Women in Science – What to Do Next?

Cornelia Dean has written a very interesting article for the New York Times about the things people are doing to change the current situation concerning the underrepresentation of Women in Science in academia. It continues on from the discussion we were having after the September release of the report by the National Academy of Science on the issue.

The key point under discussion? From the article:

Since the 1970s, women have surged into science and engineering classes in larger and larger numbers, even at top-tier institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where half the undergraduate science majors and more than a third of the engineering students are women. Half of the nation’s medical students are women, and for decades the numbers have been rising similarly in disciplines like biology and mathematics.


Yet studies show that women in science still routinely receive less research support than their male colleagues, and they have not reached the top academic ranks in numbers anything like their growing presence would suggest.

In fact, it is only in the social, behavioral or life sciences that the proportion of women full professors has risen into double digits – 15 percent or so. Something goes wrong. What is it?

at each step on the academic ladder, more women than men leave science and engineering.

The current article reports on a number of gatherings on various campuses – conferences organised to network, share, and brainstorm a bit on the issue. There are interviews with several people, and experiences and anecdotes are shared. Very much worth your time to read. Discussed are a wide range of topics, the most central being that it is still the case that women are judged by different standards than men. Even though often times it might seem to be something as simple as what to wear to a meeting – it makes a difference. These things all add up. Other things mentioned are the two-body problem, mentoring, letters of recommendation, children and motherhood, and negotiating skills, among others.

I’ll let you read the article, but do come back and let us know what you think. We’ve been through a lot of this discussion before, so one aspect I’d like to hear about is the following: What are you doing about the issue in your own sphere of influence? Are there constructive things that can be done? It does not matter how big or small (like just talking about it, for a start). Every bit helps (including just raising one’s awareness of one’s actions and words – and the impact they might have – and I mean this whether you’re male or female of course).

It seems to me that the biggest problem in all of these “diversity issues” (the general issue of the underrepresented) is a sort of cultural inertia in each field. The matters -in hiring, retention, day-to-day happenings- are perceived as some sort of problem that will be dealt with by administrative tools (by Deans and Chairs and the like), while the rest of us should just get on with our business of teaching and doing research. Talking about it makes some people (on all sides) uncomfortable, and others find it a waste of time.

Well, unless we change the culture and attitudes right at ground level – in our departments – nothing will change much in the long term. There’s only so much the administrative tools can achieve. So where do we start? And once the conversations have been had, what next?

At this point, I’ll stop babbling. Although I can’t resist at this point mentioning the upcoming Undergraduate Women in Physics conference that will be held here at USC January 13th to 14th 2007. Amy Cassidy and Katie Mussack (two graduate students here in Physics) decided to take matters into their own hands and do something last year when they organised the first of these. They wanted to help women undergraduates interested in physics to get together, network, share, and learn more about current research, graduate school, resources, and careers in physics in general. It’s being run for a second time this year, and this time they’ve got some of our undergraduate physics majors, as well as some more graduate students to help out. The event looks set to be even more valuable and fun than last time.

Katie and Amy have mentioned that they’re looking to help other people form their own local groups to reproduce this sort of idea all around the country and beyond. So get in touch with them through the website.


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42 Responses to Women in Science – What to Do Next?

  1. Scott H. says:

    One of the things that MIT’s Graduate Women in Physics did was to set up a mentoring program for the undergrads; some of my advisees found it to be extremely useful. Nothing beats being able to chat with someone who has already gone through what you’re currently going through! Information on their program can be found here:


  2. candace says:

    What am I doing?
    Going to the aforementioned WiPhys conference. Besides that there’s not much I can do besides just trying to hang in there.

    The thing is, I don’t just get that scared feeling because I am female, but I get it merely from the fact that I am studying physics and contemplating grad school and all that, and I’m not sure why anyone regardless of race or gender would want to put themselves through this sort of wringer. To follow on from that, I would like to think that culture changes would benefit more than the underrepresented, but what are the incentives to those in power when the competition is already fierce enough? It seems like the last thing science academia wants to do is to change the entry ‘dress codes’.

    Anyway, it would be nice to get a sort of pep talk every now and then — but unless mentors have the powers of admission or hiring at their disposal, I’m not sure what more it would be than some buck-up back-slapping. Still, I intend to talk to people when I get to USC about things I might be able to help out with.

  3. Scott H. says:

    but unless mentors have the powers of admission or hiring at their disposal, I’m not sure what more it would be than some buck-up back-slapping.

    Though I wouldn’t want to denigrate the power of “buck-up back-slapping” (which is sadly underrated; being at an institution that is often described as “praise-free zone”, I wouldn’t mind seeing more or it), I think the main benefit of mentors is to give very specific advice and to point out various rocks and shoals that previous generations have uncovered. E.g., “Professor X is an ass”, “Professor Y’s lab is a great place to work”, “Here are examples of past qual exams you can study from”. Some of these kinds of advice are obviously not specific to any particular group (although “Professor X is an ass” can be if the ass-like behavior is only manifested in specific instances; sadly, I have examples of both X and such behavior in mind), but getting the advice from a particularly friendly and helpful crowd helps a lot. My past advisees who worked with the MIT organization found it useful just to have a relatively uncompetitive group closer to their own age to go to for advice.

  4. Supernova says:

    What I’m doing:

    * reading all I can about these issues so I can be well-informed when I talk to others and well prepared for what I may face in my career. Lately I’ve really been enjoying the Female Science Professor blog. Also, the WIPHYS and AASWOMEN mailing lists are excellent sources of information.

    * speaking up about the problem whenever possible (which does tend to get me labeled as “the person who cares about that stuff”, but also lets people know where to go for information/advice about women in science). I’d like to think that letting people know, for example, that someone cares how many women are on the colloquium schedule will help change institutional behavior, if only incrementally.

    * helping coordinate our local women-in-science group (similar to the MIT group Scott linked to above). Much of what needs to be done must happen on a very personal, local level, which is good news for busy scientists!

    * trying to decide whether I’d accept a faculty job if it would make me the only female professor in the department. (No, I don’t have an offer yet — but given the statistics, the chances seem reasonably good that the situation could arise). The appeal of being a pioneer is great, but I’m aware of the pitfalls too.

  5. donna says:

    I wrote quite a bit about this issue ten years ago here:


    scroll down to “the Internet for Girls” and the links to chapters there.

    At that time, I thought the Internet could be a help in encouraging girls to look at math and science as careers. There are a lot of things that need to be done both to keep girls interested in science, math and technology throughout the high school years and to keep them in the pipeline as they advance.

    But honestly, after my own career and the things I’ve seen, I think the biggest factor is mentors. If girls and young women have people to look up to, who pull for them, then they can advance. If they don’t see that there is a future for them in a field, they will leave it.

    And watching my husband’s career and how well he has done, and knowing all the sacrifices I’ve made so he could do that and we could still have a life with kids and a house and all the rest of it, I think women are insanely undervalued in this culture as a whole. The blatant sexism I’ve encountered and seen echoed over and over again really makes me angry.

    It’s never the technology or the academics that is the problem. It’s the people.

  6. donna says:

    Oh, and always, always wear a jacket with a collar, even if it’s casual – never a sweater set. If you want to have any authority at all, a collar is a must. If you’re trying to dominate, wear red and black, but not gray – it’s too strong. And no red and black unless you are in the dominant position. A nice hunter green outfit actually worked for me for a long time for interviewing – got every position I interviewed for in it.

    And to keep it fair for guys, a nice subtle green suit works wonders, comes on strong without being overbearing It’s what I picked out for my husband when he testified for congress.

    See, this is the kind of crap women have to deal with. ;^).

  7. donna says:

    And you can check out what Anna and Anne are doing here:


    They also blog here:


  8. Pingback: Inkling - Asymptotia

  9. wellsian says:

    After the Larry Summers debacle gave people license to say what they really felt, I realized that most men in science just don’t feel women are up to the task. They will happily say so if you only ask. The stream of what I have read and have been told over the last few years tells me that the odds that a woman will achieve a career of any merit in science are slim to none.

    Either we really are on average too stupid to be as competent as men (all the psychometric data that has been cited is on the side of the men, there just aren’t many women with high IQ), or bias and the tradition in academia is too deeply ingrained for female (in)competence to matter at all.

    I’m halfway through my Ph. D. Yes, I will finish, but after that I plan to do something where I can retain at least a semblance of self-respect. It’s no good to me to hear every week that I’m not worthy of pursuing something that was once at the core of my identity. I can’t even look at my old textbooks without cringing anymore.

    I think it’s a mistake to encourage young women to go into physics if there are already far more newly minted physicists than jobs for them, and if the odds are that the women just aren’t good enough to compete with the men or the men don’t want them there. It’s only setting us up for failure, which is what we have. Twenty years ago everyone thought that with the influx of women into Ph. D. programs, we’d start to see the benefits trickle up to the highest levels within ten years. It hasn’t happened, and if you ask the psychometricians, it will never happen.

  10. Kea says:

    Keep fighting girls! To the death. Yell loudly. We will shame those with a shread of honour left into doing something about this.

  11. Fred Ross says:

    One phrase disturbs me in particular: ‘universities should be asking whether a career in science demands 70-hour work weeks “at every point in time,”’ A 70 hour work week probably consists of a maximum of 30 hours of work and 40 hours of putting in an appearance. Here’s an: maybe women have more sense or are as a sex less good as sitting at their desk doing nothing? (For reference, I’m a male PhD student who puts in somewhere around seven hours of work a day, and I’m making very pleasant progress on my thesis.)

  12. Scott H. says:

    Wow. So when I originally posted a few quick thoughts this morning, it was in the mode of “here’s a thoughtful post from Clifford, I’ll come back to it in a few hours after thinking for a bit and trying to formulate something coherent, in the meantime, a tidbit that might be of interest.” Then the day happened, a few hours turned into essentially all day, and now I’m just looking things over as I wind down for the night. And then I read wellsian’s post.

    So, what am I doing? Trying not to be the a-hole that got wellsian thinking like that.

    Rob Knop has posted on his blog fairly extensively and passionately about the process of getting a clue; my own evolution has moved along similar paths. I’m fortunate to be working at an Institute which has done an honest job recognizing its own failings and is forthrightly working to address them. To a large extent MIT has done well at this because things were so lousy they could cover a lot of ground just rectifying some of the obvious problems, but they deserve credit for airing their dirty laundry in a rather public fashion. For me personally, undertaking a faculty position involved learning how important mentoring really is, and what a subtle art it can be.

    For example, after I administered my first major exam in the first class I taught, I decided to send “great job” notes to all the students who did particularly well (top 10% or so), copying the notes to their advisors. I had no idea how much this would mean to them. Women and minority students were particularly impacted by this — quite a few came by my office to ask if I was serious that they had done so well on the exam, and then to ask whether I thought they were smart enough to major in physics or math.

    There was a pattern here that persisted throughout the years I taught this course (freshman electricity and magnetism) — female students were disproportionately represented at the top of the grade distribution (usually 30% of the whole class, but more than half of the top 10%) and disproportionately didn’t realize how good they were. This was the wake-up call to me that (a) there really is a difference here that has nothing to do with intrinsic ability, and (b) it wasn’t hard to do something about. For starters, I just need to not be an a-hole!

    The way I’ve been trying to do something about this is to recognize those talented students (not just the top 10%, but all the smart talented students in the class; the top 10% are just nicely illustrative) and act as some kind of resource for them. I write letters of recommendation for them (the New York Times article made me wonder whether there is any gender difference in the letters I write; I don’t think so, but it’s something I’ll be watching even more carefully), help them get research positions with groups at MIT, get them involved in mentor programs.

    It’s a start. I’ve only been a professor for a few years (starting year 4 this spring semester), and there’s a lot more that can be done. One guy has at least started to get a clue.

  13. Scott H. says:

    ps to Fred: 70 hours might be a bit of an exaggeration, but I certainly put in WAY more hours now as an assistant professor (esp in the first year or so) than I did as a grad student. 8 am til 6 or 7pm Monday through Friday plus 6 hours on Saturday or Sunday was typical in the first 12 – 18 months. (I tried to keep one weekend day free, usually with success.) Those 10 – 11 hour days weren’t 3 hours of working and 7 – 8 hours of showing up; they were pretty grinding. It got better once things were set up, but it’s still pretty intense. Burn out is a serious problem.

  14. Mary Cole says:

    I fear that much of what has been mentioned here is not peculiar to Science, in so far as women are under represented in academia whatever the discipline. The reasons for this are many and various and the solutions are not straight forward. I do believe mentoring to be hugely important. I know a head of a chemistry department at an English university who has done much to promote the interests of her female students and the cause of women in science in general.
    I think there is another issue here too, although it may be peculiar to the UK. There is great concern over here at the falling numbers of students of either gender opting to do science, particularly physics. This decline has been ongoing for a number of years now with the result that there is now a serious shortage of physics teachers, despite a number of government initiatives and incentives. There are some good student programmes in place, such as the gifted and talented initiative which includes some excellent opportunities for young scientists, but despite this more needs to be done, possibly to the whole structure of the curriculum. Some of the issues raised in your post need tackling at a high school level.

  15. Supernova says:

    Scott, let me just say THANK YOU for finding an excellent way to make a difference. This problem is so big and so widespread that I think many people feel it’s beyond their ability to do anything substantial to address it. We tend to think “Oh, the problem is in high school” or “the problem is with the culture”, so there’s nothing we as individuals can do about it. This is NOT the case! Discouragement for women and minorities in math and science occurs at every level of schooling and is pervasive in the culture. This is sad and troubling, and it means there’s no magic bullet that will fix the problem once we just discover what it is. The good news is that it also means there are countless ways individuals can counteract these discouraging messages and have an impact at our own institutions, for the people we interact with every day.

    Your comment made me very happy. You are part of the solution! 🙂

  16. Great post.

    What do I do? Not as much as I would like, frankly. I kick up a fuss in university committees about outreach programs and blind marking, I try to organise study groups and then network with the other women in my class. I’m part of a women’s rights group on campus, but that focuses mostly on domestic and sexual violence. I’m trying to get the Student’s Assoc going on equality/diversity issues.

    In terms of things individual faculty can do…I really like Scott’s idea of a short message to the top students on an exam. A lot of students, especially women, never get told that they’re doing well in science. It does make a huge difference being told that you’ve done well by someone impartial. The first time, and so far, the only time, I was told by someone impartial that I was doing well in a science subject was a year ago by a TA

    Another thing that individual faculty/TAs can do is be sure they give the same amount of time and attention to questions from women and minority students as questions from men. In my first Informatics class, I frequently got my questions brushed off or dismissed (after class, some of my male classmates said they’d wished we’d got better answers because they didn’t understand the point either, so it wasn’t that they were silly questions) when my male classmates tended to get fuller answers.

    Mary Cole also has a good point — there are serious shortages of math and science teachers which means that a lot of kids aren’t getting a good science background at school. The fact is that *good* students don’t have to be the students doing PhDs and planning careers in academia. Some of the good students will work in education or in industry, and that’s important. So it’s important that mentoring schemes reach undergrad science students who are majoring in other subjects and going on to pursue other careers. It’s important that bright confident students become teachers, but it often seems that there is a bias in academia (and in a lot of mentoring schemes or other groups for women/minorities) towards students who are going to become science profs. They might benefit from, for example letters of recommendation for jobs other than research positions (eg, math teaching or interships in industry). They might also benefit from being advised about career opportinities that involve science but aren’t academic.

    If your department has an outreach/widening participation programme or a mentoring scheme, try taking part and arguing for it to get proper support. These programs are sometimes run in a marginal sort of way, but I can say from my own experience that if they are run properly they *can* make a difference. If there is a student group for your department, push for departmental support for that group. Some departments are able to set aside a small budget to helps set up lecture series for these groups, for example.

    And yeah, don’t be an asshole. Seriously, the number of faculty who think it’s ok to throw their weight around and make ad hominem attacks at other people in classrooms or committees is astonishing.

    Wellsian, you might interested in some recent studies that show that being primed to think of things you’re good at makes your performance on psychometric tasks go up, with the effect that there is no significant differences between men’s scores and women’s scores.


  17. I think the single greatest thing that women currently in science, math and technology can do is mentor younger women.

    I majored in computer science as an undergraduate. I knew in high school that I wanted to major in CS. Part of the reason I picked my college was because of the sole female professor. The existence of a single female role model in the program was enough to make me choose that program over the other 3 that were all male faculty. It paid off for me. That professor was an incredible resource and a great mentor. When the sexist attitudes of men in the industry were getting tough, she was there with advice and a sympathetic ear. I had originally planned to pursue a Ph.D. in CS myself, but chose to go to work instead. I just don’t love research enough to do it 24-7 forever. When a Ph.D. was still in my plans, she made sure that I was prepared for the applications, courses, for the rigors of grad school.

    As late as 2000, I had men tell me that my majoring in computer science was “cute” (“so what’s going to be your mommy job then?”). Even in the IT industry, the sexism pervades much that goes on. I work in network security, and the attitudes I’ve encountered at conferences and at work are unacceptable. Having a mentor or at least a strong support system of other women (and men) is almost necessary to survive.

    Mentoring isn’t the only answer, but it will help keep women in the field.

  18. Clifford says:

    Wellsian:- I blogged about the studies IP mentioned here.



  19. Clifford says:

    Everyone:- IP has put an extensive list of things here. Go and have a look!


  20. Amy Cassidy says:

    On the issue of mentoring, there in an interesting program, Mentor Net, which pairs science (mostly women) students with mentors from industry and academia. I don’t know that much about it, but I have a friend who has a PhD in chemical engineering and has had a positive experience as a mentor.

    Since Clifford already mentioned the conference at USC, I’ll follow up to say that we would like to see this type of event in other regions of the country. There are three different groups coming to this year’s conference with the intention of starting similar events in their regions. So keep your eyes open for the next Women in Physics Conference near you. There will be a post-conference report and information about the other groups on our website.

    One thing I’ve learned (should I say “I” or “we”) through the process of organizing the conference is that there are a lot of great resources out there and lot of people who care about the issue of the underrepresentation of women are willing to help. Sometimes you just need to ask.

    Thanks for the post, Clifford.

  21. Anonymous says:

    at the risk of attracting a lot of flames, does everyone agree that issues of discrimination and underrepresentation are, while possibly connected/correlated, not the same?

    Discrimination (including the one against female scientists) in hiring decisions should be viewed separately from underrepresentation. Most people who comment on these issues seem to treat underrepresentation as clear-cut evidence of discrimination. In other words, discrimination must exist because female/male ration among faculty is still far from 50:50.

    I am not sure what goes on in hiring committees, but from what I hear, a lot of faculty are aware of these issues and are under pressure to hire women. The real question comes – whether woman should be hired because of her gender, over a male applicant who is deemed more qualified?

    The real problem in my opinion is not the subtle sexism that I will admit still exist in some faculties, even though I should say I have witnessed more not-so-subtle discrimination of many other groups that remain silent and the treatment that media doesn’t like to focus on.

    The real (and the biggest) problem is that faculty position is often a terrible job with long hours and full dedication. 20ies are spent getting PhD, and 30ies are typically spent doing post-doc stints and landing tenure. Men can afford to postpone starting their family until 40ies, but not women, for obvious biological reasons. Poll 10,000 high school girls on what they expect their lives to be like in 20-25 years and most will involve getting married and having children.

    My wife who is a biologist, would gladly forego an option of having a guaranteed tenured faculty position if the price she has to pay is to remain childless. An option of doing stints in biotech industry (well-paid, 40 hrs/week job) while balancing family and kids seems like a much, much, MUCH more appealing option for her. She says she witnesses no signs of discrimination, but in her lab women are clear majority, with a few scarce men scientists having to listen to girls talking about boys, shaving their legs and other female stuff (I guess we all discriminate if we are majority). She also makes more money then men at the same level, because she does better job.

    I am sure sexism in the workplace still exists in many places, but think of other groups that may be discriminated against – not so subtly either. Not many people want to talk about very real problems in discrimination against foreign students, especially asians (I am not an asian student, by the way!). Why? Because they are definitely well represented among student body in sciences and engineering. However, despite excellent analytical abilities and exceptional work ethic, a large fraction of faculty jobs (and grad student/postdoc positions) goes to US scientists. Foreigners, especially chinese/korean/indian students (but to lesser extent western europeans) have often more troubles adapting to new country and new language and viewed as outsiders more so than US-born women. In many cultures it is considered impolite to be assertive, or even ask questions of their superiors. Most asians have troubles communicating their results the way american students would, they cannot rely on social networks that US students build. So despite working much harder than US counterparts, foreign students often end up at dead ends of job search when their visas expire and they are forced to go home. Add on top of that, unpronouncable and hard-to-remember names, hard-to-distinguish faces, and problems of international travel for conferences imposed post-9/11. Asians are also unfairly considered “poor leaders” (not clear why, but there was some research on this) which is why you don’t see as many asian professors as you do asian undergrads or grad students. They are less likely to complain and view their plight as unfortunate circumstances, rather than wide and openly discriminatory policies. I never once heard an asian student talking about lack of mentorship from asian foreign-born professors, or the number of asian professors at the department being a key issue for selecting a school.

    It’s very easy to feel that you are discriminated against – all you have to do is blame everything bad that happens to you (and something bad is bound to happen during grad school or postdoc years) on discrimination. Graduate (and undergrad) students are mistreated on regular basis. Are women mistreated more than males? Perhaps. Is it to the point that women get so discouraged that they pursue their careers in other fields? Maybe, but I doubt it. Media likes to focus on these issues, but there is a wider range of problems that force women (and men) to look into alternative careers than academic research, which is not as glamorous as many reporters make it out to be.

    As to Summers comments – while what he said was clearly an intended provocation, if you actually read the transcript of his speech, most reasonable people will probably agree with it. If he said it as independent voice, rather than sounding like an official Harvard policy, he might have been treated more even-handedly. Aptitude difference was raised as ONE of many other factors and he definitely didn’t claim it was the KEY factor as media made it out to be.

    It’s clear, however, that mere mentioning of aptitude differences raises a lot of PC flags. You can say that men are slightly taller and slightly stronger than women. Male runners are faster than female runners, again, on average. But you cannot even raise a possibility that even the slightest difference exists in the way male and female brains work.

    Male marathoners are faster than female marathoners by an average of 10-15 minutes. This doesn’t mean much, considering that range of marathon times ranges from 2 hours to 6+ hours. So any random female marathoner in NYC marathon is only slightly more likely to be beaten by any random male marathoner – say their chances are 49.5% to 50.5%. Not so for the top runners – top male finisher will easily beat the top female finisher.

    Similarly, the tallest person is very likely to be a male, and the oldest person living a woman. The tails of distributions have a vastly different proportion than the middle parts.

    Boys are doing only slightly better than girls in math tests, a difference that is almost insignificant, given the width of distribution. But girls make for a much smaller portion among Putnam math competitions, math and physics international olympiads, etc. – regardless of nationalities. Boys are also more prone to dominate the low-IQ ends of the spectrum (a statement that is for some reason much less controversial than the high-IQ one). Most mentally deficient children tend to be boys.

    Males comprise 99% of prison population, and the chances of being molested by, mugged or serially-killed by a woman is almost zero. There are theories that males are genetically more of an outliers in terms of their reasoning abilities – on both ends of the spectrum.

    The best approach I can think of is instituting a blind “first round” in hiring committees, when applications are ranked on their merits without knowing the gender, name, nationality or any other personal information about the applicant. Publications, citations, research/teaching experiences, key CV info, research proposals can be easily evaluated without knowing candidate’s identity. Even recommendation letters can be written by withholding gender/name of the candidate, but it requires more work.

    Would such blind policy reveal bias against women and help search committees hire more women candidates? Maybe. Or maybe it will do the opposite and reveal a pressure to hire a female candidate even if it comes at the cost of quality. Either way, I doubt the female/male ratio will aproach 50:50 even if all bias is eliminated – unless committees deliberately hire females over more qualified males. The pool of available female candidates will not be equal to those of male, unless all women decide that it’s acceptable to sacrifice having kids (or postpone it till late 40ies). Or males can be made to carry the baby and take care of it full-time for a few years, and they actually agree to it.

    I realize that many women will see this rant as anti-female. So be it. But if you apply the same scientific reasoning that you would to any other problem (approaching it with an outside perspective), you can see that it is not, and any polarization of ideas only hurts the cause.

  22. Clifford says:

    The real question comes – whether woman should be hired because of her gender, over a male applicant who is deemed more qualified?

    Wow. Do you really think that people are still pondering that question? That answer is actually no.

    No, that is not the real question:

    Nobody is confused about whether you hire someone because of their gender over their abilities. You don’t. You don’t need to, because despite what you believe, there’s an awful lot of highly qualified women out there who can match the ability and qualifications of the men who applied for that same job.

    And what you say about asian students is interesting, and sure there is discrimination there, but I don’t see the relevance to this particular discussion. Your argument seems to be to not address or take seriously this problem since there is another problem that you care more about. That’s strange to me.

    And you seem to have a very poor grasp of what goes on in hiring decisions, in actual work environments (your description of what you believe is going on in the workplace is naive, and particulalrly sad given what actual women have written on this thread and others), and in the actual talent pool that is there. In particular, I’m not aware of any jobs in science that require women to run marathon, or sit there being tall, so why on earth is it at all relevant to bring up every man’s favourite irrelevant statistics about stuff they can currently do better on average than women? Your remarks about mathematics tests, proportion of women perfoming at the highest levels in these tests, and IQ are on very shaky ground indeed, for hosts of reasons that have been gone through again and again. I question the interpretation of the data for a start, and further, whether the data you quote are data at all given so many factors that are so often left out. Have a look -just as one tiny example- at the huge effects on the results that people find when you vary the context and conditions that these tests are taken under. See the study I referred to in a previous comment, as one example. The fact is that we have no way of knowing if there is anything close to a genetic basis for the underrepresentation that is there, but the more important point is that there are so very very many obvious things (including the simple blindness to the matter that you’ve displayed) that are happening in the workplace to create this underrepresentation that any genetic differences in ability (positive or negative) are probably totally irrelevant right now, and will be for some time. Also, one last thing on genetics – A faculty or other top level job in academia requires a huge range of skills. You don’t sit there all day running the marathon, or being tall, or arm-wrestling, or doing integrals in your head, or being old, or any other things from the simplistic skill set that you and other trot out in these discussions… you do a wide range of things that require a variety of abilities. Are you saying that there’s been testing that shows that women have no aptitude to do that job compared to men? That all their talents used in the combination required to be a successful scientist are sub-par? I’m pretty sure that the experiement has not been done – the test not run. The only such test I can think of would be to actually give women a chance to perform alongside the men in equally favourable conditions in the academic workplace… Then we’ll know for sure.


  23. Hmm says:


    Give anon a break, and read what he wrote which is very reasonable. The point is not whether there are very talented women or not, of course there are. Many of them have top faculty positions because they were clearly the best person in the search. But to the extent that there is any actual systematic discrimination, it is in the direction of actively looking to hire women. This is certainly true in string and particle theory; a woman post-doc on the market will end up on lots of shortlists, many more than a comparable male post-doc. If you’re a somewhat above average female post-doc, you’ve got it made, and can almost be guaranteed a faculty position, which is certainly not the case for a somewhat above average male post-doc. For evidence one can look at the job rumr mill and its archives–http://particle.physics.ucdavis.edu/rumor/doku.php–where the short lists and hires going back ten years are documented. Look at who has been hired, and compare their records with other hires using the SPIRES data base http://www.slac.stanford.edu/spires/hep.
    This isn’t to say that women are beating out much more qualified men, but rather that being a woman gives one a significant edge in being hired relative to candidates of comparable strength, and especially at junior faculty level, it isn’t so easy to differentiate between people anyway, so this edge is doubly useful. Again, to any women who may be getting discouraged–most people in physics are very reasonable, they care mostly about physics, and are actively looking to hire qualified women and have huge incentives to make this happen.

    I agree with anon that other groups suffer much more blatant and severe forms of discrimination that we don’t talk about nearly as much–the squeaky wheel gets the grease. I also agree with anon that we can’t know a priori that the ratio of men to women should be 50:50, and asserting that this must be the final outcome and anything else proves discrimination is idiotic. This has nothing to do with justice–in science we care about advancing science and serving this cause is the highest ideal; if this is best donw with an 80:20 or 20:80 split so be it.

  24. Clifford says:


    I expanded upon my remarks to Anonymous somewhat in the comment above while you were writing yours, so sorry about that. I think I’ve addressed much of what you say already.

    To repeat:- Nobody is advocating giving anybody jobs that they are not qualified to do. Plain and simple. You and others are completely misunderstanding the situation, and trying to paint it as some kind of conspiracy against men. That is ridiculous.

    And then you say this:

    I also agree with anon that we can’t know a priori that the ratio of men to women should be 50:50, and asserting that this must be the final outcome and anything else proves discrimination is idiotic. This has nothing to do with justice–in science we care about advancing science and serving this cause is the highest ideal; if this is best donw with an 80:20 or 20:80 split so be it.

    Who said that the ultimate goal is that 50:50 should be the split? Where is that written down? I’ve never seen that, actually, and I have studied and written a great deal of language on diversity in the workplace. You speak nobly about serving the cause of science… wouldn’t it make more sense, therefore, to give the “experiment” a chance to be done properly? We don’t know what the natural “split” should be, so why not assume equipartition and then see what the dynamics produce? As a scientist, I would have leaned toward doing that instead of starting with 100:0, and then seeing if the numbers change much despite all the obvious effects that favour the status quo: the boundary condition of 100:0 strongly favours preserving itself. Much of what people are discussing (the “squeaking” you refer to) are the conditions in the workplace and career path that preserve the status quo with regards representation. How can one ignore these huge effects as an honest scientist, if you want to put it in those terms?

    As I’m sure you’d see this if this were a discussion about an actual scientific effect or system rather than what it is – reactions based on the misguided perception that women are somehow now taking jobs away that somehow rightfully belong to men- it seems to me that you’re putting aside the noble scientist ideals instead of favouring business as usual.


  25. Hmm says:


    I totally agree that, given the historical discrimination against women, that some time needs to be given without such discrimination to really even the playing field. I don’t know how long is enough; probably at least a generation or two is needed. I’m certainly not advocating “stopping” now–indeed this wouldn’t make sense given that I said the “right” ratio could be either 80:20 or 20:80. And I precisely did *not* say that women are taking away jobs that “rightfully” belong to men, indeed this isn’t happening (certainly not systematically any more than the other way around). Instead, I said that given that most physicists are decent people, and given that there clearly has been historical bias against women, that being a women is an additional advantage when being compared to people who are comparably good, which can be an important factor in deciding to hire them. You must see that this is true, again from the hiring pattern in string/particle theory in the last decade. No one is hiring women that aren’t qualified, but very good women are heavily sought after, more so than *comparable* men. But given this situation, it is a little much to go on and on about how evil physicists are, when if anything most are actively helping as much as possible. Of course there are nasty people, but these people harm women, men and others in a variety of different ways. I think perpetuating this culture of victimization of women in physics is a very bad idea–the desperate need for “mentors” and a whole support structure to keep one going is infantilizing and un-necessary. Grad school and post-dochood is just damn tough, as is a research career thereafter. It is also fantastically rewarding, if you’re willing to devote your life to it. The biggest factor impeding the ability to devote ones life to it are the social ones Summers also refered to, and have little to do with practicing scientists. Yes its true that historically men have had an easier time having families and doing science than women, though even this is changing as more people are two-academic career couples. But the solution is definitely not “so, lets change things so you don’t have to obsessively devote your life to science”. Great achievements take great sacrifice, and I think attempts at injecting “balance” into scientific careers is a huge victory for mediocrity over genius. Society should be run in a just way for the average person. But not science–in science we should reward and push obsessive, single-minded, high-risk taking, self-sacrificing, ridiculously brilliant people. Not working to make them more like everyone else. I’m not saying you are suggesting this, only that there is an undercurrent of this sentiment in efforts to make physics more “welcoming”. If anything, physics has too many people now, of insufficiently high quality, and making things more feel-good welcoming is not going to help.

  26. Clifford says:

    Why do you assume that “balance” and “genius” are incompatible? I’m puzzled by this.

    And why is having someone to talk to who can appreciate issues that you might face the same as infantilization? I’m puzzled by that too.


  27. Hmm says:

    They are not necessarily incompatible, and there are examples of great contributions made by people with reasonably normal lives. But there are simply far far more examples of breakthroughs made by people with very unusual and lop-sided lives. Of course this makes some sense–great progress takes great concentration, and unless you are very very disciplined, this is hard to do if you’re also “balancing” other parts of your life. Some people pull it off and are to be commended for it, in a sense they are much more exceptional; most don’t. As you must know, this fact largely explains the phenomenon of “dead wood”–senior faculty members with tenured positions who were once active in research but stop. It isn’t because “physics is for the young”, its because they succumb to the life of balance–families, classes, committees….its no accident that Wiles and Perelman, to take two recent examples in math, had to seclude themselves for seven years through their 30’s before making their breakthroughs.

    For the good of science it is necessary to make room, indeed greatly encourage, the lopsided people–they make great sacrifices for science, their kind have done and will do infinitely more for science than “well-balanced” people who doodle with inconsequential research, teach popular classes, engage in “outreach”, and are well-liked by all, create welcoming atmospheres etc. etc. These people also have a role, they can inspire others, they can help science be better appreciated by society and so on, but they are ultimately and in a fundamental sense irrelevant for the science itself. It is elitist, undemocratic but true, that signular individuals–very often lopsided in interests, personality, disposition, life choices–have an amazingly large importance in science. Such people have a hard enough time in our society, our first priority should be to foster and nurture them, female or male.

  28. Clifford says:

    There are many more kinds of sacrifices for science than the one that you’ve chosen to focus on.

    As to your opinion about the irrelevance to science of popular teachers, people who do outreach and people who create welcoming atmospheres…. I’d like to urge you to reconsider. It strikes me as spectacularly short-sighted, and it’s very sad indeed to hear someone saying such a thing. And I’ll leave it at that. Except to say that I do not understand why one model of living and being must always be put in opposition to another. It is sad. Both can exist quite comfortably.

    Giving more women and minirities more opportunities to take part in academic life and contribute to science (and society at large in this way) is not a threat to someone else (who may well be from one of those groups!) choosing to lead a “lopsided” (your word) life and contribute to science in their particular way.

    How sad and silly.


  29. Risa says:

    Many things to say about all this, but I’ll just say one now: Bravo, Scott. I took that very same class (at least I’m guessing: 8.022) from one of your esteemed colleagues about 14 years ago. The class consisted of roughly 2/3 people who had seen Gauss’s law before, and then the rest of us who had had crappy physics prep in high school. The grade distribution on the first exam reflected this perfectly, with the later group doing very poorly. A few of us in this group, mostly women, went to the recitaton instructor (all profs at MIT) to try to make some progress, and instead of answering our physics questions he invited us all to drop the class and take the easier one, since obviously we weren’t cut out to be physicists. Lucikily for me, I’m stubborn as hell, worked my ass off, and ended up doing well in the class (and for the record for you women undergrads there — am now a physics prof at Stanford… and many years later the professor in question actually apologized to me for this class!) But the other two women that were with me that day, both brilliant and planning to be physicists, ended up leaving the field — not solely for this reason of course, but I can say this and other behavior like it contributed. Feedback from professors at early stages, both positive and negative, matters. A lot more than you might think. And I think it matters MUCH more to women and others from underrepresented groups. I hope that I manage to keep this in mind when I start teaching undergrads next year…

  30. Scott H. says:

    Hi Risa — Yep, 8.022. And I think I know the professor you refer to (initials RA, by any chance?) … for what it’s worth, he’s gotten a LOT better. Apparently, you had him his very semester of teaching, and he got his ass chewed out for doing such a lousy job that semester.

    I taught 8.022 with him my first semester at MIT. Up late one night grading, he was reminiscing about his early days, and described how terrible he was. He specifically remembered the course evaluation you wrote, which (with reinforcement from senior MIT faculty) played a huge role in waking him up. (And no doubt played a huge role in his apologizing to you.)

    The a-holes can change! Might not happen often, but it’s great when it does.

  31. Anonymous says:

    Clifford – yes, running marathons and being tall has nothing to do with doing science. It was an example (duh!) of what even a slight displacement of the average affects the tails of the distribution. I am surprised you didn’t get the connection.

    Examples of more blatant discrimination are very much relevant for this discussion. We are discussing injustices against women scientists, but keep quiet on other injustices. Is it because one group doesn’t care about another discriminated group? Or do we have a popular issue with women in science that everyone (almost everyone) feels more comfortable than, say, asians or jews in science? Because in arguing for a certain female:male ratio that, say, resembles that of our population we are getting dangerously close to Buchanan’s complaints that asian and jewish students dominate ivy league schools and that the student body should resemble that of america.

    And if equality in representation at every level is not a measure of lack of discrimination, then what do we use as such measure? I am not sure I have the answer.

    I have similar feelings to what Hmm expressed regarding rumor mills statistics of female/male competitiveness. It would appear as if a lot of departments are fighting over the few good female candidates. Whether this is done at expense of more qualified male candidates is hard to say, without some external numerical measure.

  32. Clifford says:

    Whether this is done at expense of more qualified male candidates is hard to say…

    But ever so easy to assume, right?


  33. Clifford says:

    And how is it that when one (or a few) male candidate is all over all the short lists on the rumour mill -which happens a lot too- you don’t hear anyone saying that they’re blocking the jobs for all the women? You don’t hear anyone questioning their ability using their gender as a basis?

    Strange that, isn’t it?


  34. Arun says:

    Perhaps we can look at a better defined question – given the representation – number and performance – of a group – women, Asians, whomever – at step X of the physics career, are there the expected number at step X+1? Wherever it is not, we may have a barrier not related to performance that needs to be examined.

    My guess would be the biggest barrier unrelated to performance are probably at the high school to undergrad transition, and the next may be at the undergrad to graduate transition.

  35. R J-C says:

    I am a 17 year old girl, and I plan to study physics and astronomy in college and pursue a research career in one or both of those fields. As such, I’ve been following many of the discussions about the status of women in science and find myself both disturbed and optimistic.

    I’ve been very lucky so far to have received almost universal encouragement to go into the physical sciences. I have several excellent mentors (male and female) who have provided wonderful support and have directed me towards opportunities to observe at professional-class telescopes and get involved in a meaningful way in astronomical research. My interactions with aspiring astronomers and physicists my own age have been very positive, and have left me feeling very optimistic because they represent the future of science, and from my experience do not hold the same sexist beliefs that often characterize men of older generations. Perhaps this is naive, but I think that because a new generation free of many of the old-fashioned biases is entering the field, the situation of women in academia will improve.

    However, I find the actions of influential academics like Summers highly disturbing because their opinions affect impressionable young people like me. When the president of Harvard tells me that I’m fundamentally less capable in the things I love than the boy sitting next to me, it is hard not to feel discouraged. I think that as long as men in positions of power and influence make statements like Summers’, women will be at a disadvantage.

    To encourage young girls like myself, I think that women scientists could increase their public exposure by writing more articles in newspapers and magazines, and make more appearances on TV to talk about new and exciting research in all scientific fields.

    Thank you Dr Johnson for bringing up such important issues.

    ~R J-C

  36. Clifford says:

    Hi R J-C!

    I’m very glad to hear from you. Yes, keep your eyes on your goals and try to simply ignore the discouraging remarks of the Summers-types (and some above in this thread) and go for what you want. In fact, every time somebody doubts your ability, instead use that doubt as ammunition to strive harder to get where you want. That’s what I did, and still do, as someone of colour who was also discouraged by so many of those people and images around me as I went through my career.

    Thanks for checking in, and do come back from time to time!



  37. Nicole says:

    “Hmm”, I think you have a narrow and incorrect view of how scientific progress is made. Looked at as a whole with a long-term (several centuries) view, science needs the unbalanced, obsessive, socially maladjusted, and narrowly brilliant person who had the luck to be born in the right place at the right time and so their specific skills were nurtured. In between those flashes of luck, scientific progress needs the regular, highly intelligent, well-rounded, well-educated people that love to do research. The former are always far outnumbered by the latter. Because we have pockets of society in this world that have a high standard of living, we can ensure a steady supply of this latter category of people. (and I am simplifying this drastically by putting scientists into 2 categories, but it is an improvement over 1 category, so please bear with me)

    The system is far from ideal, and we would make progress more quickly if we changed some things. First, someone with power has to recognize the single-minded, brilliant person as having the potential to do great things, and some minimum level of encouragement or support has to be given (e.g. someone has to read their papers and give decent comments, and don’t they need some money to live?). If we are very biased towards imagining a genius as a white male, we are missing many geniuses. And there will be some level of investment that must be made in potential geniuses to get a demonstrated genius, maybe this is only a 10% yield, who knows.

    Second, unbalanced single-minded people will be single-minded no matter what the nature of the scientific environment. But scientific progress also requires more mundane day-by-day activities, and complex projects that must be managed over decades before they achieve results. Many people have the aptitude and desire for this work, but are turned off by the scientific culture. And many people were not turned off completely, but are operating at less than their full potential.

    And I will just mention in closing that people do not work in a vacuum, and even socially maladjusted geniuses benefit from the scientific and social input of colleagues. So we should not perpetuate “Hmm”‘s extremely narrow view of the nature of scientists.

  38. Scott H. says:

    Nicole, very well put! Twice I started drafting a comment on this, but killed it since I wasn’t able to phrase what I wanted to say quite right. You’ve hit the nail on the head.

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  41. gigi says:

    I’m sorry to post here, but I thought it the most appropriate place. Thank you for your question to Peter Starr at the State of the College Address. It’s easy to “talk” diversity without doing anything about it (esp. when it comes to faculty hiring and *retention*). I’m always skeptical about the rhetoric of diversity that’s so easily thrown around without any real commitment behind it. I know you are working both publicly and behind the scenes to make USC a more diverse and equitable place (not simply for diversity’s sake, BUT because doing so expands our intellectual horizons, moves our disciplines ahead, etc.).

    Sometimes it’s difficult to muster up energy for these battles. But they are well worth the struggle, no matter how difficult they may be. (Here, I’m just trying to gather up my own reserves after seeing a number of qualified minority scholars and women denied tenure in the College over the past couple of years; and deep-seated, unconscious prejudices steering faculty searches.) Thanks for your inspiring example! Keep up the good work!

  42. Clifford says:

    gigi:- Thanks so much for your comment on this. I’d no idea a blog reader was at the Address!

    Come back and visit some more. Thanks for the supportive remarks.

    Best Wishes,