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Speeding up the Long Slow Path to Change

By Meg Urry

January 2003

Meg Urry is currently a Professor of Physics and the Director of the Yale Center for Astronomy & Astrophysics. She does research on active galaxies, notably multi-wavelength studies of blazars. During her tenure at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, MD, she was the chief organizer of the 1992 STScI conference on Women in Astronomy, which led to the Baltimore Charter. She is currently the
chair of the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (of the American Astronomical
Society) and a member of the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics (of the American
Physical Society), and has been co-editor of STATUS since 1998 (with Lisa Frattare).

It’s 2003, and there are still physics departments with no women faculty (and many more
with no minorities). Why? Progress is not impossible: the trends are generally in the right direction, but
change is painfully slow, in marked contrast to progress in the equally demanding disciplines
of biology, chemistry, engineering, mathematics, and medicine. Why has physics proved so
resistant to change?

When I (gently) ask my colleagues around the country why they hire mostly or only men,
they say there simply are no women available to hire.

But the top 10 physics departments graduated 138 women with Ph.D.s in physics in the 5-year
period 1988-1992 (10.7% of total Ph.D.s). Twenty to thirty of the top physicists produced each year
are women. In 2000, 13% of physics Ph.D.s went to women. Women are indeed available.

Recruitment is often targeted, however, perhaps more so in the more elite universities. They want
the best, and they are sure they know the best people; they don’t expect them to float up
through the applications process. In such a situation, hiring women requires

  1. valuing their talents, and
  2. thinking of them when a job (or talk or prize) is at hand. This does not appear to
    happen automatically.

Why should we care about the number of women in physics? People agree on several good

  • Physics departments want more majors, better graduate students, and more public
    (federal) support of physics.
  • Women (and men) want and deserve challenging, interesting work, and many women love physics.
  • No physicist believes, “We already have all the brains we need in our field.”
  • The law says there shall be equal opportunity.

So where are we falling down? My physics colleagues are good people, who want to do the
right thing. They do not discriminate; they would not deny opportunity to women because
they are women. So where is the problem?

Let me try to answer this question with three stories.

  1. The powerful act powerless — the system worked for them, and they expect it to work for everyone.

At the March 2002 APS meeting in Indianapolis, the chair of a large physics department at a major Midwestern university points out what he sees as the problem. “At the beginning of my introductory physics class,” he explains, “I ask which students are planning to major in physics, and the women do not raise their hands!” His department is responsible for graduating many physics majors and Ph.D.s, yet he is convinced that women simply don’t like physics, and there is nothing he can do to change their minds. He and his colleagues feel powerless to affect gender imbalance. Another physicist nods his head in agreement, convinced that women are simply more interested in other fields, like biology and chemistry — “they just
don’t have an interest in physics.” Subtext: There is nothing we can do to change this.

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

Ah, but most professors teach physics the way they were taught; after all, it caught
their imaginations 20, 30, 40 years ago, so surely it will do the same for today’s students —
or at least, they believe, it will attract the very best students.

This is where the problem starts to become clear. The students in classes today — especially the women (and minorities) — are not junior versions of their professors. Their paths in life have been different, their interests may be different, and their approaches to science may be different. (Or may not; this is controversial, but no doubt there is a much larger range of styles among today’s student body than there were in that professor’s cohort of physics majors.) Sheila Tobias described this phenomenon in her fascinating book “They’re Not Dumb, They’re Different.”(1)

Well, should we say, never mind, I only want the best students, and those are the ones like me,
by definition?!

This solipsistic approach is a danger in contemporary physics. It stems from the relative
homogeneity of our physics faculty, and it reinforces that homogeneity. Yet diversity historically
has led to intellectual breakthroughs — the greatest new ideas are born in the roiling waters
at the confluence of different rivers of thought. A narrow set of views and styles in physics will
benefit no one — not women and minorities, and most importantly, not the science. If that doesn’t
persuade you, read the work of Elaine Seymour and Nancy Hewitt,(2) which demonstrates that
many of the best students are leaving science — the notion that “the cream automatically rises to
the top” (and majors in physics) is simply wrong.

2. “You’re not a member of my club.”

Story number two is also from the March 2002 APS meeting. A young woman physicist, an assistant professor at a small but excellent 4-year college — energetic, smart, talented, attractive, and with a friendly personality — goes to the March meeting in Indianapolis to give a talk. From the airport she takes a taxi directly to the convention center, eager to register and find the room where she will speak the next day. Pulling her suitcase behind her, she wanders through the convention center. She separately encounters
three women physicists; they all smile and offer to help her, as she is obviously just arriving and looking lost. But they don’t have the program, which is what she needs, and the registration desk has closed for the night.

She walks over to a group of young men about her age, who are sitting and talking nearby. She stands politely waiting for them to acknowledge her. She stands for a while. She clears her throat. The men are making fierce eye contact with one another — tunnel vision — and apparently what they are discussing
is so earthshaking that they fail to notice her presence. Finally, after a much longer
than normal wait, she butts in and asks if anyone has the program for the next day. “Certainly
not,” answers the first guy, evidently annoyed at the interruption.

“Why would I carry that around? That’s the second half of the meeting! It’s heavy, of course
I don’t have it.” The second guy chimes in and lets her know how stupid her question is and
how her continuing presence is interrupting their important discussion. She turns away,
uncomfortable and upset, and the next day is still fretting about this episode.

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

It is no wonder that women physicists tend to have greater self-doubt than men. In a study
at MIT, graduate students in male-dominated science and technology fields were asked to rate
their own abilities, and their professors were asked to rate them as well. The actual distributions
of ability for men and women did not differ, according to the professors, but the selfevaluations
did. On average, the women rated themselves below average and the men rated
themselves above average. (Perhaps all the men were from Lake Woebegone?) The men were
sure they were better than the next guy, and the women were sure they were worse.

Look at the difference when male and female students do poorly on a test. The women are
likely to say, “Oh God, I blew that test, I am so stupid!” and the men are likely to say, “That test
sucked, and that professor is a jerk!” They blame external factors, while women blame internal
factors. These are gross generalizations; there are men who act like the women I am describing,
and women who act like the stereotypical man. But I think most of you will recognize the
aptness of the generalization.

It may not even matter whether the problems women experience are perceived or real. Last
spring’s Caltech report on the status of women faculty found no gross statistical disparities
between male and female faculty, such as had been found at MIT three years earlier. (See
diversity.caltech.edu/CSFWFINALREPORT1.pdf.) At Caltech, both men and women voiced similar
complaints about the institution, but women faculty were markedly more dissatisfied, stemming
at least in part from their lack of a voice in the administration. Conclusion: women may feel
bad even if, objectively, they are not treated any worse than the men. Perceptions define reality
for the women.

In physics departments around the country, women are feeling ill at ease, out of place, not at
home. Often it’s as simple as statements about what makes a good scientist, or what some
famous scientist was like. Think of our heroes: read Richard Feynman’s autobiography(3) and tell
me what you thought. Maybe you liked him, maybe you hated him, maybe you envied him —
but probably you didn’t feel as uncomfortable as his women readers did. Women appeared to play
a remarkably small role in his life — several wives go unmentioned or at least undescribed —
except for the ones he’s dating or trying to date. Did he even mention his sister, Joan Feynmann
— described in the article on page 17 of this issue? (Here the biologists can apparently give
the physicists a run for their money, with James Watson’s latest book, which, I confess, I can’t
bring myself to read.(4))

What of the women who pass these barriers, who somehow manage to avoid having their
love for physics eroded by feelings of inadequacy or not belonging? What happens to them? When
the internal battles are won, what influence is exercised by the external factors? This brings me
to my third story ...

3. Sociology holds some of the answers, if physicists would only listen.

... which is really a series of stories about statistical studies and sociological experiments.
Some were done some years ago, and it may be that the situation in physics has improved.
However, there is rather more evidence that improvement, if any, is glacially slow.

a) Referees judge gender of author, not quality of work.

In 1983, Paludi and Bauer(5) published a revealing study about the influence of gender
on perception of excellence. Three-hundred and sixty referees, half men and half women, were
each sent a mathematics paper to rate, with the author’s name given variously as John T. McKay,
Joan T. McKay, or J. T. McKay. On a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being excellent, the reviewers found that
the man’s paper was considerably better than the woman’s! (See table below.)

The neutral, initials-only designation was also rated rather lower than the man’s paper
(though higher than the woman’s), apparently because many referees believed the initials to
represent a woman (as they indicated in response to follow-up questions).

Note that both men and women found the paper written by the woman to be markedly less
good than the man’s paper. It isn’t just men undervaluing women’s work, it is all of us.

b) Gender-based bias in the literary/artistic world.

The Modern Language Association is the professional association for researchers and
teachers of modern languages (including English). Unlike the American Physical Society,
abstracts submitted to the annual MLA meeting are refereed before being accepted. In 1974, the
MLA began “blind” refereeing, in which the referees were no longer told the authors’ identities.
Prior to this, women had given very few papers at MLA meetings. Shortly after the change, within
a few years, women were giving many more papers, in roughly the same percentage as in the
submitted abstracts.

A similar shift to blind auditions for the world’s great orchestras has greatly increased the
number of female musicians accepted.6 Despite blatant prejudice from prominent male musicians
— the well-known conductor Zubin Mehta, formerly of the New York Philharmonic, was once
quoted as saying, “I just don’t think women should be in an orchestra…” — women turn
out to be perfectly equal to men in their musical talent, once the listening ears no longer know
the musician’s gender. (See L. M. Frattare (1999). STATUS, January; www.aas.org/~cswa/pubs.html.)

c) But science is objective, not subjective like art or literature! Can there really be gender bias in science?

A few years ago Nature published several articles about gender bias in applications for
research support from the Swedish Medical Research Council.(7)

Two researchers obtained the applications and the grades and comments. They found that
women had to have published much more, and had to have been rated much more highly, in
order to have an equivalent chance at the fellowship. In quantitative terms, a woman had to be
more than twice as good as a man to rank equally on the final list.

These results agree well with longitudinal studies of women and men Ph.D. scientists,
closely matched in ability and field, which found strong evidence of lesser advancement for even
very talented women. Even taking into account all sorts of variables like family status and
productivity, the overwhelming predictor of success was gender.(8)

Women were paid less, were less likely to be hired into faculty positions, took longer to get
tenure, and fewer got tenure than the men. My own recent study of the astronomy profession
— statistical, not longitudinal — suggests that at best, women are doing as well as men, and
consistently they are doing about 1 sigma worse. (See C. M. Urry (2000). STATUS, June; www.aas.

(Ironically, the Catch-22 of this discussion is that the numbers of women are so low that
the statistical significance of any discrepancies is also low.)

d) Who are the leaders?

Another sociological experiment: subjects are shown a series of photographs of people sitting
around the table and asked to identify the leader of each group. They overwhelmingly pick the
man, regardless of whether a woman sits at the head of the table, or has a pile of documents
near her, or is pictured speaking authoritatively. Independent of contrary visual cues, the man is
seen as a leader in preference to the woman.

e) Men stand taller.

Even more abstract: subjects of an experiment are shown photographs of men and women
and asked to estimate their heights. The photos include some common reference object, such as
a doorway or desk, to set the scale. The men and women in the photographs were selected to
have the same average height, yet the subjects consistently guess the men are taller. Their
expectations (in this case, correct expectations) that men are on average taller than women
strongly influence their evaluation of an absolutely objective quantity, height.

Your female colleagues are subjects of sociological experiments every day, when they are
interrupted and their speech occupies a smaller fraction of the discussion, when their idea is
dismissed or overlooked but lauded if a man suggests it a few minutes later, when students
are skeptical of their expertise but unhesitatingly assume male professors are fully competent.

We should not be surprised — the popular image of success, of competence, of science, is
male (think Einstein, not Tinsley or Rubin or Wu). We are almost all prejudiced — against
women, against minorities — in the sense that we have absorbed the gender and race stereotypes
that prevail in our society. As the Paludi and Bauer study shows, women are not immune
from feeling this kind of prejudice. The best any of us can do is to recognize it and correct for it,
long enough to change the face of science, and thus to render obsolete the present stereotypes.(9)

Toward a Better Future

So what is the strategy for moving forward? We aren’t going to change society, or at least,
not rapidly, which means substantial inertia in these damaging stereotypes. Instead, we need to
raise awareness about the extra barriers for women. Remembering that every physicist has
his/her own theory about why women are scarce in physics, we must somehow make them aware
of the relevant data, which show overwhelmingly that our expectations and evaluations of
women’s abilities are lower than they should be, and that this has a negative feedback effect on
the participation of women.

These sociological barriers affect many other arenas besides physics, of course, so I return
once more to the question of why physics is so much worse — that is, lower in the percentage
of women and slower/harder to change. My own speculation is that physics is more hierarchical,
more elitist (most physicists would simply say“elite”), than other professions, and thus
women’s feelings of inadequacy (and men’s of “over-adequacy,” if I may coin that term) are
exaggerated. The effect on women is therefore harsher in physics than in, say, medicine, where
there are many more opportunities for women. Astronomy has a milder culture, less overtly
elitist than physics, and it has about twice the percentage of women at all levels. Two exceptions
are the elite sub-fields of cosmology and theory, which have far fewer women. Medicine:
many women. Surgery, the elite sub-field? Far fewer women. Law: many women. Law firm
equity partners? Very few women. And so on. It’s a hypothesis that bears testing, if we can find
an objective way to assess elitism.

Meanwhile, the three earlier stories suggest at least a few common-sense recommendations:

  1. Let us not assume others are like us. Interest in physics comes at different
    stages and manifests in different ways. Female talent is out there — let’s look
    for it and nurture it. If girls and women come forward less readily, let’s not
    interpret that as disinterest or reluctance or lack of skill.
  2. We must compensate for the lack of role models, offer better support, and
    teach parents, teachers, and guidance counselors to encourage interest from
    girl proto-scientists. Today such mentors know better than to push girls away from
    the natural sciences and toward domestic science, but they may offer subtle cues
    that have the same effect.
  3. Women who have overcome the obstacles may well feel isolated, invisible, and
    marginalized. (There are highly visible exceptions.) No women or men should
    imagine the playing field ever really levels out — we hope it will someday,
    but there is no evidence that it has done so yet.

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



(1) Sheila Tobias (1990). They’re Not Dumb, They’re Different. Tucson:Research Corporation.
(2) Elaine Seymour and Nancy M. Hewit (2000). Talking About Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences. Boulder: Westview Press.
(3) Richard P. Feynmann (1988). Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynmann. New York: Bantam.
(4) James D. Watson (2002). Genes, Girls, and Gamow: After the Double Helix. New York: Knopf.
(5) M. A. Paludi and W. D. Bauer (1983). Goldberg Revisited: What’s in an Author’s Name. Sex Roles 9, 387-390.
(6) Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rose (2000). Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of ‘Blind’ Auditions on Female Musicians. American Economic Review, Vol. 90, No. 4, pp. 715-741.
(7) C. Wenneras and A. Wold (1997). Nepotism and Sexism in Peer-Review. Nature, 387, 341-343. C. Wenneras and A. Wold (1999). Taking a Gender Tiger by the Tail. Nature, 399, 747-748.
(8) N. F. Ahern and E. L. Scott (1981). Career Outcomes in a Matched Sample of Men and Women Ph.D.s: An Analytical Report. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. G. Sonnert and G. Holton (1995). Gender Differences in Science Careers: The Project Access Study. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
(9) M. A. Paludi and W. D. Bauer (1983). Goldberg Revisited: What’s in an Author’s Name. Sex Roles: A Journal of Reseearch, 9, pp. 387-390.

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