Still So Far To Go

Sometimes one deludes oneself into thinking that progress has been made on some important social issue, and then out of the blue, there’s a reminder of just how far things still have to go. Check out this post – supposedly a report on the contents of a physics seminar given by a woman – on the blog “A Quantum Diaries Survivor”, and get a reminder of what women in physics are up against. Near the beginning of the post he spends one of the longest paragraphs of the piece talking about how her hair was done, how fit and attractive he thinks she looks, wondering whether she works out…(!) It’s so completely awful to do this sort of thing and he does it so spectacularly completely that I actually thought it was meant to be a parody of some sort! From his comments in response to people pointing out the inappropriateness of it, it turns out that he really does not get it at all. Not a bit.

It is really sad. It is so embarrassing too, when anyone female shows up in a physics context and guys just start behaving like they’ve never seen a woman before. That silliness alone is simply embarrassing, but this is quite a bit worse I would say, since it is damaging to the cause of women in the field.

I really shouldn’t go on, and I will risk sounding preachy and self-righteous (and I’ll just get yelled at and nobody will learn anything) but it’s important, so I will try some words:

Of course there are contexts in which we can discuss things about each other that take note of (even celebrate) our differences in gender, race, and so forth. I’ll be so bold as to say that with appropriate care, we can even legitimately talk about whether we find someone attractive or not, wonder about aspects of their personal lives, etc. (No, by this I don’t mean it is ok to be a sexist jerk in private.) Nobody is suggesting that we be all gray and genderless automata. These things are part of the spice of life – grist for the mill of human interaction, and we are human. But we are humans with brains that can help us separate out different aspects of our interactions. The point is that these things should not pollute the atmosphere of the workplace – or the extended workplace (he was reporting on a physics talk at CERN to a wider physics audience). In other words, they should not be done at the expense of those around us – context is everything. Most definitely, to my mind, this is really not one of those contexts. One should always be careful in a work context, of course, and in the broader context of a public forum about work and reflections on work matters, one should be very careful to separate out the physics discussion from the other stuff. Even then it is very hard to get right and probably the best policy is to err on the side of caution, I would say. Sure, it’s a minefield – people’s feelings can be involved. That sort of thing is never simple, and nor should it be.

Also, it is irrelevant whether or not the person being commented on is an established respected scientist (in this case they are – it’s Lisa Randall). The key point is that doing this sort of thing in this context does not send a good message to younger women in the field who are trying to be taken seriously as thinkers rather than eye-candy for the majority males in the field (or worse), nor to younger women thinking about coming into the field. It also does not set a good example to other men in the field who have yet to learn about how such comments can make a woman feel about herself and how seriously she is being taken.

This all puts me in mind of that fine Science Friday interview of Ira Flatow’s (of the same person) a while back. If you look at that old post of mine, be sure to scroll down to the comments starting around #58 or so where the man himself (or someone claiming to be him) comes into the discussion and makes it all even more depressing.

Of course, as usual all of these considerations will be lost in the stampede of people rushing to form intelligent counter-arguments which are a variation on “American political correctness out of control” and so forth.

Doubly sad. Triply if one notices that the interesting physics he does get around to reporting on has yet to be discussed in any of the 12 comments so far. I wonder how many comments it will take before the physics is mentioned (not counting the trackback that this post might leave there)?


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116 Responses to Still So Far To Go

  1. Kea says:

    It is really sad. It is so embarrassing too, when anyone female shows up in a physics context and guys just start behaving like they’ve never seen a woman before.

    Humph. Even though you are basically correct, it is very hypocritical for you to criticise Tommaso, who is probably the ONLY well known physics blogger who bothers to listen to what women in physics say, as far as I can tell. Believe me, seeing posts like Tommaso’s actually make me smile, because as he says, he likes to treat them like human beings, and I quite enjoy the rare occasion when I’m treated like a human being.

  2. Sean Carroll says:

    Couldn’t agree more. It’s astonishing the willingness people have to simply ignore the harm and discomfort they are causing, and to completely ignore the point when it’s pointed out to them.

    The physics in that post was really interesting! Why not stick to that?

  3. Sean Carroll says:

    (That is to say, couldn’t agree more with Clifford’s post, not with the previous comment.)

  4. Samantha says:

    [cough cough cough] Breathlessly describing a woman’s appearance in a professional context is TREATING A WOMAN LIKE A HUMAN BEiNG?!

    It is such an uphill battle to be taken seriously as woman as science. I realize this more and more as I progress in my career (as it seems more and more of a fight). Many men still don’t take you seriously. They don’t listen to your ideas because they think that you are neither as smart or as capable as them. Moreover, for two pins, you will leave the field to have a baby. However, on the plus side but you do provide some eye candy when you give a seminar.

    I could go on. But it is too depressing.

  5. Kea says:

    Samantha, believe me, nobody on planet Earth knows better than me how hard it is for women in science (especially physics). Amen. I am simply defending somebody who has actually demonstrated the very rare ability to listen to what women say.

  6. Samantha says:

    As distinct from Clifford and Sean?

  7. Kea says:

    Clifford and Sean make an effort, which I appreciate, but they always stop short of anything that might actually get them into trouble.

  8. Clifford says:

    Kea, let’s get something straight here. You’re accusing me of hypocritical behaviour possibly because I (and several others) appear to have found many of your physics claims to be wanting. You can disagree with me on the physics. I respect that. I disagreed with you long before I even knew you were a woman. The physics was just not well presented or defended, plain and simple. I treated you and continue to treat you no differently than anyone else who is going around trying to say something controversial in the physics world with little to show to back it up (and lord knows there are so many who frequent blogs). I politely disagreed, and moved on. To accuse me of doing so because you are a woman is entirely eroding your own position as a physicist.

    I think anyone who reads the comments and conversations here at this blog know that I treat women as seriously as I treat men, so I won’t say anything further about your more general claim. You are simply mixing up personal disgruntlement with a general pattern that is not there.



  9. Clifford says:

    Kea also says:

    “nobody on planet Earth knows better than me how hard it is for women in science”

    How many times have I heard this sentence, from both men and women? Why is it so often used in a way that is supposed to trump all other discussion points? how do you quantify this, to say that there are not others out there who know better. And why does it matter who has the absolute biggest knowledge of how hard it is? Inquiring minds need to know. I’m trying to make a serious point here… we need to stop over-simplfiying things in this way in order to make progress. This is not a productive way to argue. It is especially wrong-headed when thrown at another woman scientist who (I presume) you know nothing about.


  10. Clifford says:

    Further example of how you seem determined to undermine your case, Kea. I was out in the garden trimming my stralitsia plants for a while during which time you made a number of comments in quick succession and so (as is a standard automatic action in such a case, as you must know as a blogger yourself) the spam checker flagged your most recent comment (#7) for moderation. In response, on Tommaso’s blog, you immediately accused me of putting you into the moderation queue and that this is somehow an example of an unreasonable response to your comment #7, and a further example of how I don’t take you seriously. Did you stop to think of another explanation before making the accusation? Or is my blog itself now being accused of not taking women seriously? (And why would I (or it) stop that comment in particular – which I don’t even understand?) Very odd indeed.

    Let’s get back to the substance of the discussion and stop the silliness.



  11. Mark Trodden says:

    To suggest that anyone who avoids saying something inappropriate is less supportive of women

    Clifford and Sean make an effort, which I appreciate, but they always stop short of anything that might actually get them into trouble.

    is truly confusing.

  12. Elliot says:

    Can somebody point out an example of a male lecturing on physics which starts with something like….

    He was wearing a neatly pressed blue blazer with a white oxford button down shirt and well worn jeans. A perfect blend of formality and ruggedness. His hair seemed deliberately unkempt, a counterpoint to the neatly trimmed beard intended once again to convey an image rife with mystery. As he began…. Let’s consider a variation of the landscape where…

    No?? Anyone???

    Guess not.


  13. Kea says:

    Er, I wasn’t aware that this discussion had anything at all to do with my physics. I certainly didn’t bring it up.

  14. Samantha says:


    A small addition to your description: … and his forearms were toned in way that suggested he was able to bench press double the weight normal for his age..

    Or how about: his paunch, which fell slightly over his belt, suggested that he was no longer accustomed to rock climbing….

    etc etc

  15. Tony Smith says:

    For Elliot:

    “… Feynman .. repeated the talk … at … CERN … standing before them in a his new dress suit …”

    Tony Smith

    PS – from page 379 of the book Genius by James Gleick

  16. Louise says:

    I must support Kea in this matter. Why then are my comments always deleted here?

  17. Samantha says:

    One more thing before I pack it in for the night.

    I was stunned, some years ago, when I heard (male straight) sailors talking about why they didn’t want gay men in the navy. Why, they said, they might LOOK AT us naked in the showers… What I gathered from this, was that they didn’t want be objectifed by the unwelcome attention of a stranger, in other words, they feared being treated like women.

    So, do the thought experiment. Imagine you are giving an important talk in front of audience. How would you feel if the audience is comprised of women who, in addition to listening to your seminar, are also critically assessing your physical appearance? Does your reaction change if the audience is made up of men, doing the same thing?

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  19. Clifford says:

    Louise. Your comments are very seldom (if ever, I can’t recall) deleted. In fact, we’ve had very long discussions here about your approach to general relativity to “derive” a varying speed of light… an approach which is fundamentally flawed. Why do you find it so easy to simply claim that your being picked on because you’re a woman? Your physics arguments are flawed, and you insist on coming in every time there is a discussion on aspects of cosmology and simply interjecting into the conversation that we’re all wrong because we’re ignoring your idea. An idea that has been debated many times and found wanting. So far. Maybe in the future you will find wonderful new arguments that will prove us wrong. Great. Right now however, you’re treated on the basis of your arguments. This blog is not a forum for people to deposit their personal theories of the universe at random. A lot of wrong, silly, and irrelevant junk is thrown out (I’m not saying yours fits those categories), and also some things that are simply misleading to the general reader becausd they have been dressed up in a language that makes it seem legitimate. I definitely delete those because there is an educational component I wish to preserve here that I do not want to get lost in the noise of speculation and random “here’s my pet theory” posts from one and all.

    Deletion of your posts (and really, as far as I know, not as many as your comment would seem to imply) has nothing to do with your gender, and I repeat -you undermine yourself as a physicist to jump to such an unsubstantiated conclusion. Do you know how much other stuff gets deleted? What is your evidence that I’m picking on you due to your gender? Do you know how many of the comments that get deleted are those of males vs females?

    As I’ve said to both of you before – extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If you make a strong claim, back it up with more than vague suggestions, sloppy reasoning, manifestly wrong interpretations of physical principles, and now, accusations that the person you are arguing with is sexist.

    How can you make such claims on such shaky evidence? It is very odd to me that you both can present such a lame accusation – so sloppily constructed a thesis. Is this how you construct your physics arguments too?

    I’m sorry to be so harsh, but I resent being accused of hypocrisy and maltreatment of women on such a flimsy and obviously personally motivated basis. It’s just cheap, and you are cheapening whatever physics merit might have been in your ideas in this way.


  20. Clifford says:

    And I should add that in this action you are also both cheapening the cause of women and minorities out there who have genuine reason to claim that what they say is not being taken seriously due to their gender or race.


  21. Moshe says:

    Clifford, every sensible person reading this blog for some time knows there is no merit to these accusations, they are just ludicrous. There is probably no reason to pay much attention to the fringe elements, they do tend to take up all available space and time if permitted.

  22. JoAnne says:


    Thanks for bringing Tommaso’s post to the attention of a wider audience. It in inappropriate from start to finish in my book. I think the last paragraphs where he insinuated that she might be initimidated by the questions bothered me the most. I doubt he would have said that about a male speaker. (And don’t get me started about the gratitious reference to male genitalia which just adds more sex to the post.)

  23. Amara says:

    Yes, it was over the top to start out the post that way and detracted from the rest of the piece. However I have to say that it is not easy to separate the person (Tommaso) from the culture. Italy is off-scale compared to western countries in almost every respect. Such a perspective as Tommaso’s, an intense focus on the person’s appearance (man or woman), is deeply embedded. This being Italy, the woman’s appearance is frequently described in the media in the way he writes, often more graphically. I think that objectivation of women, whatever their field is wrong, but such objectivation is common in Italy, and it is difficult to distinguish between that and the focus on appearance. In this culture, one doesn’t step outside to take out the trash unless one spends some time to make sure that one’s appearance is perfect. _That’s_ the culture.

    There is another facet to this situation. In this country, in addition to science being a fringe, little-respected, field of endeavor, there are few women scientists at the top level in the universities and research environments. A person like Lisa Randall would be viewed like a creature from another planet, which I find odd given the large number (compared to other countries) of Italian women scientists who are working at the lower levels. Women rarely can break through to the top, but when they do, you hear their names alot because they are such a novelty. So here we have a chicken-or-egg phenomena. How to change the situation? The culture won’t change unless the people want to (and do), and the people won’t change until there is a strong push from the culture to do so.

  24. Francis Caestecker says:

    I’m sorry. But I don’t want to step on anyones toes here. I’m merely 18, so have no experience whatsoever in the real world :).

    I don’t see how this exatly harms the women. As I read the article, it seems she is a respected and appreciated physicist. It’s not as if he made any degrading remarks. He just complimented her on her looks. And if I read his blog subtitle it sais “private thoughts of a physicist and chessplayer”. It’s his thoughts. And he probably thought about it abit ;). Physics can be a lonely business!

    Anyways, I’m not really someone who likes the strict rules of the social enscenade this world brings.

  25. Hi all,

    I think you have all been out-smarted by an 18-year old boy or girl. Those are my private comments, and you
    seem to want to ignore, rather than just overlook it.

    My posts are not a lecture in physics, Eliot. I love to write about physics, that’s all.

    Anyway, I concede that my style is at friction with the way most americans understand “political correctness”. As Amara points out, things are different in Italy. Journalism is different. You should travel a bit more, see the world, and be concerned with your country’s foreign policy a bit more and the situation of women in academia (which I admit is still reproachable) a bit less.

    JoAnne, I do comment on comments to talks about males all the time when I report on seminars. You are excused for not reading my blog enough to have known that, but you are not excused for your comment to my blog, which I found insulting.


  26. Oh, another thing. Clifford, you are bullying Kea just because she disagrees with you, and I find that really despicable.


  27. Pingback: Am I a sexist ? « A Quantum Diaries Survivor

  28. Amara says:

    Dear Tommaso: Raising the point of a country’s foreign policy is a red herring in this discussion. What you and others and me are probably seeing is a clash of cultures. The blogsphere (a more global entity) is objecting to your initial strong emphasis on scientist’s appearance, rather than the merit of her talk. Probably they would have objected less if you didn’t start out your post that way.

    Note that there are few English-language blogs from Italian scientists, so like-it-or-not, you stand out, and represent something. If you want to be understood better by your community, maybe you should write in Italian, but since you are not, then you must face what looks strange to people outside of Italy. What the blogsphere doesn’t understand is that scientists in Italy are almost never evaluated on merit: usually it is other things such as who one knows and how one looks and presents oneself. Woman with careers are still a source of friction in the culture. Note that if a women in her 30s applies for a job, she is directly asked questions about her plans to have babies, which would be considered discrimanatory in many other western countries.

    And there are other cultural facets that many outside of Italy don’t know or understand. The social network in Italy is very important because it is the only way that one can live comfortably given the poor government and public services. If one is a scientist, then being clever and passionate about science is a strong “given”, because the only scientists who are remaining in Italy (i.e. who haven’t left) are only the very resourceful and clever, economically-lucky, and and passionate. The blogsphere doesn’t understand that the primary battles in Italian science are about finding that scrap of funding, and an Italian woman’s career glass ceiling is far less relevant in the hierarchy of problems to be solved.

    However, I think that you did a disserve to Italian woman scientists. I work for one of the rare woman scientists at the top in Italy, and I can tell you that she is almost never evaluated on her science, but instead on her connections (she is extremely well-connected). I’ve seen how hard she fights against the male scientists in the community to keep her scientific groups running.

    So while I do understand where you are coming from, you didn’t help to change the attitudes that many women in the sciences, including Italian scientists, need to fight in their daily working life.

  29. gigi says:

    you go, cliffford!! what i don’t think tomas and other realize is that sexism (and racism, homophobia, etc.) is _systematic_. we are all implicated – no matter how nice, intelligent, or well-intentioned. when i say _systematic_ – it’s a way of thinking and looking at the world that may seem entirely normal, but relies upon certain norms, presupposition, and stereotypes, etc. (why are many even surprised and perhaps even delighted that lisa randall is both attractive, smart, and athletic? Because we don’t expect such a combo given our expectations about women in science/academe…)

    so i have no doubt that tomas and others are sincere and well-meaning. and such good intentions are a far cry from the outright disdan and discrimination of women scientists/academics. still this is the toughest type of sexism to fight — the seemingly benign vestiges that linger in everyone’s view and behavior (including my own, a female scholar who has been subject to similar descriptions!). hence, “calling out” such “benevolent sexism” isn’t lodged as an act of political correctness, but rather as an opportunity for us to self-relfect and perhaps see things in a different light…

  30. Francis Caestecker says:

    What all a small paragraph about the looks of a lecturer might stir…

    I guess I’m still a bit too much of a romantic physicist. I plan to just not care about how people look at me, or if they take me or my (hopefully) future ideas serious or not. If I get discriminated, I wouldn’t care, because the ideas are for my own knowledge. If I myself can do something I enjoy, and if I believe in my own idea’s, that is sufficient to me. Guess if I’m going to want to survive, I’ll need some waking up éh? 😉

    Quote by tommaso: “by an 18-year old boy or girl.”

    It seems you’re really careful approaching gender now :p. It’s a bit explosive topic for the moment! Anyway, it’s “boy”. 🙂

    PS. Use more smilies, people!

  31. Adam says:

    I am unconvinced that bitching about what someone wrote on their blog, comments which are at worst ephemeral indications of the significantly bigger underlying problems of the situation of women in the physics workplace, achieves a great deal.

    More generally, it seems to me that if you try and crush the expression of thoughts like this, which are just symptoms in any case, you not only fail to address the actual problems but deprive yourself of a way to judge future success in addressing the underlying problems. You don’t want people to say the ‘right things’ because they’re scared of the response, you want them to say the ‘right things’ based on how they feel; changing how people feel has always been the real problem in dealing with sexism or racism, etc. Trying to enforce that change in what people feel via restricting what people say is liable to create significant resentment in any case (because you’re not changing what people think, you’re changing what they say and people resent being told by others what they can and cannot say) whilst failing to achieve your aims.

    So, at most Tommaso’s comments are symptomatic of the problem of sexism in physics. I don’t think that the comments are setting any cause back (the cause of redressing sexism in physics has far bigger problems to face) and, while it’s the nature of the blogosphere to get its underwear tightly bunched over what people say (and, therefore, Tommaso should probably have expected a reaction like this) unless there is significant other evidence that he’s doing actual harm (rather than illustrating a continuing situation which does harm the careers and participation of women in physics), I’d suggest that people pause for breath.

  32. alpinekat says:

    My interest in this debate is personal. I am a beginning science-writer, and part of my job is to weave a story. Good stories include descriptions of character — people want to know what they look like, how they carry themselves, how they are perceived.

    Maybe the fact that I’m female will shield me to some extent, but I’m wondering where exactly this dire line is.

    What if I had written, “Following a somewhat bumbling introduction, Lisa Randall took the stage in a sleeveless black and white dress that revealed toned arms, blond hair tied back in a pony tail. Whether stunned at her beauty or simply eager to hear such a respected colleague speak, the audience of around a hundred and fifty forgot the nicety of initial applause.” ?

    It lacks the open interest of Dorigo’s post, but it points up her appearance.

    What concerns me is that a lot of people are saying “leave physical appearance out of it.” No, physical appearance isn’t a main component. But it’s part of what turns a scientist’s name on a page into a living person for a reader.

    To go on Elliot’s post — If I was describing a man with a paunch, I probably wouldn’t mention it. But I might talk about the discrepancy between unkempt hair and trimmed beard, the oxford shirt, the neatly pressed blazer. A deliberate air of mystery makes him interesting, reveals ego.

    And I can’t speak for everyone at Physics Buzz, but I have to agree with Tommaso here — he’s up front about the fact that these are his private thoughts. So what if he checked out Lisa Randall? From my experience with men, it doesn’t surprise me in the least that he noticed her good looks.

  33. ori says:

    Clifford does not understand that he assumes that men can never be attractive while women can. There is no difference between men and women, and one can imagine a woman blogger saying that Clifford is so hot etc. and then describing the content of his lecture.

    The one who is really discriminating here is cvj.

  34. Clifford says:

    Hi tommaso,

    No, I’m not bullying anyone. I was accused of being hypocritical on the issue, of not taking women seriously in physics discussions, and I find that quite a strong thing to accuse me of. I was entitled to set that straight and explain clearly what was going on to her. Also as someone who also sometimes has to deal with the attitudes of others because they judge me by my appearance first and the content of what I say second (or third, or much later), I also find it disturbing when someone so easily misuses such an accusation in this way.

    It makes it harder for the rest of us.



  35. Chanda says:

    Clifford thanks for taking the time and the chance to write what you did. It is most appreciated!

    To the budding science journalist — I think the best way to make your science articles interesting is to focus on the science, not to study the person of the scientist. That is the best expository service you can provide to the larger world. Thus, there’s no reason to glorify the “absent-minded professor” or the “sex-pot lady biochemist.” What purpose does that serve? Does it create a better-informed public? Does it have any relationship with explaining the physics that they do?

    I think that in fact these kinds of glorifications only serve to create stereotypes or focus people away from what is truly important. Either people come away with the idea that accomplished physicists are all old white men in lab coats or suits, or people remember that Lisa Randall is a “hot blond” but not what string theory is. This is sort of silly and as far as I am concerned, isn’t really the way journalism should be done. Unfortunately, that is the historical precedent: glorify the physicist and do a crap job of keeping the public informed about the physics. My colleagues and I all regularly cringe when reading the science section in the NY Times because it is so frequently inaccurate.

    On the other hand, if you are just starting, then you have a chance to do something differently instead of following the status quo. So I hope you will consider my perspective as a Black woman who never saw any people who looked like her in the science press – not because they weren’t out there, but because they didn’t fit the mold that the press frequently likes to portray.

    And that is not to say that when we do see beautiful, accomplished woman in the press, I want to read descriptions of how this beautiful, accomplished woman does her science not her frickin’ wardrobe. Oh, and that’s not to say you shouldn’t look: but does that mean you have to write about it in a public forum?

    By the way, to all of the non-Americans who seem to find it necessary, every single time someone living in the US or from the US comments on something potentially offensive or discriminatory, to sweep the comments under the rug of “overly obsessed with political correctness”: find a better argument. It’s not actually a challenge to throw someone’s reaction out the window: it shows a lack of capacity to honestly challenge what is being said. It’s not always about political correctness. Sometimes we actually use our brains and our hearts and experience genuine reactions! It’s a completely pathetic response to side-step this possibility just because it is convenient for you.

    Please, find a new weapon that isn’t a playground taunt of “you’re being politically correct!”

    And it’s Clifford’s blog! Show some respect, people!!

  36. Amara says:

    Alpinekat: there is no exact line, especially in a global community. Instead I would say it’s a matter of emphasis. Your story version has a different emphasis and seems ok to me. And Tommaso’s ‘private’ thoughts are in reality _public_. He put his words out there. It’s on his side to accept (or not) and learn from (or not) the response of his readers. Blogging is a device to aid communication, isn’t it?

  37. Elliot says:

    Tommaso wrote:

    “My posts are not a lecture in physics, Eliot. I love to write about physics, that’s all.”

    ….then stick to the physics.

    Although I am willing to acknowledge cultural differences, I am not willing to accept blatant sexism by/in any culture. It has nothing to do with “political correctness” in the United States.

    However, I do agree that Tommaso has the perfect right write whatever he wants on his blog. The internet is all about free speech. Just like a white supremicist here can post whatever they want about Jews/Blacks or whatever. He just has to accept that some people may react to it as some have.


  38. Interesting discussion! Since other commenters have summed up my feelings on the central issue far better than I could, I’d like to address AlpineKat’s comments as a science writer. She’s right about needing to add some descriptive power to establish time, place, character, etc., and that could include physical descriptions. There’s no set “line” for such things, and the line might be different depending on the reader, or the writer.

    Here’s an example. A few months ago there was an otherwise very nice profile of Brian Greene (MSNBC? CNET? Can’t recall offhand, sorry!) that mentioned his attractive appearance and social charm. From a science writing perspective that part was fine, but then the writer (a man, BTW), IMO, crossed the line by adding a parenthetical, “Sorry, ladies! He’s happily married with a kid!” I wrote to the author, who does otherwise good work, and asked whether that was really necessary, since it has any number of implications that are demeaning not just to women, but to Greene as a professional physicist. It cheapened an otherwise excellent article. I understand why he did it — he was trying to “write lively,” and in so doing, he fell into the standard tricks of the celebrity rags which assume that the public’s only interest in a “Name” stems from their search for an attractive partner. It just didn’t work. But again, it’s subjective, and a judgment call: apparently I was the only person who noticed.

    My rule of thumb is to try to include descriptive details that are relevant, ie, reveal something about the personality of the person being profiled, but while I might indulge in snarky parentheticals in my blog writing, those are the sorts of extraneous things I cut out when writing for publication.

    Hope that helps on the science writing aspect of the issue. BTW, I chuckled at the commenter who referenced the paunch bulging over the waistband of a male physicist, indicating he no longer engaged in serious rock-climbing. 🙂 It would be such a humrous departure from convention — a send-up of lazy celebrity profiling — that I’d rather enjoy such a description being included in a science writing piece…

  39. Tony Smith says:

    Clifford, what is your opinion of Lisa Randall’s statement in an interview on the web at slash vogue:

    “… I think there are a lot of women in physics
    – and there really aren’t that many women in physics –
    who sort of don’t really know how they should dress …”.

    Tony Smith

  40. Francis Caestecker says:

    [quote]What purpose does that serve? Does it create a better-informed public? Does it have any relationship with explaining the physics that they do?[/quote]

    It’s much more light and entertaining to read, other than dry physics. You’ll reach out to a much wider public. I read a book by Bodanis, and it read extremely light and pleasant. I don’t think talking about the person creates stereotypes. I think it actually breaks them. If you just read plain old physics, and you just read the name, and not even gender is mentioned, you’ll just imagine a fuzzy old professor in a lab. However, the young man who likes gardening 😉 might give the reader a new perspective.

    [quote]By the way, to all of the non-Americans who seem to find it necessary, every single time someone living in the US or from the US comments on something potentially offensive or discriminatory, to sweep the comments under the rug of “overly obsessed with political correctness”: find a better argument. It’s not actually a challenge to throw someone’s reaction out the window: it shows a lack of capacity to honestly challenge what is being said. It’s not always about political correctness. Sometimes we actually use our brains and our hearts and experience genuine reactions! It’s a completely pathetic response to side-step this possibility just because it is convenient for you.[/quote]

    Yes maybe. But from personal experience, mainly on the net, Americans really try and push their ethics and political correctness. USA citizens find something offensive really quickly, while often nothing offensive is intended, and the rest of the world always has to adjust to North-American standards, because it only works in a one-way direction. North-American culture is really “open”. When you stand in an elevator, people just randomly start talking to you, asking how your day was. In Europe, people aren’t this heartful or emotional (not entirely negative, even though Americans are heartful and caring, the conversations are often shallow and low of significance). That’s why I think political correctness is a bigger in USA than rest of the world.

    I’ve had many culture clashes regarding political correctness with USA. Mainly on racism. I’ve also learnt from this, there is never a compromise. One has to give in to the other, or just leave the matter as it is. I also think nobodies opinion is right or wrong. It’s all dependant of culture. You should regard different countries/continents as different planets. If we had contact with E.T. life, we could never confront them with political correctness, since we would understand they never knew it (or maybe in a different form.).


  41. Clifford says:

    Tony Smith:

    Are you asking for my opinion on:

    (1) The fact that she stated an opinion?
    (2) Whether I agree with her summary about the dress sense of women in physics?
    (3) …other…?

    Given the context of the thread here, I’ll presume you mean (1). My opinion is that she is being interviewed in Vogue magazine about her as a person as well as her professional activities. So it is fine for her to express such an opinion in that context. Were she in the middle of a seminar on black holes at CERN and suddenly piped up about that issue, it would be a bit odd.

    Anyway, I did a post which mentioned that article and there are some interesting comments there by some of the people who read parts of the article, and took issue with some parts. Have a look here, here, and here. Notably (relevant to (2)) one of them (by Samantha) included the thought:

    Women in (theoretical) physics are a tiny minority. They are gossiped and speculated about in ways that has at times shocked me. To suggest that they should spend time thinking about their appearance so that they stand out more is really irritating to me.

    I have some sympathy with this position, but I also think that Lisa is entirely entitled to her opinion (and to express it in Vogue), and to dress as she pleases within the usual bounds of appropriateness for a work environment… I hope it was made clear in the article (I have not read it) that it was her opinion and that there’s not some global requirement for young women coming into physics to have to worry about their wardrobe if they don’t want to (I guess I’m repearing the point made above).

    Generally speaking, let’s not fixate on Lisa here. This discussion is not actually about Lisa…it is totally irrelevant that it was her giving the seminar.



  42. Samantha says:


    Wow. I didn’t read to the end of the blog piece. You are right. It gets worse. Hard to imagine, but there it is.

  43. Adam says:

    Clifford, with regards to a particular individual and how they are described in a particular post, why wouldn’t the sayings of that particular individual be considered? I mean, it’s not like anyone’s the appointed defender, or exemplar, of ‘team woman’. If someone sets out to achieve certain things with their appearance and they are doing it with regards to the way that it will seem to others (ie, not just because they like the way it looks) then it seems to me that it might well be remarked upon. After all, in effect, that is why the effort with appearance was made in the first place. If one makes an appearance in Vogue for a nice staged photoshoot looking good in a piece entitled ‘ageless beauty’ (all of which they are quite welcome to do; as I said, no one’s the appointed defender or exemplar of ‘team woman’) why on earth are comments about how that person looks forbidden, even when those comments are part of a piece on that person’s professional output. We can wish that our personal lives would be separate from our professional ones, but life’s just not like that, even if we react as if it ought to be.

    If the comments were made about someone else, even then, they’re not doing harm so much as they might represent underlying problems that do significant harm. Let’s keep our powder dry for those underlying problems.

    I wouldn’t have written what Tommaso did. It’s not the sort of thing that interests me and I think that it appears a little pervy in any case (there might be a cultural difference there, however, or maybe it’s just me and my preference for keeping my feelings, like my intestines, safely hidden away on the inside). However, I can’t get irate over it and it’s not because I’m not bothered about the problems that women face in physics (quite the opposite, in fact, for various reasons). It’s trivia; I’m actually far more bothered about the reaction to the comments, which I think is over the top, than the comments themselves.

  44. Bee says:

    Since nobody has mentioned it yet, Lisa Randall had an article in Discover magazine titled ‘An American Physicist in Venice’ where she basically addressed exactly the issues discussed here. See also my commentary ‘Sexist’.

    Chanda: No, you are right ‘It’s not always about political correctness.’. But in this case as in many other I would appreciate if people just take into account that cultural differences DO exist, and it is also my impression that North Americans are somewhat more sensitive to PC issues. I had to notice that I occasionally offend people without meaning to do so. I am really sorry about that, but it is not that easy to figure out ‘correct’ social behaviour of a society one didn’t grow up in – and even if one consciously knows, it’s not easy to behave accordingly. If I read Tommaso’s text, I have the impression he didn’t mean to insult anybody, had probably the best intentions, but it might have come out ‘wrong’ for somebody else. Yes, I actually think he should have known that, but we all make mistakes, and hey: it’s a blog post, nothing but a stupid blog post.

    Problems occur if somebody isn’t aware others might perceive things differently. This is not only about women in science, there are various other examples. E.g. think about how Japanese people often try to avoid a ‘no’. If one is aware of things like this, it is much easier to communicate with others. Our community is pretty much global by now, but I think we just don’t know enough about these things. Global companies are somewhat ahead of the scientific community in this regard, were people get briefings with things to know about other countries/cultures/traditions/typical behavior. Sometimes I think this would be worthwile to do in our community as well. I certainly would have appreciated had somebody given me a briefing about PC in America before I moved there. And I would have appreciated if some of my American colleages would have known somewhat more about Germans than that we have an Oktoberfest.

  45. Haelfix says:

    This is quite literally the most nutty thing I have ever seen on a science blog. All the people striken with righteous indignation, need to be subjected to watching USA up all night for 24 hours in a row so that they may take the world a little less seriously.

    The PC movements crazy zeal to excise any and all human commentary when its deemed ‘offensive’ (which means something different to everybody) is the height of authoritarian, Orwellian thought policing.

  46. Elliot says:


    So if somebody posted a comment on Tommaso’s blog, insulting his physical appearance and he exercised his authority as blog owner to delete the comment, would that be Orwellian thought policing as well?


  47. Elliot says:


    I don’t think it’s completely fair to suggest that North Americans are more PC sensitive than others. After all we’re the nation that gave such comedy classics as “Animal House” to the rest of the world.



  48. Michelle says:

    As an undergrad and as a grad student, I was one of a very small number of women in my classes, my research group, and my field in general. I was not yet confident about whether I could make it in science, and as a female, generally felt like something of an anomaly. During that time, any comments about women’s appearance or clothing (and in particular, mine) from my male colleagues made me very uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be the object of any “special” attention as a woman. I made sure not to wear anything that would draw attention to myself. I worried a lot about how to work with and socialize with the (almost all-male) colleagues that surrounded me without giving any impression of romantic interest, while still trying to have a normal social life and get my problem sets done. I encountered quite a few fellow students who didn’t seem comfortable interacting with people in general and women in particular. One or two incidents went beyond “uncomfortable” to “scary.”

    I’m now a little older, more self-confident, and have the good fortune to be in a scientific environment with considerably more women around, where the social interactions are more comfortable. I’m also making progress in my career, and don’t worry as much that my female-ness, appearance, choice of clothes, etc. might undermine my credibility. At this point in my life, the paragraph about Lisa Randall doesn’t bother me, because it doesn’t feel relevant to me anymore. But at one time, I might have reacted very differently, as if these comments were threatening. It is not what’s in the words themselves– it’s the emotions and experiences they trigger — fear of being different, of not being taken seriously, and of being singled out, and worrying about whether fitting in was necessary for success.

  49. Elliot says:


    in #1 you state

    “Even though you are basically correct, it is very hypocritical for you to criticise Tommaso, who is probably the ONLY well known physics blogger who bothers to listen to what women in physics say.”

    then in #13 you claim

    Er, I wasn’t aware that this discussion had anything at all to do with my physics. I certainly didn’t bring it up.

    Can you reconcile those two statements?


  50. JoAnne says:


    Thanks for writing in – you gave a perfect description of the harm that the langauge and attitude in Tommaso’s post can cause. Going through the ranks and being the only woman in my class, research group, conference, faculty, …. I felt exactly the same way you did. As you note, once one becomes senior enough, it subsides, but one has to have a very tough skin in order to reach that point. Now I watch the younger generation of budding women scientists still struggling with these issues, and I feel it is my responsibility to speak out.

    Good luck to you!

  51. Bee says:

    Hi Elliot: I don’t think it’s completely fair to suggest that North Americans are more PC sensitive than others. No, it’s not fair as cliches and general statements are rarely, but most often there is truth in it nevertheless (that’s why the cliche is a cliche, right?). I said it is my impression that Americans are somewhat more sensitive to PC issues – not more sensitive than all others, but at least than I am. This is only my opinion, though I know many other people who seem to share it. Either way, cultural issues are rarely that simple that they can be caught appropriately in a single sentence, and yes, restrictions do always apply 😉


  52. graviton383 says:

    Clifford: You called this one right for sure! I agree completely w/ JoAnne’s comments…This is the 21st Century!!

    My only physics comment is that I found Lisa’s recent paper (on which this CERN talk is based) to be content free. There is no criticism of the `usual’ BH at LHC semi-classical discussion found there that hasn’t been said a great many times before by others over the last 6+ years. Since the kinematic region of relevance is where QG is important,& about which we know little, let’s wait & see what LHC tells us. There are many reasons to suspect that BH production may be suppressed.

  53. Amara says:

    Dear Graviton: But Italy is still in the 20th century.

  54. Wow, so many interesting comments, and so little time to react to them.

    For the moment I would just like to point out, to answer #44 above, that I am proud to say I NEVER EVER removed a comment in my blog when it was not clear spam.

    So go ahead, come visit and call me names: it will only show there is people who disagrees. I love the diversity of this world. We have different opinions, yet we can keep this mostly civilized. Today I agree with Lubos, something that does not happen to me often, and I cheer for that.

    And another thing about comment #44: some anonymous poster early yesterday did make a description of my self there, which was not particularly appropriate. I liked it, and only remarked I am not short 🙂


    PS by the way, JoAnne: I did read the comment by Michelle, #46 above. Yes, it is quite interesting. I still think you are pointing your finger in the wrong direction. However, I am easy to forgive. You need not apologize for the nasty comment you left earlier in my blog. I think you realized you went too far in it. In return, I did write something in the post “Am I a sexist?” which read back, does sound a little offensive to you, and it was not meant to. That makes us even.


  55. Bee says:

    Hi Amara: I just had a very entertaining discussion with my husband about Italian men 🙂 I wouldn’t say though this is a 20th (19th?) century relic, it’s neither more or less modern, but just different. I recall when I was in Italy during the summer I got a coffee served with the remark ‘for the beautiful princess’, and I thought that’s typically Italian. It would be too sad if this got all washed out.
    Hi Graviton: I totally agree on the let’s wait and see. I don’t think the paper is ‘content free’, but it’s nothing really new to get excited about. It’s nice though that Tommaso raised attention for the topic in general.



  56. stefan says:

    Dear Clifford,

    I wonder that nobody seems yet to have commented on your remark

    Also, it is irrelevant whether or not the person being commented on is an established respected scientist (in this case they are – it’s Lisa Randall).

    If you allow, in my opinion, this is extremely relevant, and it makes a big difference. If Tommaso had written the same about a young student or postdoc, this would have been, indeed, sexist, and unappropriate.

    But I think, with Lisa Randall, things may be more complicated. Speaking of myself, I knew her first as the great physicist and famous author of the Randall-Sundrum papers. Only later, when reports about her started to be published in glossy magazines, and even in Vogue, I learned that apparently, she has a very attractive and strong personality – I have never seen her in person. Now, if we like it or not, she has become kind of celebrity, a star. Talking about her looks and physical appearance may be some looking up to her in kind of awe, not patronizingly looking down at her as some nice chick. I think that’s a big difference, and may put Tommaso’s comment in a different light.

    Best regards,

  57. Alejandro Rivero says:

    I dont the central point of your argument. So you claim that for instance relationships as the one of -I mention this one because it was public, and obvious from a popular bool- De Witt and Morette do “pollute the atmosphere of the workplace” and should be avoided? Would we start a blacklist?
    It is clear you are disturbed by something, but the communication of the problem is failing.

  58. Alejandro Rivero says:

    #46, I remember a comment about women appearance… at law school. A girl, friend of me, was bullied by the rest of the women in the classroom because she was not using heavy makeup… say, “not blonde enough”, but of course they did not use so rude joke, but started hinting about the face and her health status. At least, the girls in science are not pressured into makeup, it is just a personal option (well, it could be argued they are pressured into no-makeup style). As for the quest of speaking with people of the opposite sex avoiding any hints of flirting, I just do not understand why do you claim it was a problem related to academia. As far as I know, it happens in any space of social interaction; probably it is enhanced in groups of similar age, as a classroom happens to be.
    C’mon, “sexim” is not about having sex, it is about discrimination on grounds of genetic sex. It is not about rude jokes or expressions except if such expressions are aimed to create or continue an status of discrimination. In Dorigo post, the nearest thing to discrimination is the joke where american males are insinuated to be so sex-obsessed that they can be easily fooled.

  59. Arun says:

    Let us go with the old (Arabic?) dictum, before saying anything consider whether it is true, whether it is kind and whether it is necessary.

    Then we see that the dispute lies all around whether that paragraph on LR’s appearance was necessary or not. TD was not untruthful, not unkind.

    There is no clear-cut objective criterion whether that para is necessary or unnecessary. It is written on a personal blog after all.

    Let us now look at the criticism that the post provoked and apply the same criteria. Let us grant it that it is true that the critics find it necessary to tell TD why his paragraph feeds into a large and difficult problem of the position of women in professional physics. It is good of them to do so; TD respects them as professional colleagues (as far as I know) and would listen to their different perspective. Thing is that some of the critics were instantly unkind. It is not as though TD has been demonstrated to be one of those impossible-to-reason-with types (e.g., such as various talking heads in the mass media). There are more tactful ways of conveying the different point of view.

    On the whole a massive failure in communications.

  60. Ron says:

    The story told by the exchange in these comment threads is universal, across fields, across cultures. Alix Olson describes a conversation at the Faladura (Strong Words) Poetry Festival in Porto, Portugal, 1999:

    I am the only female spoken word poet at this international festival. For five days, I’m surrounded by male poets eager to bond across cultural barriers. It’s a cornucopia of breast-size jokes. On the last evening, a poet from Holland who I have studiously avoided all evening leans toward me and says, “Holland doesn’t have sexism, so I’m not used to this American feminist thing.” He leans back, drains his beer, and confides the Secret to Art: “Preaching ruins poetry.”

  61. Chris Tunnell says:

    After reading a bunch of this cyclic debate, I figured I’d throw in a view I don’t think has been expressed:

    This is a hard issue and I think the problem with the comments Clifford linked to is that once we talk about anything other than the content of her talk, we leave ourselves open to a whirl-wind of negative results. This isn’t to say that the linked bloggers comments were damaging to women in physics (though I feel they were, for full disclosure I guess), but is more to say that what happens when that male at CERN hires a female post-doc who reads that. To first order, the female may think they were hired for their breasts when reading those comments. To second order, somebody else may think they were hired for their breasts, which is even more damaging.

    I’m just extending this warning to all the physicists here to be careful, instead of learning this lesson the hard way like I have. Gender, race, sexuality, etc., is a dangerous road to go down, and we are not rational beings, so please be more careful than the linked blogger and myself.

  62. Blame it on Italy... says:

    I’m not one to pass up a chance to criticize Italians, but the views expressed above on “culture differences” seem to me a bit stereotypical and ingenuous.

    In my experience, there are more women in physics (professors as well as more junior figures) in Italy than in the U.S. (not to say they don’t have problems with sexism, but they seem to do better than their American colleagues). And they don’t have affirmative action there…

    And Dorigo doesn’t come across as being peculiarly Italian in that post… the South Park reference, in particular, is entirely American.

  63. Plato says:

    Bee said,”Chanda: No, you are right ‘It’s not always about political correctness.’. But in this case as in many other I would appreciate if people just take into account that cultural differences DO exist”

    Not just there. Even within our own western societies.

    Growing up with the fathers of the thirties, and “mechanistic societies” where men worked in factories, there was an attitude that would have equalled the differences one may of understood, in the correlation of those same cultural differences.

    It was such factors that the veterans of an era would have treated my own wife with such disrespect, that I could not say “it was all men.” But it was part of the disrespect for another human being. And that it was in that individual. The woman were soilders too.

    So we set the moral standards here and everywhere on how we would treat another? No one is above anyone else here, on how they themself like to be treated?

    There are better ways to be in our human relations that we could move beyond the sexist attitudes, that we would lesson and cheapen the contributions any may have to move our cultures forward, does and could hurt that atmosphere of creativeness.

  64. Carl Brannen says:

    I’m not certain that this discussion is entirely about sexism. I suspect instead it is a little about factional politics. Certain people might accept the same comment by Tommaso, but not by Lubos, for example. And would a woman writing the same post get the same result?

    I’m a geek. I don’t notice much about what people are wearing, but it does come up. In my world, there are a lot more male physicists than female, so I would expect more comments about men. For example, back in June I wrote that we were apparently the only two adult males on the island wearing long sleeve shirts and long pants as an introduction to a snapshot of me and Dr. Koide at the Joint Particle Physics conference in Hawaii.

    But I have to agree, in general, commenting on people’s appearance, good or bad, strikes me as a little too personal – it can be taken badly however it is done. In the US blue states we don’t do it because it isn’t PC. In the red states we don’t do it because of gun laws. I would have edited out the comment about Koide’s clothing except I am applying the comment to myself as well.

  65. Amara says:

    to #60 – Blame it on Italy:
    Women are few at the highest levels in society though. As a woman working for one of those in science, I know well the battles that she fights with her male colleagues to be recognized on her merits. It’s hard in a culture where evaluations on merit are not the usual way, much less a woman attempting such. As I said elsewhere, affirmative action is not even on the radar in Italian society for relevant issues to solve, because there are always more important issues on the agenda. Every time someone brings it up, it is dropped immediately. Meanwhile Italy has the most draconian laws in western countries (Legge 40) marginalizing women and couples and few say a word, take a stand. Even women! Instead they travel outside of Italy to do what women and couples in other western countries can do. Why is that?

  66. Amara says:

    to #53 Bee: It’s not only typically Italian, it’s typically latin. It is quite normal and I can’t imagine it getting washed out. And women are certainly doing the same.

  67. Chanda says:

    But I have to agree, in general, commenting on people’s appearance, good or bad, strikes me as a little too personal – it can be taken badly however it is done. In the US blue states we don’t do it because it isn’t PC. In the red states we don’t do it because of gun laws. I would have edited out the comment about Koide’s clothing except I am applying the comment to myself as well.

    Woohoo for common sense!

    Also, I have to admit some frustration here with the conflation of political correctness with an awareness of history. I could go from a to zed about my issues with the US, its history, and its current political direction. But one thing that I am grateful for is that Americans have been forced to maintain a sense of history. While my Dutch family know little about the relationship of the Nederlander Golden Age and its relation to slavery, while my English peers at school knew comparatively little about the English role in the slave trade, while most Canadians seem not to know that Canada had slaves to, not just the underground railroad, and while many of my counterparts outside of North America seem to have not been as exposed to gender studies as my friends here, Americans, even the ones with the guns in the red states, are forced to remember the legacy of discrimination that will always be apart of our history. And because of this, it is part of the cultural discourse to acknowledge how these differences have been used to threaten and suppress members of American society.

    I challenge the many people who worry about political correctness amongst Americans to look into the history of their own home and see that perhaps there might be a need for some of the foundations that breed political correctness in their own homes. I think at the end of the day, attacking people for being sensitive Americans attacks Americans for the one thing they potentially do well when it comes to people and their rights.

    I look at continental Europe, and I see a place that was completely insensitive to the sense of violation that Muslims experienced in reaction to a nasty cartoon, and simultaneously, I read the Dutch news and see an environment where nasty racism against Muslims is alive and well and breeding. Could there be a connection?

    Maybe it’s time for Europeans to start asking why Americans are politically correct, and how that might relate to their own Imperialist histories, particularly the ones they share with the Americans. This applies not only in matters of racial injustice, but also patriarchal and sexist injustice.

    Now, I want to be clear about one point: I am not trying to say that Americans have innately been better about remembering their history. I’m just grateful for the people who suffered before me who also made sure that America would not easily choose to forget.

    I hope it is clear why what I say in this comment is connected to the discussion that has been going on, so no one accuses me of going off subject. The history of sexism in society (and other forms of discrimination) speak to why we think about sexism today, which is why it is important, regardless of Tomasso’s right to freedom of speech, for people like Clifford to challenge us to think about whether our actions come from a place that is more informed by this history than it should be. For the most part, Americans do a craptastic job, often using political correctness as a way to avoid real discussions about racism and sexism, but at least the foundation of knowing their history and its implications for those at the bottom, a beginning consciousness, is there.

  68. Chanda says:

    While I was struggling to write my comment, I see Amara added something very personal and very important. I just wanted to say thank you for sharing, and that I support you in spirit as you bravely speak up! As my mom always says, “Go on wit yo bad self!”

  69. As I commented on Tommaso’s blog, I really feel that this has gotten way out of hand. I think it was quite an innocent remark, and that the writer does not deserve this kind of treatment. Commenting positively on a woman’s appearance does not imply the typical “old boys machismo” attitude that many seem to be accusing him of.


  70. Alejandro Rivero says:

    Still trying to undestand the problem. Not to deny it, because it is obvious, from the reactions, that there is a problem.
    1) It is wrong because it is against the handbook. This is sort of tautologic, because it does not address why the handbook alerts against this kind of comments in the first place
    2) Women can feel it to be offensive. This is even worse than 1, generically: non informative and sexist at the same time (“Be kind to women, guy”). But a related one is
    3) It is insinuated that the speaker, and female speakers generally, is using “Women Weapons”. From the context it is clear that this possibility if not happening in Dorigo’s post. But it could explain why this kind of comments are discouraged as a rule; instead of deeper text analysis, a plain tabu does the work.
    Probably the issue of Women Weapons is specially sensitive for women having, rationally, rejected to use such weapons. Now, my experience is that herd pressure usually nullifies this weaponery during undergraduate, actually leaving women in a worse position (they can not use male-to-male “comradeship” weapons).
    4) It just feels so. This is a very interesting thing, if really it is a feeling and not a trained reaction in categories 1 or 2. There are real politics going on, and one must distinguish between sexism (promotion of unequality via a sexual bias) and “Male-ism”, promotion of a hierarchical structure in the lines of the alpha-male of primate species. Note that sexual equality can allow for Male-ism, letting a female to be in the first ladders of the pyramid, even to be an alpha-male, and still keeping the sexual differentiation. Here one can tell that Dorigo’s blog is probably the flattest, ahierarchical, of the blogs being runned by proffesional physicists.

  71. Arun says:


    I must disagree with some of what you wrote.


  72. Amanda says:

    In response to comment 12 – yes there is an example of such descriptions of men and their dress/mannerisms are described to portray the character behind the physics. Read “the second creation” by Crease and Mann. It is essentially a history of particle physics that is made exceptional by its descriptions of the characters as well as the physics. In fact male physicists are often described by their manner of dress be it unkempt or distracted or elegant. Why should it be any different for a woman?

  73. Elena says:

    I was a woman in physics too, some years ago. And I know
    that attractiveness of female physicists was discussed
    on a regular basis. but when I was in high school or college, that was the case as well, and now that I am
    in a completely different environment, that is the case
    as well. and it’s not about disrespect for women.
    it’s just that men ( and women ) for some reason find
    attractiveness of women a really interesting and
    never exhausted topic. in physics, maybe more , but because
    there are so few women and men are starving for sex, it’s
    not a matter of respect. and being considered a good
    physicist has nothing to do with that. women
    physicist are ranked in smartness , the same way men are,
    according to publications, citations, etc.
    some women are considered pretty and smart, other pretty and not smart etc, in every combination.
    women should quit this self-pity about how discriminated
    against they are; the fact that men ( and women ) discuss their prettyness has nothing to do with
    equality of men and women in science

  74. Clifford says:

    Hi Amanda, and others…

    The point is not that we can’t have such descriptions. In fact, I’d say that a lot of the best science benefits greatly from such descriptions of the people behind the science. I’d like to see more of that, in fact. It’s an issue of context, and of taking care, as I said carefully in the post.

    Furthermore, it is a red herring to talk about symmetry between doing some of these things for men vs for women. The point is that women are hugely in the minority here, and this sort of objectification in the wrong context can considerably add to the barriers about being taken seriously, making yuor way in the field, etc, as a young woman especially:

    As I said on backreaction (to where some of this discussion has spilled) in response to a number of things including the implication that anyone should be able to say as they please:

    I am not asking for censorship, on the one hand, and on the other hand, it is hopelessly naive to think that anyone can say or do anything that they want to in any situation. There is a balance to be struck, and with the appallingly low numbers of women and minorities contributing to science, it would seem that the wise thing to do is err on the side of caution. Reversing the situation and talking about […remarks on a man’s appearance, etc…] is a total red herring, for example – he is already secure as part of the overwhelming majority of people in the field, so that is missing the point entirely. I’m not asking for censorship, just a bit of common sense and care in how we treat our colleagues and how we are seen to treat our colleagues by those less established people trying to make their way in the field. Context is important, and we should be mindful of it. That’s my main point.



  75. Bee says:

    I am totally with Arun #57: On the whole a massive failure in communications.

  76. Amara says:

    to #70 Amanda.
    Perhaps Tommaso should clarify his position. Was he acting as an Italian (science) journalist or as a professional physicist?

    If the first, then he could have written in Italian to be understood better by his community, or he could have written his colorful description better to highlight the circumstances of the audience’s response to the speaker.

    If the latter, then why is a description of Lisa Randall’s “nice and fit” physique in a scientific presentation of the Large Hadron Collider experiment’s ability to measure black holes? You would not find such a graphic reference to the scientist’s personal appearance in a blog of _Nature_ or _Science_ or _Scientific American_ or any of the professional English language physics blogs, because it’s not relevant to the story.

    And Tommaso knew well he was taking a risk when he started that paragraph: “If you allow a slip to inappropriate comments…” and he knew well he is in a global environment where women all over the world fight every day to be taken seriously on their merit, so then one has to ask, why did he do that? Or, better, what is his reason for writing a blog? If blogs are not about communication, then what ?

  77. “If the first, then he could have written in Italian to be understood better by his community”

    It may surprise you, but there are people outside of Italty who do not get worked up in this fashion over this. I’m a Belgian, and most people I know would consider a comment such as Tommaso’s courteous and flattering. Do you honestly believe that people should restrict their writings to their native tongue because of the chance people in other countries may get offend by it?

  78. Aaron Bergman says:

    most people I know would consider a comment such as Tommaso’s courteous and flattering

    Have you asked them?

  79. If had these discussions before with women I know. Of course there is no such thing as a homogenous opinion, but I think the majority would consider it ok.

  80. Amara says:

    “worked up” isn’t true in my case, but his action looks foolish (or prankster?), because he knew exactly his global community and his professional standing (if he was presenting his work from a professional standpoint), and he knew he would have, at the least, “raised eyebrows”.

  81. Samantha says:


    It depends how you ask the question.

    If you ask: Do most women (or men for that matter) want to be considered attractive?

    Then the answer is most likely yes.

    However if you ask:

    Do most women (or men for that matter) want to be objectified while giving a scientific presentation?

    Then the answer might be different.

  82. Samantha says:


    Yes (and thanks for all your other insight in the comments on this topic btw – it has been very interesting).

    In my case, my reaction amounts to an exasperated sigh. And then I get back to running my experiment.

  83. “However if you ask:

    Do most women (or men for that matter) want to be objectified while giving a scientific presentation?

    Then the answer might be different.”

    I agree with you…objectifying anyone in a professional setting is entirely inappropriate. However, I do not believe that this was what Tomasso was doing. Perhaps this whole discussion merely shows that different cultures and or personalities consider different things objectifying.

  84. Haelfix says:

    This whole business about ensuring that some group is not ‘offended’ by something a person writes, is teetering on the edge of the slippery slope. Clifford calls this ‘balance’, I call it childish.

    I really could care less for instance, if some christian reads CV and is offended by any number of disparaging remarks about his faith, nor do I care if some women postdoc in science is offended by one of Lubos’s IQ rants. Its perfectly irrelevant whether group A has suffered more in the past than Group B. The bottomline is they are opinions, and it shouldn’t be the blog’s owner responsibility to censor his opinion to ensure that everyone’s happy, regardless if he/she is in a position of authority or not.

    If anything, the burden should be on the reader to develop a thicker skin and to tame his/her emotional outrage and not on big brother to faithfully enter the fray and go about applying pressure so as not to have it happen again.

    Don’t we tell children something like ‘sticks and stones may break your bones, but words …’. Maybe we should take the advice.

  85. Amara says:

    >However, I do not believe that this was what Tommaso was doing.

    Well, then, what was he doing? (Besides looking like a goofball.)

  86. Hi Amara, Dimitri,

    Dimitri, thank you for taking my defense. I think the discussion has now covered all possible points of view, and there is little left.

    Amara, I have a writing style. Am I speaking as a journalist or a scientist ? Not relevant. I have a blog, I love to write, I use my style, or I’d do something else. I knew I would raise eyebrows, but Lisa is a public figure and I am thsu entitled to discuss her appearance. There are worst problems in the world, as you correctly point out elsewhere. Give me a break, and rather use your energy to save Pegah and other thousands like her if you are a true feminist, not chasing ghosts of sexism in non-popular blogs.


  87. Alejandro Rivero says:

    #72: “… this sort of objectification in the wrong context can considerably add to the barriers about being taken seriously, …”

    Ok so it is not about a group taking offense of a kind of comment, but about political consequences of a kind of comment. In this sense, one must consider the danger of jumping in the defense of the honor of offended women… such jump is a prototypical male manhood aptitude and it probably has the same political consequences that the comments we are addressing. Surely the whole threads of comments about “I am offended / I am not offended” are damaging too: they perpetuate the concept of “woman honour” and they misplace the focus of feminism fight.

    “it is a red herring to talk about symmetry between doing some of these things for men vs for women. The point is that women are hugely in the minority here,…”

    Minority can also be a red herring; if the comment is damaging, its damage does not change in a 50/50% context. The point about symmetry is deeper, and goes in the lines I started to hint at the end of #68 above. Does feminism really aspire to a situation where women are equally admitted to the hierarchy pyramid, when this pyramid is built as a mirror of the primitive alpha-male scheme? One of the ways to this admission is to become fully male, no sex distinction: this situation is symmetric but it is an obvious failure of feminism. Is it better the situation where the proportions are 50/50 and sexual differentiation (say, via comments, prettiness, dressing …) is allowed in a symmetrical way for males and females but the pyramid must still work in the same “alpha-male-ish” way? Would women in this position be very different of the aristo socialite women? Would, as someone believe, the pyramid disappear magically if enough women are incorporated into it? Or would feminism consider the pyramid and the whole merit-reward social schemes as part of the enemy?

  88. Tommaso:

    You are “entitled” to discuss someone’s appearance…but the problem is that women/minority scientists tend to get people evaulating their work using non-professional standards like their appearance. You contributed to this in your post. Call it your “style” if you like, but it is a sexist style.


    Being polite isn’t about not upsetting people with your opinions — it’s about having opinions that are fair to people. If you are, say, expressing gratuitous and groundless sexism, then it’s the groundless sexism that’s a problem. The reason people get offended is that sweeping assumptions and prejudices are groundless and ultimately attitudes like that cause real disadvantages to people because people allow their prejudices to affect hiring practices, treatment in the workplace, etc etc. So it’s not just about words (although words can reveal prejudice) — it’s also about actions and the real effect that those actions have on groups that face discrimination.


    Thanks for blogging about this.


  89. cecil kirksey says:

    Just a few thoughts.

    I bought Lisa’s book because I am a string theory skeptic. Before buying the book I don’t believe I was aware of her or the significance of her physics work. But since then I have become aware of her appearances at public non-physics events and interviews. I do not believe these would have happened if Lisa was 50 pounds overweight, with gray hair, and dressed as some men are described as dumpy. Her looks have opened these doors for her. Was she interviewed because she was a physicist who happen to: have made some interesting predictions, be a woman, or be an attractive woman? In what order?

    I would be more interested in people discussing her physics predictions then her looks.

  90. Elliot says:

    I went back to reread the original post by Tommaso. The description now reads “If you allow a slip to inappropriate comments”. Was this in the original post or was this added since the firestorm. I do not remember this qualifier the first time I read it a few days ago.


  91. Amara says:

    Dear Elliot, it was there. Thats why I wonder if it was his joke.

    Dear Tommaso,
    >use your energy to save Pegah and other thousands like her

    Don’t worry. I spent my morning helping my Italian PhD physicist friend with her UK job application. Ciao.

  92. Amara, ok. It was not a joke and it was a joke: my style is a bit childish at times.


  93. Elliot says:

    If it was a joke, it wasn’t very funny.


  94. John Branch says:

    I only just discovered this post and admit I haven’t read through all the comments yet. (Probably a mistake on my part.) Some quick thoughts occurred to me while reading Clifford’s post and the Quantum Diaries post it refers to.

    One is that this may be part of a big, blurry shift in the boundaries between what’s private and what’s public. Blogs, like some reality-TV shows, bank on the desire of some people to put part of their life on public view and on the appetite of others to consume such things. Some of this would probably not have been done at all a few decades ago; now it is, and the reason has only partly to do with technology making it possible. To get to the point, some of what Tommaso Dorigo wrote would be unobjectionable if he said it privately to an audience of a few acquaintances whose tastes and feelings he already knows. When he posts it on a blog, retaining that private flavor as part of his style and approach, he runs into questions of propriety from an audience of people he doesn’t know (i.e., the public) because we’re still, and maybe always will be, altering our views of what should be done and said in public. I’m unable to describe this issue very clearly because I’m not a sociologist, but it’s a subject that’s been explored by sociologists, e.g., by Richard Sennett in The Fall of Public Man, where he argues that, contrary to common belief, it’s not privacy that’s being eroded but the sphere of the public.

    Another aspect of it is simply that appearances register on people. When I see a poster for an HBO Labor day concert by Justin Timberlake, I think, Hmm, he’s got some sex appeal, and I don’t even like men, maybe I should watch the concert. Stimulating such a reaction is so much a part of marketing, not to mention a part of music (look at the classical performers on CD covers these days and you’ll see what I mean), that we seldom think about it consciously. But it’s not, so far, a very common aspect of the presentation and discussion of science. In other words, we haven’t yet reached the point where people routinely say of a physicist that “He/she is hot.” However, we may be heading in that direction, and if we get there, it’ll be partly a result of these cultural factors I’ve tried to touch on.

  95. Clifford says:

    Hi John Branch (alpinekat, stefan, others: I hope this answers some of what you raised here and elsewhere too),

    Thanks for the thoughful response. The context issue is all important. I’ve tried to explain it in the post, and in a number of comments here and in the other discussions on other blogs. The issue of whether blogs are public or private is interesting, but I think that there is simply no confusion in this case. In my opinion it is clear that this is not the right place to make those remarks. The main factors are the fact that Tommaso is a colleague of the speaker (working in roughly the same field), and that he is reporting on a professional work scenario.

    That he is a colleague is really very significant, and this is what makes it very different for him vs a science writer (see the comment #30 and subsequent blog post of alpinekat) or someone else who is not in the same field. [Such writers can and should feel free to (carefully) include all sorts of observations about people in order to bring out individuality and so forth – this is fine since they are not in their field.]

    That he is a colleague (and that it is a work setting, describing the speaker at work) is what completely invalidates the claim that is it private thoughts on a private blog (and whatever you call or subtitle the blog is totally irrelevant). And, as pointed out by others, that he prefaced his remarks in the way that he did shows that he knew this too, which further undermines the feigned position of surprise, cultural innocence, and so forth.

    Then we have the issue of who he is talking about. Her being well known, and her appearing in fashion magazines, or people’s stated perceptions (rightly or wrongly) about whether her looks have been used to help sell book – these are all less relevant than has been claimed. It just does not reflect well on a field (to someone trying to come into it especially) with hardly any women – where women are notoriously not immediately taken seriously because in the minds of the majority male population of the field their sexual characteristics (perceived promise, and so forth) take precedent over the content of their thoughts and speech – it just does not reflect well on it to have this sort of public gawking from a colleague.

    I think it is a mistake. I do not conclude that Tommaso is evil or necessarily sexist in any way, based on this one thing. I am talking about the action itself, and not utterly condemning the person. We all make mistakes, and I myself have made regrettable mistakes in this area too.

    To repeat again what I said elsewhere:

    I am not asking for censorship, on the one hand, and on the other hand, it is hopelessly naive to think that anyone can say or do anything that they want to in any situation. There is a balance to be struck, and with the appallingly low numbers of women and minorities contributing to science, it would seem that the wise thing to do is err on the side of caution. Reversing the situation and talking about […remarks on a man’s appearance, etc…] is a total red herring, for example – he is already secure as part of the overwhelming majority of people in the field, so that is missing the point entirely. I’m not asking for censorship, just a bit of common sense and care in how we treat our colleagues and how we are seen to treat our colleagues by those less established people trying to make their way in the field. Context is important, and we should be mindful of it. That’s my main point.

    Thanks all of you who tried to have a sensible, thoughtful debate without jumping to easy slogans (like “political correctness”) and juvenile name-calling.



  96. Clifford, no offense taken, but we are a billion miles apart. I said it already (hard to say anything new here or elsewhere on this ground down topic): my blog is not for people who insist in not recognizing the difference between a blog and a journal. And as I also told Amara, the fact that many feminists in my blog supported me and accused you of hypocrisy should have rung a bell.

    Sorry for disappointing you, but do not read me if you found that sentence irritating or upsetting – there were others in the past, and there will be more in the future. It is my way of writing. Really, describing TDLee as I did today was sort of a joke, but it felt utterly natural to me and in perfect match with my usual style. I certainly will not avoid doing only for women if I do it for men.


  97. Clifford says:

    Hi Tommaso,

    Actually “many feminists” = “2 women”. Two. And furthermore they are closely linked. When I addressed their groundless accusations and (I and others) pointed out some inconsistencies in their position, they quickly went silent and shrunk away. (At least on this thread…I cannot speak for yours since it degenerated a bit too much into chaos for my tastes, so I’m afraid I stopped reading.)

    Anyway, the accusations leveled at me are all just a red herring. The central issue remains.



  98. Clifford, you are so sure of yourself that it is actually amusing to leave you in the darkness about your errors. But I will make one exception – I can’t resist teaching addition, to my kids as well as to whomever forgot it.

    1 – Kea (original post, #12 etc.) as you know said quite plainly you are a hypocrite, there and in this column.

    2 – Mahndisa (original post, #17) also commented along the same lines in Kea’s blog.

    3 – Louise (original post, #21) says she is disturbed by your criticism.

    It could be enough to deflate you a bit, but anyway:

    4 – Bee (original post, #33) also started an argument with you on the issue, and you had to climb mirrors to defend yourself at her blog.

    5 – Riqie (followup post, #8) describes those who react as you do as “feminazis”.

    Take care and don’t forget algebra.


  99. Clifford says:

    Very helpful (if not accurate, or relevant to the main point). Thanks.


  100. Amara says:

    I think you two have just demonstrated that women scientists are Poisson statistics (among many other nice things 😉 ).

  101. alpinekat says:

    Thanks to Amara, Chanda, Jennifer Ouellette, Francis Caestecker, and Clifford for addressing my question. This has been a fascinating debate, and I am relieved to know that science writers have a bit more freedom to describe.

    Clifford — I want to thank you. Awareness of these issues is important. Last summer, I was working in a lab through and REU program. One day during beam-time, she wore a polka-dot dress that came to the knee. When she walked into the data unit, the eyes of most of the men in the room dropped to her legs, professors and grad students alike.

    She took it with good humor and a bit of amazement, but it made her uncomfortable enough that she moved behind a chair until they were behaving more professionally. In physics, these stories are unique to the experience of female students, and that is unfair. On the other hand, she knew she looked good in that polka dot dress, and sometimes women want to feel attractive. To that end, she was more successful than she had intended.

    Women aren’t always victims of the male gaze. We do sometimes invite it, though I would hope that colleagues and professors would be more discreet than what my suitemate experienced.

    You point out that as a colleague, his comments are inappropriate, and I think that is an important distinction. If he was working closely with Lisa Randall, actually meeting her and publishing papers together, I would agree. The obvious attention that my suitemate received made her uncomfortable, and that is a real danger to young women in physics.

    However, Dorigo points out that Randall is a public figure. So long as they are not working closely enough that Randall would have to meet him, the question becomes, Does he regard her work seriously? And it’s clear from the paragraphs following the offensive one that he does. I’m glad that his remarks sparked so much discussion. They certainly weren’t professional, but in this context, I don’t think he was out-of-line.

  102. Clifford says:

    Amara, I don’t think it’s Poisson. Some other type of statistics, I think, since Tommaso can get any number he likes by equating anyone who discusses the issue with me (or simply disagrees) to someone accusing me of being a hypocrite. He seems unable to tell the difference, sadly – or wishes simply to degenerate a valuable discussion into the sort of raucous name-calling that drowned out any thoughtful discussion on his blog’s thread on this topic. I’m not going to lower myself into that sewer and so he can count as he likes.

    Alpinekat:- The problem I see with your position is that it is impossible to tell in advance whether a woman likes or is inviting that sort of treatment or not. And in the many cases when someone is not welcoming it, or gets the impression (by seeing other such cases) that the work atmosphere is such that this is prevalent, it is remarkably unpleasant (to say the least) and as has been said before, is completely undermining. So the best thing to do it seems is to keep that out of the work environment (which includes colleagues describing each others work in a public forum) and leave it for elsewhere, or to be done by people outside of the professional relationship in the manner I described.

    Just to clarify – “colleague” here does not have to mean that they write papers together, they are in the same professional field; peers wanting to be taken seriously by each other. In the same way that (I’m guessing a bit) you and Jennifer Ouellette are colleagues in the science writing profession, although you’ve not written pieces together or worked in the same office.

    As with everyone I’ve had a reasonable discussion with on this, it is ok for you to disagree with me on this…. I just want to make sure that we understand what each other is trying to say, and so I am carefully clarifying the points I am trying to make. This is not easy – it is subtle – and this is why we should all be careful. I’m not sure that you really appreciate just how incredibly severe the problem of women and minorities in physics actually is. As you go about your work as a science journalist, you may observe that, and I hope it will help you see what some of us are trying to say here.



  103. alpinekat says:

    Clifford — Fair enough; the matter is indeed subtle. I am young and may find that the status of women is less than what my optimistic mind supposes it to be. In my four short years of study, I never encountered a professor who doubted my capacity to understand physics (as far as I could tell), or expressed any inappropriate interest in me. On the other hand, I’ve seen a man give a tour of a research facility and hardly make eye contact with the four females in the group of eight. I tend to think of such people as relics, still in existence, but most of the field has moved on.

    In any case, I wish you well. While I disagree on this particular battle, the war is worth fighting.

    Oh, and maybe I’ll be able to call Jennifer Ouellette a colleague in a couple of years 😉

  104. stefan says:

    Hi Clifford,

    thank you very much for your answer – I was about to comment in more detail, but right now, I’m just to shaken by the latest post by Lubos Motl, partially targeted at my wife. Of course, it is Motl, and he may not qualify as a “colleague” anymore – but his malicious distortion of quotations and his defamatory attitude does far more harm than any remark about physical appearance. Believe me, if I would meet Motl right now, you would have to prevent me from breaking his fingers.

    Anyway – are there any useful suggestions around how to handle such a case?

    Best regards, Stefan

  105. Clifford says:

    Hi stefan,

    Good luck. I don’t know if there are any useful suggestions. Don’t break anything – that never helps really.

    General policy reminder to all – Lubos has no right of reply on this blog, and so to be fair I also delete anything inflammatory said about him too. So stefan’s understandable expression of frustration is where it stops, with regards Lubos, please. In any case, lack of relevance would also be an issue.

    Despite the attempts of some to tilt the conversation that way, let’s keep trying to keep the discussion here out of the gutters and sewers.



  106. Clifford says:

    alpinekat said:

    “I tend to think of such people as relics, still in existence, but most of the field has moved on”

    Oh no, No ! No, they have not. There are examples in the new generation being created all the time, and encouraged (subtly, and not necessarily intentionally) to mimic their elders in these matters – We have come a long way on the one hand, but in other ways, we are only ever a tiny step away from the old ways, and have not come very far at all, in my opinion. This is precisely the reason to take note of these things, and to have this sort of conversation.



  107. Samantha says:

    Stefan –

    Your comment reminded me of a comment I had meant to make, when someone (way up there) wrote that we should remember what we were taught as children [i.e. sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.]

    What rot that turned out to be, didn’t it?

  108. stefan says:

    Hi Clifford,

    sorry about that, usually I am quite a restrained person, but this was just too much – reading that diatribe again, hours later, still makes me upset …

    Coming back to the topic of this post – now, I guess I got your point that remarks about physical appearance are a no-go in a blog post about the presentation of a colleague – let her or him be black or white or whatever. I’m sure you have had quite some first-hand, bad experience with this issue, and for this reason are much more sensitive to it than I am. Moreover, I don’t buy at all Tommaso’s argument that his writings are not public – there is hardly anything more public than a blog post.

    But please accept that I don’t completely share your point of view.

    For example, concerning the issue of public versus private, I think the relevant category may be official versus private – and in this respect, this post on a “private blog” is not official, as has been mentioned before.

    Then, I would say, the most important thing is that it is obvious for everyone that the writer has a deep respect for the person he or she is writing about, and regards his or her work seriously, as alpinekat puts it. Now, this is a delicate point, since it definitely requires good writing skills and tactfulness to meet these requirements if you consider writing about anything else than the presentation as such. But if fulfilled, I still see not a principle reason not to insert such a paragraph in a post, given that the context is non-official, and the person described really plays in a different league (I hope Tommaso doesn’t mind that statement). If Tommaso’s paragraph meets these criteria may be open to debate – as I mentioned before, I would not have written that myself, and similar to alpinekat, I could imagine a formulation that would, hopefully, leave less margin for potentially harmful misinterpretations.

    But I completely agree that this issue is extremely sensitive and should be handled with extreme care!

    On the other hand, as for the case of women in physics in general, I guess the most important goal we should try to aspire to is that, as Lisa Randall puts it in the Discovery piece mentioned by Bee, a woman can “just […] be a scientist like the others”.

    In this respect, I am quite confident that a certain normality has been reached already – maybe this is naive, but I hope it is not – you see, for example there are now cases of physicist couples where quite obviously, the woman is the more brilliant one of the two 🙂 But then, schemes to protect women in physics bear the danger of overdoing, and just reaching the opposite of what they initially are intended for, by singling out again woman as not “scientists like the others”. I remember that Sabine once told me about her mixed feelings when she obtained a scholarship intended to foster women in the sciences, exactly for the reason that she wanted to be accepted for her science in the first place.

    I understand that this was not the point of your post, and that you are quite certainly aware of this problem, but it comes to my mind as a further aspect of the problem.

    Since this was mentioned, the guy who did not dare to make eye contact with the four women visitors – well, there are quite shy male physicists, perhaps more than among a random sample of males, and I could imagine that such a guy is even more intimidated and unsettled by long discussions bout how to be careful with respect to women – I concede that from alpinekat’s description alone, it is not clear to me whether the reason for this guy’s behaviour was not plain old-style chauvinism.

    I am well aware of the old professors talking patronisingly about their female students as “their girls”, or even worse – but I am optimistic that these are dinosaurs, on the brink of extinction. However, from several discussions with my wife, I am also aware that we male physicist are at risk to get caught in a much more subtle trap – that we may perceive perfectly normal women physicists as either arrogant and aggressive, or as feminine and a bit naive, depending on how much they adopt to a style typical of male physicist. Interestingly, I read these days about roughly the same problem facing young women managers in industry – it may be typical for a setting traditionally dominated by males, and with few female role models.

    So, this issue is to stay with us for some time – but I am confident that with time, things will improve, and normality will set in. We should just stay aware of the many pitfalls we may fall into.

    Thanks, Stefan

  109. Clifford says:

    Stefan:- Very thoughtful, and I largely agree with you overall, in fact. We may have some differences in emphasis here and there… and I’d also say that we should not be so complacent about the dinosaur theory. I also disagree about thinking of various measures as there to “protect” women… Such things – when run properly – are more enablers than protectors, and not, to my mind, inappropriate – in the right context.

    Overall, I do not think that there are hard and fast rules of behaviour…. only guidelines of which to be mindful. Sadly, one can most clearly tell when something does not feel right only after the fact/event/act, rather than accurately prescribing beforehand what will work and what won’t. So guidelines are worthwhile, to help with navigation. There will always be room for good examples that break all the guidelines but nevertheless work….but those are exceptions… and as things improve, there will hopefully be more of them and we can worry about this all less… but we are a long way from that situation, in my mind, and hence the care.



  110. ccp says:

    It IS his own blog, and he does profess to love physics. and he claims to “respect” the woman he has objectified. For that reason I came away from his blog posting thinking less of the Tommaso and his professionalism, even though he did go into some interesting detail about Lisa’s talk.

    What he wrote is the equivalent of saying, “I heard a great lecture today by a physicist I respect and boy, did she have great hooters!” Crude, unrefined, and unnecessary. I don’t really care if it’s his private blog or not, what he said is publicly available and gives us insight into his thinking. Falling back on the old “Oh, all Italian men are like this” doesn’t make his disrespect any more right than claiming that it’s okay to mutilate women because of cultural concerns. It’s still disrespectful at the very least.

    Perhaps all of us, no matter where we come from, could learn to be MORE respectful of other human beings, rather than falling back on trite “cultural” excuses for flagrant behavior.

  111. Bee says:

    I want to add a remark to what my husband mentioned above about the scholarship that I was on, which was to specifically support women in science and engineering. I wouldn’t have applied for that scholarship to begin with, for the reason he mentioned, I just want to be a scientist like all the others.

    At the institute where I was, those who finished an MD usually got a PhD position as researcher/teaching assistant. I should add literally everybody got such a job. I am not usually over-convinced of myself, but I think most would agree that there were many PhD students which were not as qualified as I was. However, when I finished my MD, I was told I wouldn’t get a position there, because I am a women and could apply for the scholarship, so the Institute wouldn’t have to pay me.

    Yes, I got that scholarship. It was about the same amount as the job had been, but with the usual drawbacks (no health insurance/retirement plan/unemployment insurance). The next three years I’ve been repeatedly told (in many though not all cases half jokingly, but nevertheless) that I am only there because I’m a women and got payed through that scholarship.

    I am all for supporting women in science, but what I have been trying to communicate is that one needs to be very careful how to do that, or it will backlash. I want women to be treated equal, not more equal than men.

  112. Clifford says:

    Bee said:

    “I am all for supporting women in science, but what I have been trying to communicate is that one needs to be very careful how to do that, or it will backlash. I want women to be treated equal, not more equal than men.”

    I couldn’t agree more… Hence what I’ve said above.

    By the way the fact that there are people who will assume that your holding a fellowship had more to do with your gender than your ability says more about them than it does about the fellowship. Such fellowships have done a lot to help women get a start in a field. They are not ideal measures, but are not evil either. Let’s not rush to throw out the baby with the bathwater.



  113. Bee says:

    the fact that there are people who will assume that your holding a fellowship had more to do with your gender than your ability says more about them than it does about the fellowship.

    Sure. But the scholarship didn’t change a thing about that. It’s certainly a good idea to have these (well, I generally think scholarships for qualified young people are a good idea because they provide a certain level of independence) but it doesn’t really address the cause of the problem. And in some cases it can actually go against the intention to provide a welcoming environment for women in a men-dominated area.

  114. Clifford says:

    True, but they are only *part* of a wide range of things being done to address the problems. No single programme is going to be the perfect solution to all aspects of a huge and multi-faceted problem. The whole picture has to be looked at when evaluating the worth of a single programme.



  115. Alejandro Rivero says:

    About programs policies addressing parity, we have an interesting paradox here in Spain: the laws ask for a minimum quota of 40% in highly regarded jobs where women are underrepresented, but they do not ask for a maximum quota of 60% in lowly regarded jobs where women are overrepresented. My impression is that the second part would contribute even better to a perception of equality (or to equality in perception).

  116. Mike says:

    “nobody on planet Earth knows better than me how hard it is for women in science”

    This is not a productive way to argue. It is especially wrong-headed when thrown at another woman scientist who you know nothing about!!!!!