quite unexpected. Not one of the respondents (including the women) even acknowledged this
request. I am not certain whether this shows the respondents' bias or their inability to read letters.
Still, I think this strategy is worth trying in searches in fields of science where women and minorities
are scarce. In this search, while we did interview a couple of women, they were clearly a
notch below the men, and in my final "affirmativeaction letter'' describing the search to the
Dean, I wrote the following:

“In general, I am not quite sure what ‘affirmative action’ means in a situation in which the minimum job requirement is to be the best candidate. The way I interpret it for myself is this. There is clearly some uncertainty in judging candidates for a junior faculty position. We should do our best to be aware of all the sources of uncertainly. Then if there is a non-negligible chance that a minority candidate will be as successful
as the top white males, we should go for the minority. Alas, by the end of this search there seemed to be no such possibility, and the appointment of a woman would have gone beyond affirmative action to tokenism. We will simply have to try again next time. In spite of my frustration, I feel that the search worked better with
the chair's office involved from the beginning and I will encourage the next chair to continue this policy in future searches.”

I hope that these stories illustrate what I believe are the two overwhelming facts about
women in science. Enormous progress has been made. And there is still a very long way to go.
This is a job for optimists, because you take two steps back for every three steps forward. But the
average has the right sign.


The last also summarizes my view of affirmative action. I believe that reverse discrimination
in a field like physics is not either desirable or viable. To appoint an underqualified faculty member or admit a marginal graduate student because of gender doesn't help anybody. On the other hand, it is depressingly easy, in physics, to fall into the trap of evaluating people according to very narrow criteria. This is a bad thing to do not just because it may discriminate against underrepresented groups, but because it is simply not a sensible way to evaluate people!


Having now revealed some of my biases, let me now go back and try to recall how I got myself into this position.


The subject of women in science is certainly not something that I thought much about during my education or early in my research career. I think that there were three seeds of my current interest.


The first developed when I started to work with graduate students in the 70's and 80's. I
found that working with excellent students was a marvelous way of doing physics, and this got
me involved with graduate admissions. I was also lucky enough to have a series of really outstanding
women students.


The second occurred when I got tenure and started going to senior faculty meetings at Harvard. I gave my reaction to this in a session at an APS meeting and it was picked up by Science magazine, so it has been widely disseminated, but I'll just quote it:

“I was appalled by the old-boys-club atmosphere that oozed from these gatherings,
and I began to feel that an invasion of dragons was needed to shake up the country
club.”

Dragons being, unfortunately, unavailable, it seemed to me that some women faculty might
make the proceedings seem less like something out of an old English novel. This view was
shared by many of my younger colleagues — there developed sort of an informal understanding
among the younger faculty that it was time for a serious effort to attract women faculty.


The third happened when I became department chair, and started looking into some of the
statistics that pour into the department office. Most of these were not broken down by gender,
but there was one that piqued my curiosity so I got other data broken down by gender. I discovered
that on the average our women majors, even the ones we had selected for, and who
stuck it out and got a physics degree, were very unhappy with the department.


Let me now discuss each of these things in more detail. In addition to these three seeds,
which directly involved women, I think that my attitudes towards women in science have been
shaped dramatically by three decades of academic people watching. I will come back to this at
the end.


Graduate students and graduate admissions:

Three things stand out:


1) I had to learn how to work with women graduate students; 2) Having a significant number
of women in the graduate school class makes a big difference; and 3) The GRE physics subject
test discriminates against women — this is a long one.


1. Learning to work with women students

I was fortunate that when I started to work with graduate students, it wasn't so long after I
had been in graduate school myself. I remembered very well what a difficult, complicated
time of life graduate school had been for me. I remembered learning, really for the first time,
how little I knew about this field that I had decided to spend my life in. I remembered going
to seminars (and sometimes even classes) in which I couldn't understand what was going on.
I remembered that it took quite a long time before I realized that nobody else understood
much of what was going on in those seminars either. So it was easy for me to understand some
of my students's problems. This is something that gets harder as I get older.


Graduate school at Harvard is certainly not easier than most. The faculty are a fairly intimidating
lot, even those like me who try to be approachable. Even the cocky young men students
have difficulty, at first, working one-onone with professors. My experience is that
women students tend to be at least outwardly less sure of themselves, which poses extra problems
in communication. At first, I was very bad at dealing with this — the students's diffidence
made it hard for me to communicate as well. Fortunately, my first female student, Sally
Dawson, now at Brookhaven National Lab, was both easygoing and very determined, and stuck
with me in spite of my lack of sensitivity. I got much better with practice.


2. Critical mass

Early on in my tenure on the graduate admissions committee, we had a fortunate fluctuation
— we ended up with a very small graduate class with a relatively large percentage of
extraordinarily smart and interesting women. What impressed me was that this graduate class
developed a personality of its own. There was something different about the class as a whole. I
am not sure that this had anything to do with the high percentage of women in the class.
There were many interesting characters of both sexes. But I think that my experience in getting
to know this class and watching these extraordinary young people develop as physicists helped
to change my vision of the process of physics education. Since then, I have been very conscious
of the need to have some diversity in the graduate class.


Since that year, we have had a number of graduate classes with a large number of women.
This makes a big difference in the climate in the first year graduate courses. This is particularly
important for us because some advanced undergrads take these courses too. In fact, the women
graduate students have instituted a “women's study night” in which the graduate students and
undergraduate women get together for pizza and problem sets. This has helped many of our
undergraduate women. If your department does not already have some such system, I would
encourage you to try to get it started.


3. The physics GRE

I used to be quite good at standardized tests. In fact, when I was in high-school, I felt that I
could do pretty well on one of these tests whether I knew anything about the subject of
not. It was just a fun game. I didn't think much more about this until I took the GRE tests. Again, this was great fun. I remember thinking at that time that I was happy that I had been a Chemistry and Physics major, because my chemistry courses helped me a lot in the Physics subject test.

But when I started in graduate admissions, it was easy to understand why it was hard to get a
high percentage of women in the graduate class. A lot of women got eliminated because they
didn't do well on the GRE Physics Subject Test.


Our system of graduate admissions at Harvard is pretty labor-intensive. We have a
committee of six to eight people who read most of the four hundred or so applications and rate
all the serious applicants from 1 to 10. We then average the ratings and decide on whom to
admit from the top of the list. Each year, there are a few students who are obvious admits, but
there are another hundred who would probably do fine in the Harvard graduate program. From
this group, we admit forty to fifty, expecting twenty to twenty-five to accept our offers. We
recognize that our ratings have large errors. In a good year, we could admit the second group of
40 students rather than the first, and except for the few superstars 10s, we probably couldn't tell
the difference.


The way I think about this process, there are four components of the application: test scores,
undergraduate record, essay, and letters of recommendation. By far the most important of
these, in most cases, are the letters. If we get letters from people we know, or from people who
have recommended other students whom we have accepted, these are just invaluable. The
most useful letters are those that are explicitly comparative. “X has better mathematical skills
than Y who has also applied from our institution, but Y is better in the lab. In fact, Y is better
in the lab than Z who is now a graduate student at Harvard.” That sort of thing. We also hope to
get letters describing some of the research the applicant has done as an undergraduate. This is
really useful.


The assumption here is that the people we will want to admit will make enough of an
impression on some of their teachers or research mentors that they will be able to get useful letters.
We require three letters, but I tell students who ask that if they can get more than three
good letters, it is likely to help. We will certainly read them, because we want all the information
that we can get.


Next most important, in my view, is the essay, and other places on the application where
the applicant can tell us something personal. The essay is where we hope to learn what the
applicant wants to do and why, and to get enough of a sense of his or her personality that
we can make a plausible guess about whether Harvard is the right place for the applicant.


Then there are the grades and test scores. Grades are obviously tricky to use because their
meaning differs from institution to institution, and even from course to course. We do try to
compare grades of applicants from the same institution, and we also look at the pattern of
grades in each applicant's transcript. Did an applicant who wants to quantize gravity have
more trouble with introductory quantum mechanics than with junior lab, for example? But it is a difficult business to use grades to rank the top applicants.


Finally the GREs. We require both the general tests and the physics subject test. And these
scores are very seductive, because they are an apparently quantitative measure of something.
But my experience over the years has made me suspicious of paying too much attention to these
scores. I have no statistics. I'm going to give you purely anecdotal information. But I'm convinced
that there are some problems with the Physics Subject test in particular. So when I am graduate
admissions chair, I try to convince my colleagues on the committee not to rely on it very much. In
fact, I have discussed with my colleagues on the graduate admissions committee whether we
should stop requiring this test, but so far, perhaps because of my limited persuasive powers,
we have not made this change.


One reason we still require the physics subject test is that it is quite useful in one situation.
Each year, we get a few applications from undergraduate institutions that do not send
many students on to graduate school. It is very difficult to interpret the grades and letters from
these places. What does it mean when the student is the best in 20 years from a place that has
never sent a student to physics graduate school? In such cases, we more or less have to rely on
the GREs. At least, a very low GRE score in such a case may cause us to throw out the application
early on, unless there is something really interesting about the rest of the application,
whereas, if the GRE is high, we may try to get more information about the applicant.


There are three kinds of stories I want to tell: about idiot savants, about foreign students,
and about women. I will spend most of my time on the last.


What I mean by an idiot savant in this context has to do with the peculiar character of the
physics concentration at Harvard. We have a very large and very diverse group of physics
majors for a school our size, on the order of 50 students a year (or more depending on how
you count).


We have perfectly normal physics majors who want to learn about all the different kinds of physics that people do. And we have some hot shots who want to focus on some theoretical topic like string theory or quantum gravity. Some of the hot shots are really good and eventually become leaders in physics research. We don't want to discourage them completely, so we do not make it impossible to take very advanced graduate courses as an undergrad, even if that means skipping some of the standard undergraduate fare. The group of hotshots is sometimes said to exhibit an approach to undergraduate physics education that could be described as “first one to quantum field theory wins.”


In fact, however, the hotshots themselves are a very diverse group. On one end of the scale
are the people who are really great, who know a tremendous amount of physics and really love it,
and are just eager to see it at a deeper level. These people, as I have said before, are the reason
we don't require a more rigid set of requirements. At the other end of the spectrum (and
fortunately a much rarer breed) are those whom I call idiot savants.


Every year or so we have some undergraduate student, always a rather aggressive young
man with strong mathematical skills, who takes the hotshot route and does very well in a whole
set of advanced courses, but somehow manages to do it entirely at the level of symbol manipulation,
without learning any physics at all. These students drive you crazy if you are unlucky
enough to have one as an advisee. You can tell from talking to them that they don't know what
they are doing. But it is impossible to convince them that they really ought to take an occasional
course that teaches them about the physical meaning of the symbols they manipulate.


One or two of these idiot savants have actually gone on to successful research careers in
very mathematical areas, but most eventually drift out of physics entirely.


The interesting thing is that these are the students who do best on the GREs. Several times I
have had the experience of looking at an application from one of these students with perfect
scores in all the general tests and the physics subject test, and thinking — “Wow — I know
this guy and he doesn't know any physics!”


Let me now switch gears and talk about foreign students. Here, the interesting thing is how
dramatically different the results of the GRE tests are for different populations of students. It
is clear that if our admissions committee made the physics subject test the primary criterion for
admission, we would fill up our class mostly with students from the People’s Republic of
China. Now there are a lot of very good physics students in the PRC. We don't admit a very large
number of them, but we have taken some over the years, and some have done well. But they are
certainly not as good as you would guess from their Physics GRE scores. It seems clear that
their education prepares them very well for these tests.


Some of you may have seen the interesting and provocative essay on GREs by Neal
Abraham of the Bryn Mawr Physics Department (nabraham@brynmawr.edu) that appeared on the
WIPHYS network. He says the following about this:

“Chinese students report that books of prior exams and exam questions are compiled
by test takers and are available for study by those taking tests. Since most exams are used for several years and since new exams include some old questions for normalization, these students have a significant advantage.... Chinese test takers do more than 1.5 standard deviations better than U.S. test takers.”

This accords well with my own experience. In an admission cycle from 1996 (I wasn't chair
last year, so I don't have as much data), not surprisingly, the U.S. students did 100 points better
on the verbal test. The other general tests are about the same. But the foreign students did
almost 100 points better on the physics subject test. This is even worse than it looks, because
students from places other than the PRC do not show this dramatic difference.


This suggests that the physics subject test tests a specific skill that can be taught, and is
taught very effectively in Chinese schools.


Finally, let me go on to the issue of women students. Again, my impressions here are based
not on statistics, but on people watching. I am treating women here not particularly as an
under-represented group, but rather as the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. I am quite
sure that there is some fraction of talented young men who have difficulties on the Physics
GRE very similar to those experienced by the women. But for some reason, the problem is
much more uniform for women. For whatever reason, women are more sensitive to something
about these tests.


There are two groups that I will discuss, at different levels — Harvard undergrads, and my
own graduate students.

Harvard undergrads traditionally do not do spectacularly on these tests (except for the idiot
savants). We assume that this is because of the flexibility of the program and the fact that we
do nothing special to prepare them for the tests. But we have no way of collecting statistics for
this group except for the subset who actually apply to our graduate program. One thing that I
could easily do was to look over forty or so graduate school recommendations I have written
in the last ten years (which I had on disk in an easily identifiable format) and look to see
whether I mentioned the student's GRE score. I found four letters in which the physics GRE was
mentioned — all of them were for women — in all of them I was explaining that the student's
GRE score was not an accurate indication of her talent in physics.


In fact, I remember two of these cases very well because the students involved were among
the most impressive undergraduates I have ever known. These two were not idiot savant students
who had skipped the undergraduate courses. Both had excellent undergraduate records
and had impressed many faculty members with their deep knowledge of physics.


One case is particularly telling. One of these women was one of our most successful undergraduate
theorists ever. I taught her in several courses and I still remember the experience
many years later because she came up with genuinely new and imaginative ways of solving
familiar problems. When her GRE subject test came in at the 62nd percentile, she and all of the
faculty members who knew her were upset. Not that 62% is a disaster, but it was simply clear
that she was going to be an absolute star. In fact, by this time in her senior year, she was already
doing very significant research. When I looked back in more detail at her grades in the courses
she had taken from me, I did notice that she did not do as well as I would have expected on
timed tests, and I concluded that she reacted very badly to the pressure on these exams.


Looking back over the outstanding young women physicists I have known as undergraduates
at Harvard, I find that the issue of the physics GRE comes up almost universally. Even when
women students do OK on this exam, they find it an unpleasant and even humiliating experience.
The ones I have mentioned are in the 99+ category, so for them, a poor GRE was not a disaster.
They were able to make up for it with excellent recommendations and to go on to top graduate
programs. The real problem is the next level. Many very talented women who do badly on the
GRE subject exam are seriously affected. Some end up in less than ideal graduate programs.
Some get sufficiently upset about it that they consider leaving the field, and some do leave.


Let me now say a few words about my own graduate students. As I said earlier, I have been
blessed with many really outstanding graduate students, of both genders. I get to know these
students very well, so I have very good idea of their talents in physics. Now I happen to think
that physics talent is a multifaceted thing that cannot be measured by a single number, so I
would have been surprised if the GRE score were a very good indication. But it is striking
that in the group of my very best students, the physics GREs of the women were much lower
than those of the men. I inquired about this of one of my former students, who by any sensible
measure was one of the smartest students I ever had (in particular, she is better than I am at precisely
the kinds of things I do best). She told me that the physics GRE was simply too “nerdy” to
be taken seriously by an intelligent women. I'm not sure what that implies about men.


I keep hoping that the GRE tests will change, but I see no sign of this yet. In our applications
in 1996, there was a huge gender difference. The general tests were essentially identical. But
the average for men on the physics subject test was 113 points higher than for women. As with
the foreign students, I think that this difference actually understates the problem. The women
who apply to us are a much more self-selected set than the men. We get many applications from
men which are just not even close. Our educational system seems to select for young men who
are not easily discouraged. The women's applications are, on the average, of higher overall quality,
so the real difference in the physics GRE, I think, is even greater.


So what do I conclude about GREs?


First, the physics GRE tests a very specific skill. This skill can be taught, but it is not
clear how much this skill has to do with what we actually want to know about potential
physics students.


Second, as presently constituted, it is quite possible that the GRE physics subject test does
more harm than good. We should either fix it or we should seriously consider getting rid of it.
Getting rid of it would not do very much harm, in my view. But it might also be possible to fix it.
The trouble, it seems to me, is that the underlying philosophy of these tests is to RANK, rather
than simply to TEST COMPETENCE. The moral I draw from my little anecdotes is that
you simply cannot hope to use tests of this kind to rank top candidates.


I believe that a modified version of the test could be quite useful in testing whether candidates
have learned enough basic physics skills to go on to the next level, but only if the test is
modified to be more appropriate for this more limited goal. What I would do is reduce the number of questions by a large factor, somewhere between 2 and 3, to try to eliminate the time pressure. I would focus on basic skills and knowledge, rather than on specialized advanced details. I believe that the tests should be structured in such a way that talented students with good undergraduate preparation should be able
to answer ALL of the questions correctly in the time allotted. That is certainly not the case for
the current versions of the test.


Before leaving the subject of graduate admissions, I wanted to mention one other issue that
is quite relevant to the subject of affirmative action. There is a certain kind of letter of recommendation that we get much more frequently about women than about men. It says, roughly, that she is a great student, but she just works hard — she is not brilliant. This bothers me. Often I believe that this indicates a problem for the letter writer, who can recognize only one very specific form of brilliance, than for the student. Unfortunately, unless graduate admissions committees are alert, it becomes a problem for the student as well. To me, a letter like this in an otherwise excellent folder is a signal to try to get in touch with some of the younger faculty at the student's school, to try to figure out what is really going on.


Undergraduate women


Chairs at Harvard get lots of statistics from various administrative offices around the university.
Most of these (unfortunately) are not broken down by gender. But early in my tenure as physics department chair, I got some statistics that worried me. These were “course grading indices” — CGI — which measure the difference between the performance of students in a given course compared with the average of their grades in their other courses. A negative CGI means that the course is hard — this is what we usually see in our undergraduate physics courses. Physics tends to lag behind other subjects in grade inflation. But what interested me about this was that the average CGI for all physics courses was much more negative for
women than for men. I found this sufficiently interesting that I enlisted the help of our Office
of Instructional Research and Evaluations and got other statistics broken down by gender.


When I got the results, I found that what was going on with grades was striking. I now
had not just grade differences, but absolute grades broken down by gender, and lots of other
data as well. In grades, the women physics majors were not doing as well in their physics
courses as the men, and were doing better in their courses outside of physics. But even more
disturbing (and perhaps not unrelated) were data from the so-called senior survey — filled out by
all graduating seniors before they can get their diploma. I had already seen the data for women
and men combined. It seemed to show that the department was doing OK, though not spectacularly,
in satisfying our concentrators. But when broken down by gender, the picture looked quite
different. The men liked the physics major, and the women really hated it! And these were
the women who stuck with us and graduated with degrees in physics! Heaven knows how
many women we were turning off to physics entirely. I think that it was this more than anything
else that turned me into an affirmative activist. This struck me as a simply intolerable
situation and I resolved to do something about it.


This was the beginning of my interest in the issue of the climate for women, and I
began by reading a bit about it. I read Deborah Tannen's book,“You Just don't Understand”
about miscommunication between men and women. I read “Failing at Fairness” by
the Sadkers, about the treatment of girls in elementary school. I went to seminars and
meetings on the subject. I also got a lot of help and encouragement from women in our department, including Margaret Law, the Director of the Physics Laboratories at Harvard, Melissa Franklin and Mara Prentiss, our two women faculty members, Sheila Kannappan, a graduate student and former Harvard undergrad who was an old friend and had tried to get me to understand these issues for a long time before I finally got it, and Theresa Lynn, then an extraordinary undergraduate and co-president of our Society of Physics Students.
We arranged meetings with our undergraduate women physics majors to discuss the issues.


From all this, I don't think that I learned anything that was not already well-known to
experts in the subject. In fact, recently I found much of what I learned and developed about climate
in courses in a wonderful summary of techniques for improving science teaching of women
called “Achieving Gender Equity in Science Classrooms” available on the web at: http://
www.brown.edu/Administration/Science_Education /Gender_Equity/


I recommend it as a good summary of the subject. It should be required reading for all science
teachers and educational administrators. It recommends the following steps:

  1. Observe classroom dynamics
  2. Personalize large classes
  3. Shift from a competitive to a cooperative educational model
  4. Consider a variety of examination options
  5. Encourage active participation in labs
  6. Fight narrow stereotypes of science
  7. Provide diverse role models
  8. Make yourself available
  9. Foster self-confidence


Anyone who has thought hard about the issue of climate in the classroom can probably unpack each of these. They are elaborated nicely on this web page.


What I want to note here is that I believe that similar steps need to take place at the departmental level, not just within individual classes. There is no magic. The basic idea is simply to treat the students as people. This is good for everybody, but it seems to be more important for the women students.


Here are a few of the specific things that we have done to try to improve the climate in the
department as a whole. We have institutionalized the meetings between the women students and
faculty and the department chair so that they happen every year. I already mentioned the
Women in Physics Pizza and Study Night in which the graduate students and undergrads get
together. This was pushed by Sheila Kannappan and other graduate women. With Theresa Lynn
and the rest of the SPS, we organized biannual barbecues for the whole department to get the
faculty, undergrads and grads together regularly in an informal setting. We organized a holiday
caroling group. I should say that singing in the halls of our old brick and cinder-block buildings
is great fun — the Q values in these halls are very high, and there are few places where a pickup
group of physicists can sound really good! This has become a tradition. Interestingly, it is
one of the few activities in which women and men participate in roughly equal numbers. I
invited a group of women physicists to visit our department to study the climate for women.
This group was sponsored by the American Physical Society Committee on the Status of
Women in Physics and led by MIT Professor Millie Dresselhaus. Their recommendations
helped me to change and I hope to humanize the advising system in the department. Having a
departmental advisor who takes an interest in the students as people seems to be particularly
important for women. Most of these are small things, and it is easy to dismiss any one of them
as trivial. Certainly, no one of them is magic bullet that will solve all our problems. But every little
bit of this has helped. It is never enough, but it has helped. I think that it is important for
departments to share ideas about what works, even a little.


It might seem that the issue of climate is quite different from the issue of evaluation. But I
think that they are related in both directions. Evaluation obviously affects climate in several
ways. One of the main reasons for the climate difficulties in the first place is that women are
such a small minority in physics classroom, and on physics faculties. Evaluation procedures affect
climate by perpetuating the minority status of women. Furthermore, if women feel undervalued,
if their contributions are ignored or trivialized, the climate is hopeless. But climate also
affects evaluation in a more subtle way. If the climate in a department is one in which everyone
is respected and valued as a person, it is easier for search committees and admissions committees
to look at the whole picture in the selection process, rather than focussing too narrowly on
an overly specific set of skills.

Academic people-watching and affirmative action


Let me close with a few more philosophical remarks, which I hope may give an indication of
why I think that affirmative action, as I have defined it, is important not just for fairness, or
to make us feel good, but for the long-term health of the scientific enterprise. In spite of all
the noise about affirmative action and climate, many scientists still think that physics education
is a competition. There is a sense that our primary job as educators is to provide a kind educational
density gradient so that we can rank order our students and the cream will rise to the
top. I really believe that this picture is not just unfair, but bad for science.


I want to stress that I am not attacking science or scientists in any way. I am certainly not
going to argue that we should open up science to include the unquantifiable. In my view, one of
the real tragedies in the whole business of women in science is that it tends to be polarized
along a feminist axis. The response to feminist attacks on the whole structure of "male dominated''
science is often to close ranks behind the rigor and uniqueness of the scientific method.
Both the attacks and the responses miss the point that I address today. I am convinced that
there is very little that is culturally relative or gender-specific about the scientific method or
the results of scientific research. But it is obvious that there is much that is culture- and genderlinked
in the way science is done and the way scientists are educated. I would like to argue that
it is worth experimenting with the sort of different approaches to physical- and mathematicalscience
education that I have talked about, not because affirmative action requires it but
because it is good for science.


The reason that our system of physics education has lasted as long as it has is that this scheme
actually works to select an interesting group of students, many of whom become good physicists.
However, the fact that our educational system has been very successful in training good physicists
in no way implies that we are not losing as many or more students who could be outstanding physicists
if taught and evaluated differently. In fact, I am convinced that this loss can and does occur,
and that it has a lot to do with our attempts to pick off people at the "top'' and let them go on in
physics. I believe the notion of"top'' doesn't make much sense in the space of intelligence. I should
say that one of the reasons I believe this has to do with an accident of my own history.


My own field of theoretical particle physics has attracted many interesting people over the
years. We particle theorists find it endlessly fascinating because our experimental colleagues have
fed us for nearly a hundred years with a steady diet of outlandish facts about the world at subatomic
distances. We struggle to understand a tiny world that appears more bizarre each time
the power of our microscopes is increased.


I was lucky to be at Harvard at a fascinating time for this field, the decade of the 70's. I was
able to participate in a minor revolution in our understanding of the subatomic world.
Cambridge was one of the centers of the uprising. Outstanding particle physicists from all
over the world came regularly to give the theory seminars at Harvard or MIT. In these talks,
in the informal discussions that preceded them and in the Chinese dinners that followed, I had
a wonderful opportunity to observe interesting minds at work. It was almost as much fun as
the physics.


And of course, I had (and have) some interesting colleagues. I have written papers with
Shelly Glashow, Steven Weinberg, Sidney Coleman, Bram Pais, and lots of brilliant
younger physicists, not least my own students. Many of these people make me feel terribly
inadequate, in different ways. I shared an office for five years in the mid 70s with Ed Witten, the
chief guru of string theory, who is so smart in so many ways that it is scary.


I noticed immediately that not only did these outstanding physicists have personalities
(sometimes engaging, sometimes annoying, sometimes simply odd) but that each had his
own way of doing physics (they were almost all men, of course). These were often dramatically,
and even bizarrely different from my own. We could talk to each other about the results
because we had learned the common language of relativistic quantum mechanics and the
phenomenology of particle physics, but the processes that produced the results were many
and various — so obviously different, in many cases, that you simply couldn't miss the differences
if you were paying any attention to the people at all.

I also had the good fortune to be associated with the Harvard Society of Fellows for over twenty years. Here I had the fun of getting to know intellectual giants in other fields like philosopher Van Quine, historian Bud Bailyn, biologist Wally Gilbert and literary critic Helen Vendler.


The result of this great-mind-watching is a belief that the space of intelligence has very
many, very different dimensions and a very complicated and very nonlinear structure. People
who do spectacularly well at one kind of activity in thinking may be only average (or less) at
another. No small set of numbers can adequately capture what is going on here. The phenomena
are simply too diverse, and too interesting.

If this picture is right, then I should not apologize for telling you stories rather than giving you statistics. Science is done by people — human brains in human bodies. People are complicated and the sense that we get from anecdotal information may be every bit as valid as what we can quantify.


Because of this history, it is hard for me NOT to believe that there are large and interesting
regions in the multidimensional space of human intelligence that are missed by our search
procedures. This is why I believe that affirmative action is important. The concept of “top” needs
to be replaced by a recognition of just how complicated this whole process is. There are many
tops, of very different kinds, and the more we are able to recognize and gauge many kinds of talents, the better science will fare in the long run.

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