I noticed that over on Backreaction, Bee talks about a letter she wrote to Time Magazine to respond to a spectacularly uninformed remark by Jeffrey Kluger about women in physics. It was made in one of the “Person of the Year” runner-up articles surrounding a description of Fabiola Gianotti, one of the physicists who presented the Higgs particle discovery announcement at CERN last year. The spectacularly uninformed remark? Here it is:
Physics is a male-dominated field, and the assumption is that a woman has to overcome hurdles and face down biases that men don’t.
But that just isn’t so. Women in physics are familiar with this misconception and acknowledge it mostly with jokes.
I should say that it is nice to see an article about physics in this context (Time, person of the year, etc) since it gets the general public interested, but it is dismaying to see such a hugely important issue brushed over. I don’t think it helps the younger people trying to get into the field, and it certainly is frustrating and unhelpful for people already in the field who are having to deal with all the preconceptions and attitudes that stop them focusing on just doing their science as well as they can. Bee’s letter – and kudos for her for writing it – focuses on just one important aspect, family, but there are many more issues (of which of course she is aware) including the still widely held view of many that women are somehow wired differently in a way that makes them less good at physics. Few will admit that if you confront them directly, but you can read it in their words, attitudes, and actions. Many of these people are in positions to affect the careers of women in the field. This situation needs to change, despite what you read in Time magazine, and it is an issue that affects not just women, but people of colour of either gender too.