The wrong side of history

By Sean Carroll | January 16, 2006 3:03 pm

Here at CV we occasionally pat ourselves on the back at the high quality of some of our comment threads. So it’s only fair that we acknowledge our dismay at the depressingly consistent character of the discussions about women in science; posts by Clifford and me being just the most recent examples. What a depressing exercise to poke a finger into the turgid world of pseudo-scientific rationalizations for inequality that people will believe so that they can feel better about themselves. Among other things, it makes it nearly impossible to have a fruitful discussion about what we could realistically do about the problem; it’s as if Columbus were trying to equip his ships to voyage to the Indies and a hundred voices kept interrupting to point out that the world was flat.

There’s no question: a lot of people out there truly believe that there isn’t any significant discrimination against women in science, that existing disparities are simply a reflection of innate differences, and — best of all — that they themselves treat men and women with a rigorous equality befitting a true egalitarian. A professor I knew, who would never in a million years have admitted to any bias in his view of male and female students, once expressed an honest astonishment that the women in his class had done better than the men on the last problem set. Not that he would ever treat men and women differently, you understand — they just were different, and it was somewhat discomfiting to see them do well on something that wasn’t supposed to be part of their skill set. And he was a young guy, not an old fogey.

Who are these people? A lot of physicists grew up as socially awkward adolescents — not exactly the captain of the football team, if you know what I mean — and have found that as scientists they can suddenly be the powerful bullies in the room, and their delight in this role helps to forge a strangely macho and exclusionary culture out of what should be a joyful pursuit of the secrets of the universe. An extremely common characteristic of the sexist male scientist is their insistence that they can’t possibly be biased against women, because they think that women are really beautiful — as if that were evidence of anything. If they see other men saying anything in support of women’s rights, they figure it must be because those men are just trying to impress the babes. They see women, to put it mildly, as something other than equal partners in the scholarly enterprise.

These are the same people who used to argue that women shouldn’t have the right to vote, that African slaves couldn’t be taught to read and write, that Jews are genetically programmed to be sneaky and miserly. It’s a deeply conservative attitude in the truest sense, in which people see a world in which their own group is sitting at the top and declare it to be the natural order of things. They are repeating a mistake that has been made time and time again over the years, but think that this time it’s really different. When it comes to discrimination in science, you can point to all the empirical evidence you like, and their convictions will not be shaken. They have faith.

The good news is that they are on the losing side of history, as surely as the slaveholders were in the Civil War. Not because of any natural progression towards greater freedom and equality, but because a lot of committed people are working hard to removing existing barriers, and a lot of strong women will fight through the biases to succeed in spite of them. It’s happening already.
Women's Physics Degrees Get used to it, boys.

  • Mark

    Well said Sean! We’re all in this together, things are going to continue to change, and physics and physicists will be better off for it.

  • jfaberuiuc

    One interesting thing about the NSF astronomy and astrophysics fellowships, at whose symposium Mark was very gracious to speak, is the high percentage of female recipients (11 out of 23 current fellows). This may have to do with the fact that:

    1. Proposals are judged based solely on scientific merit, with no letters of recommendation allowed.
    2. Education and public outreach must make up a significant part of the proposal.
    3. In theory, some form of bias may exist in the judging panel, although I haven’t heard of any complaints from anyone yet.

    Assuming that either parts 1 or 2 have some sort of influence on helping to even out the numbers, they indicate that there may very well be systemic problems in the field that cause a gender (and one could suspect ethnic) bias to persist, even if those in charge of decision making are not intentionally biased themselves. It’s certainly food for thought that at least one peer-reviewd program exists in astronomy where male and female recipients have relatively equal numbers, based as much as I can tell on merit alone.

  • Julianne

    Thanks Sean. I can’t tell you the relief I feel every time someone who is not female or minority actually seems willing to take on some of this particular fight.

  • Quibbler

    Excellent post, Sean!


  • citrine

    Thanks from me, too. You’ve thoughtfully summed up the sorry (but improving) situation. Efforts such as these on CV are in the interest not only of women, but of Physics (and related disciplines) as well.

  • Elliot

    Your graph is interesting because in 1970, I was an undergraduate at Caltech when the first females were finally accepted as freshman. At the time it was quite a cultural adjustment to the decidedly “Male” house system. But the point here is that wasn’t that long ago. (at least it doesn’t seem that long ago to me) I think everyone takes stuff like this for granted but pause for a moment to consider that a female high school graduate from my class in 1969 did NOT have the option of applying to Caltech. Things have changed


  • barney

    Not to be too much of a picker of nits in a right-on post, but shouldn’t the caption to that graph read “percentage of physics degrees awarded to women”? Presumably it comes straight from the AIP, so there’s not much short of a crop job you could do to fix it. The world would be a very different place if even 1 out of every 5 people were getting degrees in physics.

    & re: Elliot’s caltech comment, it would perhaps be interesting to compare Caltech, which is now maybe 70:30 male/female (and was 80:20 or so in 1989 when I was looking at colleges), to other colleges that went coed at about the same time which I would guess evened out in M/F ratio much more rapidly, but I am not sure where to find (& too lazy to look for) the details and it would probably depend quite a bit on how actively a give institution sought to increase enrollment by women.

  • damtp_dweller

    I’ll post this here since it would get lost in the other thread (124 comments and counting). What I’m interested to know is the following. Does anyone really have an objection to testing Lawrence Summers’ hypothesis about the proportion of women in the hard sciences being directly related to innate differences between the male and female brains?

    That the furore over Summers’ comments still continues is baffling to me. There is a clear divide between those who agree with his comments and those who disagree, but I have yet to see anyone come out and say “Summers be damned, let’s actually study this question in detail and come up with an answer.” I’d appreciate Sean and Clifford coming out and saying that this idea should actually be put to the test and that they disagree with those who dismiss it out of hand, as well as those who accept without the question the idea that men are more suited to mathematics than women.

  • Sean

    Here’s a little homework assignment. Go back through the many posts I have made on this topic. Count up the number of times I have said that we should not actually study the question. While you’re at it, count up the number of times I have pointed to the many studies that have already been done about the question, including the post on which you are commenting. Compare and contrast.

  • NoJoy

    Julianne, Sean’s just trying to impress the babes. ;)

  • Dissident

    All right, let’s go through “all the empirical evidence” offered by Sean:

    A book, “Women in Science”, which concludes that ” the gender gap in parenting responsibilities is a critical barrier to the further advancement of women in science”. Sounds reasonable – but wait for point (5) below.

    An opinion piece by Howard Georgi describing a hyopthesis of his about “unconscious discrimination against women”, backed y no empirical data at all. No idea what this is doing in Sean’s list of empirical evidence.

    “A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT”, based on interviews with 15 women faculty. Even disregarding the smallness of the sample, the report immediately raises a question about discrimination of young women in physics:

    Since it’s been completely ignored so far, I’ll reproduce it here: “The report states that young female faculty start their careers feeling well supported and not discriminated against, with the problems building up only later on, after tenure. Now, this strikes me as being at odds with the problem description underlying much of this thread and the Women in Physics conference, which appears to have been addressing undergraduates about to enter grad school. If the women in the MIT report did not meet discrimination until they had tenure or thereabouts, does that not imply that the cause of leakage at lower levels must be sought elsewhere?”

    “360 college students (180 male; 180 female) were asked to evaluate an academic article in the fields of politics, psychology of women or education (judged masculine, feminine, and neutral, respectively) that was written either by a male, female, or an author whose name was initialized.” Unsurprisingly, it turns out that perception of the article was affected by the name of the author. Obvious conclusion: college students are unfit to serve as referees and/or on grant/hiring committees, at least in the soft fields of politics, psychology of women or education, where objective evaluation is notoriously more difficult than in hard sciences. A more speculative (but not unreasonable) hypothesis motivated by this study could be that double-blind refereeing (i.e. concealing the author’s name) is a good idea.

    An article entitled “EQUAL OPPORTUNITY IN ACADEMIA: MYTH OR REALITY?”, which mainly offers statistics about the undisputed underrepresentation and slower career progress of women in academia. As far as causes are concerned, only three negatives are offered (it’s not because women teach more, it’s not because of parental responsibilities and it’s not because of lower mobility). The alert reader will note that the second negative is in direct contradiction of the main finding of reference (1). Ooops.

    An opinion piece consisting to 2/3 or so of a FICTIONAL story about the imaginary characters John and Joan. At the top there is some actual data: a finding that the Swedish Medical Research Council is rife with nepotism (duh, what did you expect of socialists?) which obviously favours whoever happens to belong to the dominating group (i.e. male members of the Social Democratic Worker’s Party). But then something really funny happens: the author reproduces a table from the study in (4), describing it as showing “the mean rating of a scientific manuscript intended for publication and sent to 180 male and 180 female reviewers”. Go back to (4) and compare with what that study actually did. What happened to the inconvenient fact that those “reviewers” were actually college students? Ooops.

    This is pretty sad stuff all round, Sean, and it sure isn’t going to help anyone. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: most people contributing to this discussion are supposed to be very serious-minded scientific types, so maybe we could try a little harder to apply the scientific method in diagnosing the problem?

  • Julianne

    If unapologetic feminism were the best way to pick up chicks, there wouldn’t be bars. There’d be Wymyn’s Reading Groups and whatnot.

  • Christina Pikas

    I don’t know, when I was an undergrad in physics (’91-’95) there were lots of women in my classes. It was maybe like 50%. The math classes were probably a little bit lower because the engineers balanced out the math majors. In that 4 years, I never felt discriminated against in the physics or math departments. Actually one professor kept making fun of the military until I ended up having to wear my NROTC uniform to class one day :) — but he didn’t discriminate. I really felt that everyone at the University of Maryland (except for maybe 2 jerky professors who were jerks to everyone regardless of demographic) wanted all of us to do well.

    I guess I just don’t feel your pain.

  • bittergradstudent

    Absolutely wonderful, Sean. The bizarre element of these debates is the strange manner in which those who claim there is no problem simply ignore a huge mountain of anecdotal tales, responding only with cold, abstract theories that ignore the whole point of the anecdotal stories. It’s like there are two wholly different conversations going on.

  • Sean

    Julianne, I totally troll the wymyn’s reading groups, cruising for chicks. Is that so wrong? I even bring along the laptop to show them my blog posts, but for some reason I keep striking out.

  • Elliot


    And I quote directly the conclusion from your example #5 above.

    “Sandler(1986) concluded that despite the perception that inequities had been removed, parity was still a distant goal. This conclusion remains valid today. There have been considerable gains, most notably in women’s access to undergraduate and graduate education. However, once a woman enters the workplace, she soon discovers that her male counterparts are moving ahead of her. She is making some progress, but much more slowly than for equivalent work from men. Furthemore, if and when she does move up the ladder, she continues to discover that the gap between her gains and rewards widens as her own accomplishments relative to those gains increases. Or, as Persell(1983) concluded, there is a positive correlation between performance and rewards for men but a negative correlation for women. This lack of equitable progress is intrinsically linked with (cultural) perceptions that a woman’s work is deemed to be of less importance. It is this feature of the landscape that needs to be addressed before true equity will prevail. Otherwise, as in the U.S., the initial gains will likely level off before parity has been achieved. Only with determined effort will the playing fields be levelled and open to all.”

    That is the conclusion verbatim. Not your summary. A little different flavor eh?

    If as you suggest you are looking for a serious discussion you should at a minimum accurately describe your sources. Not everyone is going to take your descriptions as factual.


  • damtp_dweller

    Sean, with all due respect, I find the reference to homework assignments needlessly patronising. I am perfectly familiar with the views that you and Clifford describe here at CV. My point, which I admit was nebulously phrased, was that many of the opinions in the other thread can be countered effectively only if those of us who actually support increasing the representation of women in physics are prepared to step up to the plate and actually test the idea that men are more naturally gifted at mathematics than women.

    We’ve witnessed countless discussions over the past year about this issue. The common thread among the Everything’s-fine-as-it-is crowd (apart from downright mysogyny) is a latent belief that there is some neurobiological justification for low numbers of women in physics and maths. I find it hugely amusing to watch both sides eviscerate one another while totally missing the point. Someone needs to do the damn study and obtain a convincing answer one way or the other.

  • Dissident

    #16: Elliot, Sean’s list was presented as containing EMPIRICAL DATA; the conclusion you quote states a HYPOTHESIS (“lack of equitable progress is intrinsically linked with (cultural) perceptions that a woman’s work is deemed to be of less importance”). I have tried to isolate what little data there actually is among the fictional stories and misrepresentations. The three negatives in #5 are it, and one of them contradicts #1.

  • Dissident

    #17: Yes! At last somebody gets it!

  • Mike

    Ahem. Shouldn’t the header above the graph read “% of physics degrees awarded to women”? It would be great if 20% of all women were awarded a B.S. in physics, but I don’t think we’re there yet.

  • fh

    Great post, well said.

    However, I don’t see these comments threads as that useless. Those who are wrong will not go away if we do not engage them in tyring debate time after time.

    dampt, even if there are inate differences, we know there are social differences orders of magnitude larger (actually starting from infants girls are treated differently from boys, so even inate differences meassured in childhood may have social origins), so you can not expect to observe their effects “in the wild” until we have achieved a perfectly equal society.

    Also, again speaking for Germany, it’s interessting to see how the statistics differ there, I don’t have a history but last year the percentage of women among those awarded the Diploma was ~15% (20% among the freshmen) while the number of women among those who got their PhD was 14%. (both apparently slowly rising)
    So we seem to lag behind in terms of support in the early degree but actually get a higher ratio for the PhD level.
    It looks like our countries are succeeding at different points (there’s hardly any leakage at the PhD level of “the pipeline” though onwards towards tenure things decline dramatically, but are catching up to the PhD level now), much to learn from each other.

  • spyder

    One of the more interesting experiences i have had over the weekend, and there were many, was the scanning of world news presented in Switzerland and on various Euro-tv. What leaped out at me last night, or early today, non lo so, was how many leaders of nations there are that are women. This is a sign of progress that needs to be valued and honored too; and i do thank and honor Sean for his post here. Women lead Germany, Chile, Liberia, Ireland, and other nations; and yes, once we had women leading India, Pakistan, and Israel where i can only hope they will lead again. It is now an almost common site to see or read interviews with females discussing economic trade issues and nuclear proliferation, as some men wish to continue to discuss the fashion statements made by celebrities. As we here in the US approach a time when we will have our own female President, where we have more women in the US Senate than ever before and more to come, it is time that the sciences, especially physics, recognize what the rest of the world knows. Unfortunately there are some men out there that just won’t let it be, fearing i guess that if women are truly equal then somehow they will become more than equal. Ridiculous and paranoid.

  • Elliot


    The article cites numerous empirical studies as the basis for its conclusion. You seem to be reading it selectively.

    Maybe it would be useful for you to describe the experiment you would like to be performed.


  • Dallas

    17: We’ve witnessed countless discussions over the past year about this issue. The common thread among the Everything’s-fine-as-it-is crowd (apart from downright mysogyny) is a latent belief that there is some neurobiological justification for low numbers of women in physics and maths. I find it hugely amusing to watch both sides eviscerate one another while totally missing the point. Someone needs to do the damn study and obtain a convincing answer one way or the other.

    With all due respect, that’s not the point. It really isn’t.

    Putting aside for the moment the question of “is there a meaningful way to even define ‘natural mathematical ability,’ much less attempt to quantify it, and measure it?” study after study has shown that the major reasons we have so few women getting degrees in science/engineering and continuing up the faculty track have all to do with social issues. These are the studies Sean is referring to earlier.

    The desire to have demonstrable proof about whether or not there are innate differences is beside the point.

    Want to go do another study? Go ahead–no one is stopping anyone from doing it. We already know what the cause of the problem of few women in science from a variety of other studies, and there’s no reason to fix those problems we know to be major while we await more studies.

    I would recommend Stephen Jay Gould’s “The Mismeasure of Man” as a good starting point for understanding the attempts to measure “natural” ability and the perennial efforts to twist that against a particular race, class, or gender.

  • Arun

    I disagree with one thing Sean wrote – that the people who have an unconscious bias in their dealings with women colleagues are the same as those who didn’t want women to vote, etc.. I think the people we are talking about expect and even encourage legal equality for women, but don’t think that legal equality should be expected to produce parity in results, simply because of innate differences, etc. They thus think parity is social engineering.

  • Lubos Motl

    There is not a single argument in your text, Sean, just a lot of unjustifiable personal attacks against people whose knowledge you find politically inconvenient.

    You should be ashamed for such an approach, much like all the people who endorse your shamefully irrational attitude to this important question.

    I think that your idea that the people who oppose your preconceptions must necessarily be discriminating against someone; or that they have not been leaders of football teams “if you know what I mean” can easily be ruled out, too, much like all other specific statements that you have made.

    It is very different if someone just states obvious findings from neuroscience and other fields that show cognitive differences between different groups of people – which is more or less well-established science – from your insane speculations that there are correlations between interpreting the data in certain way and being captains of soccer teams or criminals.

    Why is it different? It’s because unlike the cognitive differences between the sexes that are supported by hundreds of scientific papers and millions of observations of each of us throughout our lives, your speculations are only supported by your own hatred against those who disagree with your far left-wing confusions.

    To summarize, your piece of propaganda exactly follows the type of newspaper articles that the communists used to write against Vaclav Havel and all inconvenient people who would otherwise be respected. I can show you how these articles looked like and you can try to invent some difference if you believe that there is indeed any difference. What you’re doing is really disgusting, Sean, and I wonder how much time you need to realize that you’re being a real jerk.

  • citrine

    Even if there are demonstrable innate gender differences in math/ spatial/ logical reasoning aptitudes between males and females as groups, that doesn’t rationalize treating gifted individual women as less credible than their male peers.

  • Aaron Bergman

    What you’re doing is really disgusting, Sean, and I wonder how much time you need to realize that you’re being a real jerk.

    If you listen closely, you can actually hear Irony dying.

    (to steal a line)

    As for #8: I have yet to see anyone come out and say “Summers be damned, let’s actually study this question in detail and come up with an answer.

    That’s because the question is studied all the time. Whether or not there are innate differences? Lots of studies. What effect they have of gender representation in the sciences? Lots of studies. I don’t understand why you (and others) seem to think that these questions are not studied. They are. You can listen a bit about them here, and that was just from a really cursory googling.

  • Arun

    For more references than the five mentioned by Dissident above, please see Macho’s comment at:


  • Brad

    What I find most depressing about discussions on this topic is that most of the effort is directed towards aspects that should be beside the point. Discrimination is about individual access. It is not about quotas. As such, the arguments about whether women are innately better or less suited to science is utterly irrelevant. Those women that have the aptitude & desire should have the same opportunities — thats just basic civil liberties.

    Ideally you’ld hope that scientists, at least, would be able to sort the signal from the noise on this question, but it rarely seems to be the case.

  • fh

    Lubos, in all due respect, your utterly unscientific approach to a wide number of issues outside of (and sometimes within) your own field is saddening.

    It is precisely the kind of approach Feynman described precisely in his “This unscientific age” article, which I am sure you know. Perhaps you should also consider wether there is something to learn in this article for you, especiall regarding your approach to things you have no expertise in.

    You have no idea of literature theory or sociology or modern philosophy yet dish out plenty of naive and unsophisticated blanket criticism to these fields. In as far as these fields try to impose themselfs on physics that is justified. That you turn this around and impose your physics thinking on these fields bespeaks the same close mindedness and inanity that you attest to those strawmen you critizise consistently.

    Your application of elementary economics to micro-sociological problems makes about as much, or less sense as female physics would. Except that I have never actually seen anyone propose the latter, while you are shouting out stuff along the lines of the former constantly.

  • Eugene

    Brad : What I find most depressing about discussions on this topic is that most of the effort is directed towards aspects that should be beside the point.

    What’s more depressing is that there is even discussion about whether discrimination against women in science exists or not. I used to think that that’s kinda obvious and the more interesting discussion is what people are going to do about it (I think there are good and bad ways to deal with this problem).

    But apparently I was being really naive. Perhaps it’s only an extreme but vocal minority that seems to pop up everywhere chanting their innate-differences mantra that is giving this impression that we are still living in the past.

  • Becky Stanek

    One interesting thing about the NSF astronomy and astrophysics fellowships, at whose symposium Mark was very gracious to speak, is the high percentage of female recipients (11 out of 23 current fellows).

    Someone needs to do the damn study and obtain a convincing answer one way or the other.

    dampt_dweller, the difficulty is in accounting for all the differences in socialization and upbringing between men and women. Two seven-year-olds could have very different spatial thinking skills if one was given building blocks as toys and the other was only given dolls. Nevertheless, other commenters have linked to some of the careful studies which have been done.

  • Jennifer

    I think Lee’s post on the other thread (Clifford’s USC women in physics conference thread) which pointed to the MIT study done some years ago was very good – if I’m not mistaken, they actually measured square feet of lab space and dollar value of start up funds and found that the packages put women assistant professors at a disadvantage. Lee, thanks for the link.

    Sean, I love the trends, it is changing, regardless of the yipping and yapping of those who think there isn’t a problem or the problem is due to some factors that are out of our control. We’ll get there. And JoAnne, if you are reading, I like your suggestion a lot, I will put it to use. The only time it has happened to me was with a female professor, and she was my advisor at the time, she was smart enough to send me out of the room before she brought up my idea as her own. But I heard about it afterwards and dealt with it. The important thing is not to let it slide.

    Keep up the good work, Cosmic Variance et al.!

  • Becky Stanek

    Part of my comment got eaten somehow. (Are two blockquotes in a comment not allowed?) My response to jfaberuiuc’s comment about the fellowships is that 56% of the AAS members under age 24 are women, so the situation for women in astrophysics is not as dire as in other physics fields. There is still a leaky pipeline, but 11 women out of 23 fellows is not unusual nowadays.

    The question is, why isn’t the number of women in the field increasing in other areas of physics?

  • Arun


    is Xie and Shauman based on empirical data asserting that neither differences in average nor extreme math ability explains undergraduate enrollment ratios.


  • Dissident

    #26: It’s unfortunate, but I have to agree. That was not a post reflecting scientific integrity, Sean.

    #27, #30: Absolutely! Unfortunately these discussions degenerate into foodfights because people present statistics about the partecipation of groups and, like Elliot in #23, fail to appreciate the distinction between descriptive statistics and causation. Elliot has the excuse of not being a “scientist by trade”, but I do wonder what Sean was thinking.

  • Dissident

    #36: Arun, that study is the same as the book “Women in Science”, first item in Sean’s list. See #11.

  • Sam Gralla

    Well, in my experience, it is mainly the “no innate differences” camp who has the “faith”. Any reasonable “innate differences” person is willing to admit that environmental factors play some role. But a staggaring number of “no innate differences” people make their opinion just that–there can be no innate differences in intelligence between human beings, no matter what. It’s an axiom of their world-view that all humans are created equal; it’s just a matter of time before science proves it. Just think back in your life to the conversations on this issue that you have overheard or participated in. There is a profound asymetry: if a “no innate differences” person suggests an environmental factors explanation, the opposite camp acknowledges it, but downplays its role. If it’s the other way around, however, and biological factors are suggested to one who doesn’t believes in environmetnal factors, now there is no budge in position whatsoever, and quite often name-calling, cold refusal to continue the conversation, or unhelpful comments like “you’re on the wrong side of history”. You have violated an axiom of their faith (i.e., the truth) by suggesting innate differences play a role, and the retribution is quite naturally harsh and/or condescending.

    This is purely a sociological observation. I actually have no position on the issue–nothing in particular I’d like to convince people of, except that this asymmetry is there, and that it is ridiculous. If it were obvious that innate differences are nonsense then the asymmetry would be reasonable, normal, and expected. But saying that men and women have identical brains when it comes to intelligence (in all its forms) is really a scientifically very *unlikely* proposition. Men and Women’s bodies and brains differ in so many ways; it would be unusual (in a cosmic variance sort of sense) if the parts of the brain that are responsible for success in science were identical. It is certainly *absurd* to assert this as an axiom.

    I just want a world where both sides respect the other, where both sides realize that the truth (like it always is) is on a continuum, in this case between innate and environmental factors–where 95% of specialists working in the field aren’t already convinced of the answers before they ask the questions; where the most obvious explanation isn’t automatically discredited, even as a small factor, because black people used to be lynched.

    I hope and pray that there are no innate differences in intelligence between men and women. But there’s just a chance–more than just a chance, in fact–that God and Evolution made this world a little less than perfect. And if that’s the way things are, we need to know. Is it so much to ask that this question be asked fairly?

    I’d appreciate a response from anybody who has the time.


  • bittergradstudent

    Brad– you have hit the essence of the whole thing. If one woman has had to live through a hostile environoment, forcing her out of the field, the situation is unacceptable. It is unacceptable even if she was not forced out.

    Unfortuantely, it is manifest that the number of women in physics who have to put up with sexist crap from their peers is much, much greater than one. It is unacceptable, and it’s a problem that must be dealt with, regardless of whether or not doing so will affect the number of women in physics (which it clearly would).

    All these abstract arguments regarding the number of women that should be in physics, blah, blah, are completely irrelevant. The absurd Male:Female ratio is just an indicator that something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Denying that this discrimination exists reminds me of a Soviet beaurocrat ignoring the fact that the infrastructure under his tutelage is crumbling in order to protect his job.

  • Asher

    I’m a fourth-year (female-ish) physics major, with designs on grad school. It’s my personal opinion, completely anecdotal, that the biggest problem is that it is difficult to have a family and an academic career, and that across society, this burden falls (for better or worse) disproportionately on women. I don’t think that this problem is localized to physics.

    I certainly have never encountered any sort of anti-woman prejudice or discrimination, at least not as “women have inferior physics skills”. For the record, my mind is open to whether or not there is measureable difference in men’s and women’s “natural ability”. On the other hand, I think there are many, many more things that go into making a good physicist, like hard work, and the ability to work with others.

    But I don’t think we can blithly sit back and pat one another on the back for at least creating a non-hostile work environment. Because, until we are inclusive of all women, we haven’t done a very good job. I find that there is subtle, but noticeable, discrimination against queers in physics. Now, being queer and being female in physics, I realize that I am a minority of a minority. However, I don’t think that comments about how I shouldn’t get a word in in discussions of women in science because “you aren’t going to have children anyways” (True, but irrelevant) or because “you don’t really understand what it’s like” (What?) or the simple fact that any discussion on women in science inevitably focuses on heterosexual women who want children, constitute being far enough along. Worst of all, I find the majority of these comments come from women, as do the disapproving looks when I mention my girlfriend. As does the fact that anytime I bring this up, I must grow another head, as that’s the only thing that can account for the stares I get.

    Is it worse than some stuff I get out in the “real world”? No. But it’s still annoying and still there.

  • Count Iblis

    damtp_dweller on Jan 16th, 2006 at 4:13 pm:

    I’ll post this here since it would get lost in the other thread (124 comments and counting). What I’m interested to know is the following. Does anyone really have an objection to testing Lawrence Summers’ hypothesis about the proportion of women in the hard sciences being directly related to innate differences between the male and female brains?

    I have read about studies relating brain activity of different brain parts during certain tests and people’s jobs. It turnes out that engineers and scientists when subjected to the same tests as nurses use their brains differently. Although there is a difference between the average male and the average female, female scientists use their brains just like male scientists (same is true for nurses).

    If I remember correctly, the average female scores higher in tests measuring communicative skills. There is a test in which you are shown pictures of faces and you are asked to guess if the person is tired, depressed, angry, happy or whatever. Females, on average, score much higher than males here.

    There is also strong evidence for a genetic link to intelligence and communicative skills (or the lack of these skills) from studies using single egg twins raised in different families.

    Most striking to me was a recent documentary about autism. In Eindhoven here in Holland, schools were complaining about the lage number of autistic children in their classes. A study was performed and it found that there was indeed a significantly higher than average number of autistic children in Eindhoven. Now Eindhoven is a ”technological” city where a large number of highly qualified male and female engineers moved to some time ago. According to another study the probability of getting an autistic child when both partners are ”science oriented” is much higher than average.

    So, it seems that there exist genes that more or less fix how much of our brains we will devote to do the processing for communicative skills and how much to other tasks useful to solve analytical problems. There are differences on average between male and females. But if you get too few genes that control the communicative skills, you run the risk of becoming autistic.

  • fh

    Sam. I have yet to see someone here discount the possibility of innate differences. It is however blatantly absurd to suggest that the known minimal innate differences can explain the drastic differences in the sociological distributions we see.

    Furthermore good scientific thinking considers context. Innate differences were at all times conjectured to explain social structures. These were time and time found to be nonexistent. So we have a long history of postulated innate differences each weaker then the previous one, each found to be wrong. So structurally equivalent claims have to overcome a highly justified barrier of skepticism. The burden of proof is on those who claim innate differences, not the other way around.

    Evolutionary our brains were not made to be good in completely post intuitive fields like Maths or Physics. Our intuition there is acquired not inbred.

    The few neuroscientific results in brain differences are impossible to relate to sociological trends, as a simple survey of the complexity scales involved will show. That would be akin to trying to read the whole working of an organism given nothing but (some small strands of) it’s DNA. Probably impossible.

  • Annie

    I read about, and listened to an NPR segment about, an interesting study the other day in which some of the common cognitive tasks were tested in a group of men and women. The example given was a “mental rotation” task in which you try to picture what a colorec cube, a pyramid, etc, would look like under a given rotation. Typically, men perform better than woman at this task.

    Then, everyone was given a chance to practice that kind of exercise — and after such practice, the women made up the difference. One of the interesting points in the article, for me, was that while men traditionally score more poorly than women on tasks having to do with verbal and oral communication, these tasks are part — a HUGE part — of school curriculum in the United States. Spatial tasks are hardly ever part of the curriculum, and are even less a part of basic education at the high school level.

    On NPR, the speaker went from this study to the really basic point — that even if we say, okay, there are innate biological differences, that doesn’t mean we can’t *do* anything about it. This applies to all areas of life, right? If somebody were saying, as an extreme example, “Oh, my parents were alcoholics, so I’m predisposed to that and might as well just drink myself to death now,” we would all jump up because that’s not how it works. The argument that gender differences are to blame for gender disparity in the sciences is even more ridiculous — it’s like that previous person saying, without any consideration of the person as an individual, “Oh, my nationality is stereotypically more predisposed to alcoholism, so I might as well just drink myself to death.” Not only does biology not work that way, that’s a ridiculous misinterpretation of freshman-level statistics.

  • Dissident

    #42: Count Iblis, the same abnormal incidence of autism has been noted in Silicon Valley. See e.g.

    and links therein.

  • Amara

    For those that want to collect physical studies:

    Men do hear, but differently

    but studying the social strata would be a lot more useful.

  • FP

    I find it interesting that everybody here jumps on Lubos Motl for his remarks, but nobody seems to have a problem with the statements by Brad DeLong who essentially claims that there are less women in science because they prefer a comfortable family life over a tough scientific career due to biological reasons.

  • Count Iblis

    Dissident, Amara, thanks for the interesting links!

    Annie, but what if less females want to study physics? I mean, even if the biological differences aren’t really preventing them from doing well in physics, there may be biological differences which makes them (on average) to persue different directions. Motivation is of huge importance to be successful in physics.

    My personal impression is that you have less females compared to male high school students who are interested in physics. Then, because you have less female physics students, you end up with less female professors. Then it becomes a male oriented profession in which you unfortunately get discrimination against women.

    We must eliminate the discrimination but we cannot change physics into something else…

  • Elliot


    I don’t need an excuse of being a non-scientist. I understand the difference. You seem to be reading what you want to read. Go to the original research cited in the reference then give us a report on the “real data”.


    I wouldn’t call the role of mother “comfortable”. I frankly think that I with my business world “day” job have it easier than a stay at home mom.


    If we were to take your “hypothesis” of inherent differences seriously why wouldn’t the logical conclusion be that the investment in teaching women or minorities math or physics was not justified.


  • Julianne

    Hey Sean! Can’t you start a new entry about something that no one cares about — like dark matter of the fate of the Universe or something?

  • Dissident

    #49: Elliot, I’ve dug throught the heap of… errr, “data” listed by Sean once already and came up with what I listed in #11. I am far from infallible, so it is of course quite possible that I missed something in one of those papers. If you think so, why don’t you just give us your own list?

  • Sean

    Sorry, Julianne, but we can’t. We’ll soon be announcing a rigid new posting schedule here at Cosmic Variance. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays we will discuss women in physics. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays we’ll talk about string theory and the anthropic principle.

    Sundays, of course, will be devoted to interpretations of quantum mechanics.

  • iso42


    I think you should discuss global warming with Lubos to increase the number of comments here …

  • damtp_dweller

    If we were to take your “hypothesis” of inherent differences seriously why wouldn’t the logical conclusion be that the investment in teaching women or minorities math or physics was not justified.

    On the contrary, the logical conclusion, according to which one seeks to educate all members of a society, would actually be to either proportionally increase spending on minorities or to ensure that current levels of funding were committed more efficiently.

  • citrine


    What about sports, politics and Clifford’s gardening sagas?

  • Josh

    It’s always astonishing how willing people hold convictions concerning subjects in reality no one knows much about it (e.g. the structure of the female brain versus the male variety). Unfortunately, such convictions lead to much unnecessary and frankly moronic social strife. Such is life, I suppose.

  • Ponderer of Things

    I think the problem of women in science is very real and is far more subtle than most people like to admit. It’s not clear what the solution is. If any given college put all of its resources into getting as many women to major in Physics, I am not sure they would improve the numbers dramatically. Some of the problem is perception that physics is a man’s job, just like many people view biology as women’s field.

    How many women are interested in physics on high-school or college level but don’t pursuit it because of peer-pressure or discrimination? In my experience most male physicists would actually welcome the idea of having more women join graduate school. They are not anti-women, but being geeks that they are they simply don’t know how to interact with women. Their lack of social skills can be easily misinterpreted as “difference in attitude” towards women.

    So overall I think it’s very difficult to tell things apart – some reasons for low number of women scientists are rather subtle – like peer pressure, absence of female role models, etc. At the same time, until women represent a resonably equal share of physisists, they may feel discriminated against even when they are not. If I was a woman or a minority, I would have certainly overreacted a few times when I was passed over for fellowship, dealt with unfairily, did not get proper credit in publication etc. – I had to take it as “life is unfair” but I am sure my judgment would be different if I belonged to an underrepresented minority.

    So bottom line – the problem is much deeper and more complicated than we like do admit. No matter how much women would like to blame their problems on people like Lubos Motl and Summers, those guys are in minority and are quickly dying off dinosaurs. But even if every physics guy adopted Sean’s attitude, the perception of discrimination would not go away until women are equally represented at every level of science. And this may take many decades to catch up.

    There are some other interesting angles here – a few years ago Pat Buchanan in his crazy rant was complaining how jewish and asian professors (using Harvard as an example) are denying opportunities to anglo-saxons. Let’s say women are equally represented, but nationality-wise a disproportional number of students in science are jewish, asian (primairily chinese), russian and indian. Would this be a reason for concern? Is it a reason for concern now? I think it’s another one of those deeply rooted problems. Do we let certain professions be dominated by a small percentage of worlds population? Is it a problem that athletes with west african roots dominate sprints, while east africans dominate long-distance events? That russians dominate chess, romanians dominate gymnastics and bulgarians dominate weight-lifting? Does inequality in representation automatically imply discrimination, or are there cultural or dare I even say genetic differences here? Enough incoherent rambling…

  • LambchopofGod


  • Kea

    Thanks, Sean. Thanks, Clifford. If we ever meet, I’ll buy you both a beer.

  • George Musser

    What a discussion.

    The discussion of racial and ethnic diversity in American science is at least as problematic, as I’ve written about before.

    One of the many fallacies is to talk about “men” and “women” as though they were homogeneous groups. Those who emphasize innate differences should ask themselves whether these differences are any greater than the general range of abilities among individuals. Similarly, those who emphasize discrimination must be clear about which of the many types of discrimination dominates. Is it outright sexism or something more subtle?

    For instance, the research life can be unforgiving to people who want to raise families, men and women alike. Therefore the sciences lose a whole cohort of people for whom this is important. Women are disproportionately represented in this cohort, but to describe this as sexism loses important aspects of the problem.


  • yet another woman in physics

    “A lot of physicists grew up as socially awkward adolescents — not exactly the captain of the football team, if you know what I mean — and have found that as scientists they can suddenly be the powerful bullies in the room”.

    Sean, I am a big fan of your blog but I found these remarks very distasteful and vaguely disturbing. Hitting below the belt is no wat to prove a point. A very poor post.

  • Ponderer of Things

    another comment – Sean, while you seem to agree in general that physisists women are not treated equally to men in terms of promotions (this is where you and I agree), there’s no bias (and somewhat justified, IMPO) towards applicants with PhDs from top institutions – Harvard, MIT, Berkeley, Princeton, CalTech (as per our earlier discussion on getting to grad school advice). Are we really to believe that faculty search committees are sexist, but not in the least elitist?

  • Supernova

    Asher (#41) has a great point, which has been largely missed in this discussion so far (as well as the one in response to the previous blog entry), and that is this: What does it mean, specifically, to have an “innate ability” to do physics? Surely there are many interrelated skills involved, each of which might be distributed between the genders (by nature, nurture, or both) in a different way. And surely none of us would argue that there is only one blueprint for a good physicist. This is why I am suspicious of calls for studies into the possible “innate differences” between men and women in physics, because for the most part the definition of the abilities in question in such calls is very nebulous. Who decides, one wonders, which abilities are important and in what proportions?

  • disturbed

    I have to agree with (#61), I am a long time reader of the blog and typically enjoy it very much. However I was sad to see that even though the people(or person) that inspired this specific post certainly may be oblivious in some respects… making broad social generalizations about them not least of which was comparing their mindset to those supporting a type of racism is going too far. It is possible some of what Sean says applies to particular people but there seems to be no basis for any rational discussion that can come from this post and it is suprising to see this coming from a seemingly reasonable scientist.

  • rien

    Ahum, is there any analog of Godwin’s law for bringing the East bloc into discussions? Lubos?

  • Rob

    Who are these people? A lot of physicists grew up as socially awkward adolescents — not exactly the captain of the football team, if you know what I mean — and have found that as scientists they can suddenly be the powerful bullies in the room, and their delight in this role helps to forge a strangely macho and exclusionary culture out of what should be a joyful pursuit of the secrets of the universe.

    Right, of course, because captains of football teams are known for their excellent treatment of the opposite sex. This is a societal problem, not just a physics one.

  • FP


    it is time to talk about discrimination in football teams; As far as I know, women are not well represented in the NFL. It is time to change this and I propose to establish a commission of well respected scientists with the necessary credentials to investigate this issue.

  • rien

    FP: Sports philosopher Claudio Tamburrini has edited a book (“Values in Sport”) where the utilitarian Torbjorn Tannsjo suggests that the gender division in sport should be removed. This would, he argues, lead to some sports being dominated by men and other by women.

    Like, for example, why is shooting divided? The answer is given on the olympics web page:

    “At the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Zhang Shan, a 24-year-old from Nanchong in Sichuan Province, represented China in the skeet shooting event, which included both men and women. Zhang caused a sensation by finishing first and becoming the first woman to win a mixed sex shooting event. The International Shooting Union barred women from shooting against men after the Barcelona Games. Women were not allowed to compete in skeet shooting at the 1996 Olympics, so Zhang was unable to defend her title. A separate women’s skeet event was added to the program for the Sydney Games of 2000. Zhang entered and placed eighth.”

    Men are afraid. So what does this analogy tell us about science?

  • Anonymous agitator

    75-80% of people with Asperger’s syndrome are male. Asperger’s syndrome is often accompanied by above-average intellectual capabilites and diminished social abilities, and people with Asperger’s are often intensely interested in a narrow subject area, frequently math or computers. “During the school years, many are perceived as highly intelligent underachievers or overachievers, clearly capable of outperforming their peers in their field of interest …” Physics, clearly, would qualify as an area with which a person with Asperger’s syndrome might develop a fascination.

    That’s Asperger’s syndrome. Now consider a stereotypical physicist. Physicists are viewed, correctly or not, as having above average intellectual capabilites and diminished social abilities. Regardless of the question of whether it is right or just or fair to say that physicists are nerds, it is unlikely to be controversial to say that a career as a physicist would be less distressing for a mathematically-inclinded person with Asperger’s than, for example, a career in marketing.

    We should not be surprised to learn that a lot of physicists have Asperger’s syndrome, if we remind ourselves that Asperger’s syndrome is not nearly as difficult to live with as autism, and that most people with Asperger’s are highly-functioning individuals who live normal and productive lives, and are probably never diagnosed because they don’t really have a problem. Certainly we would expect to find a higher fraction of Asperger’s people in physics than in the general population.

    Now consider the idea that Asperger’s syndrome and autism are at the tail end of a broad distribution of human emotional and intellectual characteristics. At one end of the distribution there are people who like arts and literature and fear and avoid math, while at the other end there are the socially awkward computer programmers and physicists, and further along, those with Asperger’s and autism.

    Most of the available evidence indicates that Asperger’s syndrome is inherited.

    Stating these facts is not a crime, but drawing any inference about the triangular relationship between gender, genetics and ability to study physics is a crime, because it is dangerous and irresponsible to suggest such a thing. After all, if you say that we are fairly sure that an identified inherited characteristic which is more prevalent in males than in females has a connection with the ability or inclination to do physics, then you’re a sexist, regardless of whether what you said was true. What kind of a message does it send?

    We feminists must censor the information available to the public, because they would misinterpret such knowledge as a license to discriminate. The public are not mature enough to know the facts for themselves; we must vet the information available to make sure that it does not present a distorted point of view. We must write blog posts decrying anyone who suggests that males and females have biological differences as sexists. We all know that saying “Men and women are different” is the same as saying “It is acceptable to discriminate against women.” We must accuse anybody who says the former of implying the latter.

    And while we’re at it, who was it that did the study saying that most people with Asperger’s are male? If Asperger’s is correlated with mathematical inclination or ability, then women and men must have it in equal proportion. Therefore, the people who did the study are sexist, and they falsified their research as part of a male conspiracy to suppress women.

  • JoAnne

    Once again, a very enlightening discussion. I have three main difficulties with the very idea that there is a gender difference in cognitive abilities:

    1) I am female. And smart. And have experienced discirmination my whole life from males who can’t handle it. It is ridiculously simple to distinguish between males who can welcome intelligent women and those who can’t. It seems to be connected with males that are comfortable with themselves and their own abilities and those who are not.

    2) Personal experience. During my schoolyears, from kindergarten onwards, I was always – and I mean always – way, way better in math and mathematical insight than my peers. In fact, I paid for this dearly in terms of being teased and taunted in grade school, to not having dates in high school (or college). Every test I ever took, I missed a minus sign at worst, while the next best score would be 45/100. This happened time after time, year after year. Did not matter what particular math class it was.

    In addition, there is an honest-to-goodness experiment in my own family. My Mother is an identical twin, and her twin has a son, just one year younger than I (he was always considered the genius of the family). While my cousin and I share half the same genes, he is surprisingly inept in cognitive mathematical/abstract abilities, but completely surpasses me in langauge abilities.

    3) People who measure and worry about the average intellect, forget their statisics. It is not the average that counts, but the width of the distribution! I will go out on a limb here, and hypothesize that those of us in math/science are actually a bit above average in our abilities in those areas. Which means that measurement of the average doesn’t count! We are on the tail of the distribution! Maybe, even if (although I don’t believe it from my own experiences) the average woman is slightly below the average man in mathematical abilities, the width of the female distribution could be wider than the male distribution. That is the meaningful quanity here that should be measured. It could be that females have a wider tail in the math-smarts distribution. Perhaps that is why so many males seem to be so threatened….

  • Sam Gralla

    Thank you for responding to me fh. You say that people on the “left” of this debate do allow for the possibility of innate differences playing a role. Well, let me pose a little test for you. Go to all the people you know with “left” opinions and ask them when we will know that we’ve succeeded in lifting barriers to women. I bet most of the time the answer you will get is ‘when physics faculty are 50% men and 50% women’. It’s just ingrained in the thinking of (many of) these people that innate ability is identical. And when you’re in a data-driven but not necessarily “scientific” field, already knowing the answer can seriously mess with interpretation of results. That is what I fear and distrust.

    Sean’s post talks about the opposite type of person–one who is sure that no environmental factor plays any role. I’ve never met such a person, and I don’t think even Lubos fits this category. Of the other category–those with ‘faith’ that there are no innate differences whatsoever–I know pleanty. See how many you know, using the question I proposed.

  • Paul Valletta

    On a lighter note, the male Hormone Factor, does contribute to “brute” force, but as intelectual adults there can be no comprimise to the obvious bias that women continue to be discriminated against in all area’s?.. where the ‘rewards’ are factor’s, then Men are most greedy, we all remember school bullies?

    I think if the Male’s that are in a position to abuse their co-workers, were genetically engineered in the future, so they were made with one left female “tit”, size 34-dd say, then it would be interesting to see how they would then feel?

    I’m pretty sure the Hormone balance would equilibriate for some, others would surely make the most of a “good-thing”, and then be seen as “self-feeling” egotistical, one dimensional brutes!

    I make no appologies for the crudeness.

  • Anonymous agitator

    Interesting thoughts, JoAnne.

    I’ve heard from several smart women that they felt pressure from their adolescent peers not to appear intelligent, and that there are unpleasant social consequences for those who do. I’ve also heard that girls in all-girls’ schools outperform girls from mixed schools, possibly due to pressure to appear stupid for the boys. This sounds much more likely to me to be a significant source of the gender discrepancy in physics than biased hiring practices in universities, or innate biological differences.

    By the way, your points 1 and 2 are anecdotes. You simply can’t disprove a statistical hypothesis, such as “More men than women are good at physics” with anecdotes. If I say that most men are shorter than eight feet tall, I can’t be disproven simply by somebody who presents one single example of a nine-foot man.

    Arthur Jensen has studied the distribution of IQ scores for men and women; this isn’t exactly what you were talking about, but the result was that men had a greater variance:
    Sex Differences in the Distribution of Mental Ability

    I’ve heard before, but I can’t remember where, that on most measures, IQ, height, weight and so on, women have narrower distributions than men.

    I would also venture to suggest that few men feel particularly threatened by the appearance of women in physics. Most of them applaud it, and the others are so dismissive of the subject that they don’t think about it enough to feel threatened. I would also suspect that men don’t consider themselves to be members of a common group, or feel loyalty to other men on the basis of a shared gender.

    What you say you doubt is that there is a gender difference in cognitive abilities. Would you doubt that autism/Asperger’s is more prevalent in men than women? Would you doubt that women are, on average, more successful at interpreting emotional indicators (such a facial expression) than men? Those are gender differences in cognitive abilities.

  • JoAnne

    Jennifer #34: Yes, I am reading and I hope the advice can serve you well! Be careful to note how many times a woman’s comment can be ignored – I didn’t notice it myself until a few years ago! Good luck to you!

  • JoAnne

    Anonymous agitator #73: Indeed, I am well aware of women who pretend to be more “stupid” than they are. Just an anecdote of course, but a good friend of mine in both high school and college did this. She was an electrical engineer major in college – with a straight A average – but felt compelled to ask for help with her homework everynight. It was a male friend that pointed this out and stated the ridiculousness as she was so smart she clearly had everything figured out before she asked for help. She had lots of dates though….

    Sorry, but I have no data on autism/Asperger’s vis a vis occurances in males versus females, or the connection between intelligence period let alone mathematical ability, in order to make any kind of intelligent remark. I am simply not up on the facts and will not make a remark unless I am.

    As far as interpreting emotional indicators go, both my ex-husband and his father could run circles around me or anyone else I know. In addition, I think my father (who is rather dim in this regard) can do better than my mother. Just anecdotes once again, but my experience points against what I call psycho-babble b.s. in this regard.

    And, I most seriously disagree with your hypothesis that men are not threatened by good women in physics. Indeed, I think that is the full crux of the matter.

  • Supernova

    I’ve been so blind.

    Here I was worrying about math and science education in the U.S. compared with other countries (e.g. The Math and Science Deficit in American Schools). It’s such a relief to know that it’s just because of cognitive differences! Students in Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and England (just to name a few examples) must have an inherited characteristic that gives them a higher ability or inclination to do well in science than American students have.

    It’s too bad this discrepancy exists, of course, and it’s laudable that people are trying to improve American science education. But I guess it’s just unrealistic to expect parity in the face of such overwhelming evidence for genetic differences in math and science ability between children of different nations.

  • invcit

    JoAnne: the wider distrubution argument is precisely what those who argue for innate differences use, and women are at a disadvantage here. According to, which looks at among other things the distribution of IQ scores, “the standard deviation was 14.1 for girls and 14.9 for boys.” This does not make a huge difference for average people, but at the tails it does. When you start to select at a level corresponding to 1 in a 1000, you begin to see a real effect. At even higher levels (at what level do you expect the average Nobel Prize winner in physics (especially for doing theoretical work) to be?), obviously the effect is even larger.
    It is interesting to wonder about why the distributions are different for men and women. One hypothesis is that it has to do with gene expression, and that women have two X chromosomes, whereas men have X and Y. A particular gene in a man’s X chromosome will always be expressed, because there is no other X chromosome to dominate it. Therefore the gene expression in men is more extreme, for good and for worse – more really unintelligent men, more really smart men (who were lucky to have the right genes expressed).

    Lubos & Sean: I think that both discrimination and innate differences probably contribute to and are important for the discussion we are having. It is easier to quantify the innate differences and more work has been done in this direction, it seems. It is serious work. To characterize the people who believe in it as “These are the same people who used to argue that women shouldn’t have the right to vote, that African slaves couldn’t be taught to read and write, that Jews are genetically programmed to be sneaky and miserly” as Sean does, won’t contribute anything to the discussion. It is more accurate to say that these are the kind of people who just keep hearing one side of the story, i e discrimination, and think that the other side really needs to be emphasized more, and that discrimination needs to be quantified more in order to be taken seriously (a valid critique; the links to the empirical evidence that Sean gave are not so impressive, but that of course doesn’t mean it’s nonexisting – it’s just a difficult effect to quantify). Similarly, Lubos characterization of Sean as a propaganda machine is also quite exaggerated. For one thing, it is one thing to use ad hominems (and are you really innocent on that account Lubos? ;-) ) and other such means of arguing as an individual person – it is another to do it representing the state.
    So (for god’s sake!): stop demonizing each other, portraying the other as a communist propagandaist, or someone who would be against universal suffrage! Doesn’t matter if you really believe it’s true. The point is that it is utterly inconstructive. I for one believe that you are seeing different sides of the same story and it would do either side better to take the other side more seriously, acknowledge that there is or at least may be something to what they say, and try to put together the whole picture, identify where more research needs to be done, what the strong points and the weak points are, et cetera. As it is, this is a discussion going nowhere.

  • Haelfix

    There are a lot of anecdotal stories here. The fact is every young scientist, male or female is going to get ‘discriminated’ against at some point in their career, and particularly when they are younger before college. The name calling is different, but the result is the same.

    It just strikes me that the people who whine about it the most, are the ones who never quite got over it and are attributing a general phenomenon to their specific group/gender/whatever.

    I personally (anecdotally) don’t see anymore discrimination against a woman at the upper echelons of science w.r.t to her merits than I do against anyone else. It seems to me the discrimination perhaps doesn’t come so much from her peers, as it does from society/family and so forth and typically at a formative stage in highschool and early college hwen people decide to make their career path.

    Ultimately physics and math is a pretty big meritocracy, if your paper is very important and vital, people will read it regardless of gender/sexual orientation/class or whatever. And thats a great thing and it will be what makes or breaks your career prospects, nothing else.

  • michaeld

    Unfortunately I largely agree with #61. This blog is a must read and I love most of the posts, but I find the presumption that anyone who thinks there are innate differences in maths/physics ability between the genders must feel threatened a little unsavory.

    On the other hand, I do find some of the evidence Sean has provided fairly convinicing, especially this one.

  • fh

    disturbed: “… comparing their mindset to those supporting a type of racism is going too far.”

    If you look in the literature and debates on slavery and then later racism you will find the absolutely indentical claims and arguments about the inferiority being innate, interpretating research in support and so on.

    Sam, as I said, contextually that goal is well justified. Inate differences may exist, but they should cause something like a 55% to 45% ratio in order of magnitude, not a 95 to 5 one. Also see Spelkes talk I link below, differences in the cognitive profile of men and women do not neccessarily add up to differences in mathematical abilities.

    The big massive point that the innaters oversee is that innate differences do not matter, since you can take from a) context b) a look around you c) numerous bits of easily available data that discrimination of subtler form is very wide and active. Social structures are still the single overwhelmingly strongest force, only someone who has very specifically filtered his/her perception can denie this.

    JoAnne, in fact a part of the discussion after Summers was about the statistics, with the suggestion that it is precisely the wider distribution of male abilities that produces a disproportionate effect at the far ends.

    Here is an excellent debate on this issue, which focuses on the evidence there is (hardly any), between people who actually have a clue about the field, in a context (3rd culture) that should be sympathetic to innate differences claims.

    It’s a very informative read Spelke cites 30 years of research into these questions, so it’s worthwhile especially for those shouting around that somebody should go look, and who still need more links then what Sean posted about.

  • Haelfix

    I can’t speak for anyone else here, but I definitely feel threatened when a woman physicist is better than me. In fact, I feel threatened when a male is too.

    Who among us here, who has ever met someone like say Edward Witten and talked physics with him, doesn’t walk away thinking to themselves: “Wow, that guys mind is just one scale up on the evolutionary ladder, relative to mine”. Quite a humbling experience I might add.
    There are plenty of women i’d stick up there as well, same difference.

    An old physicist I once knew (Kursunoglu) talked about what it was like to work with Einstein, he said even in his old age he could silence an entire room of the best minds in the business, the emotions being nothing but awe/respect and envy. Like everyone around were insects crawling in the light of a master.

  • invcit

    “as I said, contextually that goal is well justified. Inate differences may exist, but they should cause something like a 55% to 45% ratio in order of magnitude, not a 95 to 5 one.”

    fh, where do you get these numbers from (the 45%/55%)?

  • fh

    My personal best estimate of the expected order of magnitude of the effect given the by neccessity tainted and incomplete data that does not allow to directly meassure the effect?
    Comparative analysis of the size of the known innate differences in cognitive profile and the size of the known unequal treatments that occur?

    I also just noted a studie Spelke quotes in the debate above which turns the “anecdotal evidence” into something a bit more solid:

    “[When given candidates to evaluate for tenure track positions] people were invited to express their reservations, and they came up with some very reasonable doubts. For example, “This person looks very strong, but before I agree to give her tenure I would need to know, was this her own work or the work of her adviser?” Now that’s a perfectly reasonable question to ask. But what ought to give us pause is that those kinds of reservations were expressed four times more often when the name was female than when the name was male.”

  • invcit

    fh, I think you would need to look at what IQ distribution in a top physics department is like and see how the various Gaussians for men and women add up to that data. I don’t have the data and I don’t know if it exists, but it would interesting to have a look.

  • David

    There was an interesting essay in Nature recently,
    that ties in quite well with what Sean wrote in the original post. Here’s a quote:

    “Science has always been a man’s world. The values and norms that control our disciplines were established by men. In physics there is an alarming lack of female participants; it would be tempting to claim that because of physicists’ typically masculine power games the physics community is not an attractive option for female scientists…”

    (I found this on Christine Dantas’ blog, )

  • Arun

    Everyone one of you with an explanation, do explain the ratio of women to men with undergraduate science majors.

  • Annie

    Count Iblis — I think that’s a good point (your comment #48), but remember that once you narrow things down to the level of a PhD, you’re talking about a fairly small group. If you look at science as a *whole*, the disparity is really large, and if you talk to women — there are studies that start asking about interests in science, math, etc, starting with young children — you find that somewhere around puberty the number of girls interested in science drops dramatically. And, for some nice evil anecdotal non-evidence, in my experiences young women who are going into the sciences right now are *incredibly* aware of the debate that is raging. Additionally, my generation grew up hearing about the 60% divorce rate, we’ve experienced the fight of working-outside-the-home vs. stay-at-home mothers, and when it comes time to fill out grad school applications, we’re *extremely* attuned to the fact that we may be, ultimately, not deciding what to do NEXT, but whether we’re going to be able to have children! Or whether we’re going to be able to stay home with them, or whether we’re going to end up with an advisor who thinks women don’t belong in science, and whether that’s going to mean we can’t end up with a good postdoc . . . These decisions are not made in a vacuum.

    I don’t personally *believe* that innate biological differences are to blame here, but that’s not really fair of me, is it? So then, trying to be more scientific about my approach, I look at the *ridiculous* number of confounding variables . . . Really, the only way to accurately test “innate” differences while controlling for socialization is to drop pods of girls and boys on opposite sides of the Moon and see whether any differences pop up. Just look at Supernova’s comment — #76. And, additionally, look at how women are closing the gap in the biological sciences. I understand that the practice of medicine is substantially different from the practice of physics, but certainly 20 or 30 or 100 years ago you could have made the argument, “Oh, women can’t become doctors because they are biologically inclined to stay home with their children” or “Women are better as nurses, because they are biologically inclined to want to nurture patients and take orders; they have no need to become doctors to increase their standing.” And you could support those arguments with some of the research cited here. A little time and a little encouragement has shown such attitudes to be patently false. Who’s to say this won’t happen with other areas if we focus on young students?

    #63 — I like your point, I LOVE your point. I have undergrad degrees in both English and physics, and I consistently hear professors saying, “Wow, that’s really going to help you; not having to teach you how to write makes my job so much better.” And yet, when people are talking about “innate differences,” the most common examples are that men are better at spatial learning, so they gravitate to math and science, and women are much better at written and oral communication, so they apparently gravitate to some sort of nebulous place of “not math and science.” And every time I hear that, it pisses me off. Because that line of reasoning seems to be saying, “We expect men to be able to learn to read, write and give incredible talks, and close the cognitive gap on that front, but we don’t think women can do the same thing where the science(ie spatial learning, mental rotation, etc) is concerned.”

    Doesn’t that make anyone else want to scream?

  • Arun

    #38, Dissident, yes, I see #11, but you missed many of their conclusions.

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  • Count Iblis

    # 87 Annie,

    Here in Holland there are some sciences (I think also in biology and medicine) where there are have more female students than male students. I have read, however, that the fraction of women in physics is less here than in the US. I think that this must be due to the social factors you wrote about.

    Even though there is probably less discrimination against women here than in the US, it still harder for both partners in a family to have a full time job. Shops used to be open here from 8 Am to 6 Pm and on Sunday everything used to closed. It is also difficult to find arrangements for children’s daycare. This has changed somewhat but the situation still isn’t ideal.

  • Hmm

    There is no doubt that historically women and minorities have been discriminated against, and such attitudes persist in a minority of people today. However, I am surprised that no-one in this discussion has pointed out an obvious fact–that at an institutional level, there is now a degree of discrimination in the opposite direction. In all graduate admissions processes I have been involved in, once rankings are done, people actively look for ways to admit more women, and I have often seen women leapfrog 20 people ahead of them in “score” to be admitted. In faculty hiring, one is always looking to see if there are *any* qualified women, and if there are, they shoot to the top of the list. Simply look at the recent hiring record even in high-energy physics, and you will find that high-quality women end up on top of all the short-lists and get the most attractive faculty positions, while their often equally (and on occasion more) qualified male colleagues don’t do as well. One can discuss whether or not this sort of affirmative action is appropriate–I think in the long run it may well be the right thing to do, though its a complex problem–but any discussion of this issue should take note of the fact that at the highest levels and where it matters, in hiring decisions, there is certainly a “thumb on the scale” for women. Sean is wrong in painting physicists as non-football playing neanderthal bullies–on the contrary, they are mostly thoughtful people who are struggling to understand these difficult problems and doing the best they can to solve them.

  • Elliot

    Here’s a (hopefully) amusing story. After following along and contributing to this and its companion thread over the last day, I decided to do a little “field research”. So I asked my 13 year old daughter whether she felt if boys or girls are treated equally by her math teacher. She said “I guess so”. So I probed further. I asked “Do you ever get the feeling that the teacher might think that boys are better than girls at math. Her reply “Dad none of the boys at my school are all that smart.”


  • Arun

    More on the Grif. paper much cited by Lubos Motl – the paper does not take into account economics :) . That is, for instance, the assumption is that the topmost math brains are solely candidates for the National Academy of Sciences for the Math and Applied Math sections In real life, there is competition, such brains go into many fields – other fields of science, as well as into finance and other areas of business, etc. So rather than the cut-off for NAS being 4.x standard deviations above average, the cut-off is going to be lower. Then all that the Grif. paper can give is the upper bound on the percentage of men in such a select group.

    That is, assuming the premise of the Grif. paper of the distribution of math. aptitudes, and adding the assumption neglected by Grif. that high math. aptitude folks have many other places to land up other than just the math/applied math section of the NAS, then the current 5% women for that section of NAS is a lower bound – the die-hard believer in this paper should still be asking – where are the missing women?

  • Daniel

    I’ve read many and skimmed many and skipped many of these comments, so forgive me if I’m asking an existing or answered question; but why is parity so important? It seems to reason that either there is no discernible innate difference, or a relatively minor one; but in any case—be it that there is no, a minor, or a significant difference in natural aptitude—is that the only determining measure? Are there not people who love something for which they have no noticeable talent, and, conversely, those with exceptional ability they choose to ignore?

    The issue of the current disparity between population distributions and distributions within the sciences is, I think, real and worthy of scrutiny. If nothing else, understanding why it is that women are so disproportionately underrepresented is a step to understanding the human animal. However, to set as a goal gender parity in the sciences is a step toward the call for a world in which the natural talents of the population are assessed, and their functions assigned thereby. We shouldn’t so readily want to decant our generations for that world.

    As to commentary stating that the discussion of innate ability of a gender being too broad for this inquiry quickly ignores the necessity for some measure of the probability of any given male or female in the population to be qualified for a career in the sciences. Without an appraisal of what the world of Huxley’s determinism might look like, there is no benchmark against which to contrast the actual statistics. Ultimately, yes, it would be injurious to the sciences and the human population as a whole to insist upon quotas based on the natural distribution along gender, racial, or any other dimensions of society of any innate talents. But it’s a fair requirement toward largely purging demographic prejudice that we understand what part of a disparity would otherwise result naturally, and what part might be the product of demographic prejudice.

  • Elliot


    I think it would be useful to somewhat decouple the issue of parity and discrimination. Let me recharacterize discrimination as any behavior, rule, or policy, that limits or intereferes with an underrepresented group from achieving parity. I think the goal is to eliminate the discriminatory behavior. Parity should take care of itself.


  • Chris W.
  • hack

    This post reads as if it were designed specifically to evoke an irrational sputtering out of Lubos, and of course it succeeded.

    I look forward to a time in the not too distant future when we can put people like Lubos in fMRI machines and watch the rationalization process in real time.

  • http://1034:Incorrectkeyfilefortableusers;trytorepairit sisyphus

    Your perceptions of social issue X reflect the fact that you’re male/female, black/white, young/not-so-young, conservative/liberal, etc. Once a dichotomy is defined it persists. Solutions complicate and worsen the problem.

  • harumph

    #91– Is it just trying to make up some of the possible gender bias in aspects of the applications? The physics GRE is so ridiculous that one can often determine the gender and location of a student (US or foreign educated) with just the score. Women consistently score much lower on this exam. So maybe some of those people were taking that (or similar things) into consideration?

    Or maybe the committees, too, wanted to allow for an understanding of some of the discrimination some women have faced? A female physicist I recently had lunch with related a tale of and advanced laboratory course. Before the professor knew names, she had turned in her lab reports with her first initial and last name. And received fabulous marks. It’s once he found out that J. stood for Jenny instead of Joe (names withheld for protection;) ), that her grades dropped and he questioned her about the validity of her performance on the first labs. Her grade dropped more than a full letter.

    Some physicists are aware of this and feel as though it hurts the community and the departments in general, and thus may be more inclined to look at female applicants, though they may on a blind basis be less qualified. A lot goes into the numbers and the letters and all of that. We’re not as good as quantifying someone’s qualifications without bias as well as we’d like.

    Unlike the data about the MIT women not feeling discrimination until in graduate school, I think it does start before then, but often in a more subtle way, and that’s what we need to address.

    Sean, thanks for the post. It’s nice to know that some out there understand (or at least are trying to) without writing the whole thing off as innate differences. Growl to that.

  • Luke Lea

    Keep in mind that Summers proposed, not one or two, but six things that could be done to increase the representation of women in engineering and science at the top universities. I would be interested to get Sean’s reaction to them:

    I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong, because I would like nothing better than for these problems to be addressable simply by everybody understanding what they are, and working very hard to address them…

    What’s to be done? And what further questions should one know the answers to? Let me take a second, first to just remark on a few questions that it seems to me are ripe for research, and for all I know, some of them have been researched.

    First, it would be very useful to know, with hard data, what the quality of marginal hires are when major diversity efforts are mounted. When major diversity efforts are mounted, and consciousness is raised, and special efforts are made, and you look five years later at the quality of the people who have been hired during that period, how many are there who have turned out to be much better than the institutional norm who wouldn’t have been found without a greater search. And how many of them are plausible compromises that aren’t unreasonable, and how many of them are what the right-wing critics of all of this suppose represent clear abandonments of quality standards. I don’t know the answer, but I think if people want to move the world on this question, they have to be willing to ask the question in ways that could face any possible answer that came out.

    Second, and by the way, I think a more systematic effort to look at citation records of male and female scholars in disciplines where citations are relatively well-correlated with academic rank and with people’s judgments of quality would be very valuable. Of course, most of the critiques of citations go to reasons why they should not be useful in judging an individual scholar. Most of them are not reasons why they would not be useful in comparing two large groups of scholars and so there is significant potential, it seems to me, for citation analysis in this regard. Second, what about objective versus subjective factors in hiring? I’ve been exposed, by those who want to see the university hiring practices changed to favor women more and to assure more diversity, to two very different views. One group has urged that we make the processes consistently more clear-cut and objective, based on papers, numbers of papers published, numbers of articles cited, objectivity, measurement of performance, no judgments of potential, no reference to other things, because if it’s made more objective, the subjectivity that is associated with discrimination and which invariably works to the disadvantage of minority groups will not be present. I’ve also been exposed to exactly the opposite view, that those criteria and those objective criteria systematically bias the comparisons away from many attributes that those who contribute to the diversity have: a greater sense of collegiality, a greater sense of institutional responsibility. Somebody ought to be able to figure out the answer to the question of, if you did it more objectively versus less objectively, what would happen. Then you can debate whether you should or whether you shouldn’t, if objective or subjective is better. But that question ought to be a question that has an answer, that people can find.

    Third, the third kind of question is, what do we know about search procedures in universities? Is it the case that more systematic comprehensive search processes lead to minority group members who otherwise would have not been noticed being noticed? Or does fetishizing the search procedure make it very difficult to pursue the targets of opportunity that are often available arising out of particular family situations or particular moments, and does fetishizing and formalizing search procedures further actually work to the disadvantage of minority group members. Again, everybody’s got an opinion; I don’t think anybody actually has a clue as to what the answer is.

    Fourth, what do we actually know about the incidence of financial incentives and other support for child care in terms of what happens to people’s career patterns. I’ve been struck at Harvard that there’s something unfortunate and ironic about the fact that if you’re a faculty member and you have a kid who’s 18 who goes to college, we in effect, through an interest-free loan, give you about $9,000. If you have a six-year-old, we give you nothing. And I don’t think we’re very different from most other universities in this regard, but there is something odd about that strategic choice, if the goal is to recruit people to come to the university. But I don’t think we know much about the child care issue.

    The fifth question-which it seems to me would be useful to study and to actually learn the answer to-is what do we know, or what can we learn, about the costs of career interruptions. There is something we would like to believe. We would like to believe that you can take a year off, or two years off, or three years off, or be half-time for five years, and it affects your productivity during the time, but that it really doesn’t have any fundamental effect on the career path. And a whole set of conclusions would follow from that in terms of flexible work arrangements and so forth. And the question is, in what areas of academic life and in what ways is it actually true. Somebody reported to me on a study that they found, I don’t remember who had told me about this-maybe it was you, Richard-that there was a very clear correlation between the average length of time, from the time a paper was cited. That is, in fields where the average papers cited had been written nine months ago, women had a much harder time than in fields where the average thing cited had been written ten years ago. And that is suggestive in this regard. On the discouraging side of it, someone remarked once that no economist who had gone to work at the President’s Council of Economic Advisors for two years had done highly important academic work after they returned. Now, I’m sure there are counterexamples to that, and I’m sure people are kind of processing that Tobin’s Q is the best-known counterexample to that proposition, and there are obviously different kinds of effects that happen from working in Washington for two years. But it would be useful to explore a variety of kinds of natural interruption experiments, to see what actual difference it makes, and to see whether it’s actually true, and to see in what ways interruptions can be managed, and in what fields it makes a difference. I think it’s an area in which there’s conviction but where it doesn’t seem to me there’s an enormous amount of evidence. What should we all do? I think the case is overwhelming for employers trying to be the [unintelligible] employer who responds to everybody else’s discrimination by competing effectively to locate people who others are discriminating against, or to provide different compensation packages that will attract the people who would otherwise have enormous difficulty with child care. I think a lot of discussion of issues around child care, issues around extending tenure clocks, issues around providing family benefits, are enormously important. I think there’s a strong case for monitoring and making sure that searches are done very carefully and that there are enough people looking and watching that that pattern of choosing people like yourself is not allowed to take insidious effect. But I think it’s something that has to be done with very great care because it slides easily into pressure to achieve given fractions in given years, which runs the enormous risk of people who were hired because they were terrific being made to feel, or even if not made to feel, being seen by others as having been hired for some other reason….

    And I think that’s something we all need to be enormously careful of as we approach these issues, and it’s something we need to do, but I think it’s something that we need to do with great care….

    Let me just conclude by saying that I’ve given you my best guesses after a fair amount of reading the literature and a lot of talking to people. They may be all wrong. I will have served my purpose if I have provoked thought on this question and provoked the marshalling of evidence to contradict what I have said. But I think we all need to be thinking very hard about how to do better on these issues and that they are too important to sentimentalize rather than to think about in as rigorous and careful ways as we can. That’s why I think conferences like this are very, very valuable. Thank you….

  • Amara

    #60 George Musser
    “For instance, the research life can be unforgiving to people who want to raise families, men and women alike. Therefore the sciences lose a whole cohort of people for whom this is important. Women are disproportionately represented in this cohort, but to describe this as sexism loses important aspects of the problem.”

    This editorial (written by me some years ago) describes a medical technological advance that I think all young women should be considering to help give themselves more time to balance work life and family life in their futures.

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  • Elliot


    I haven’t seen Kursunuglu’s name in many years. When he was at the University of Miami, my mother was his secretary at the Center for Theoretical Studies. Small world.


  • Count Iblis


    Sam, as I said, contextually that goal is well justified. Inate differences may exist, but they should cause something like a 55% to 45% ratio in order of magnitude, not a 95 to 5 one. Also see Spelkes talk I link below, differences in the cognitive profile of men and women do not neccessarily add up to differences in mathematical abilities.

    Yes, but you have to take into account that (other)innate differences (not necessarily related to cognitive profile) may cause women to choose to study different subjects like, say, biology instead of physics.

    Men and women do make significantly different choices in life. This is obvious if you look at criminal behavior. What is the ratio of murders committed by men vs. women?

    It could be that women are more comfortable in a structured environment. A study here in Holland has shown that the average female student graduates faster than the average male student. This is due to the fact that female students attend lectures more regularly.

    Men are probably more likely to ”violate the rules” and do things they ”aren’t supposed to do”. That’s highly problematic when the rule is not to hurt others. But in high school you probably have more males than females who go to the library and read popular science books. Perhaps the fact that proper science education is virtually absent in primary and high school contributes to the low number of female students.

  • Supernova

    By the way, JoAnne, I’m fully on your side, but I disagree that the reason this is such a thorny issue is because male physicists feel threatened by female physicists. Certainly some do. But I think the more fundamental problem is that this issue, for many, calls into question the legitimacy of Physics itself.

    Many scientists (men and women both) feel strongly that since we are Scientists, we are automatically exempt from the unconscious biases and micro-discriminatory behavior that critics allege are largely responsible for women’s under-representation in the sciences. After all, we are trained to be Objective! We see things as they Really Are! We pride ourselves on our ability to determine the unambiguously Best Qualified Person for any job! For many of us (men and women both), suggesting that differences exist in the way men and women are treated in the physics community is tantamount to suggesting that the purity of Physics as a scientific discipline is suspect. That physics is no better or more fundamental a pursuit than literature or philosophy or any other humanities field where Truth is relative and any perspective is valid. That physics has no legitimate claim to any special relationship to the objective reality of the Real World. These ideas are very disturbing and go to the core of our self-identification as physicists.

    I will leave aside the question — a whole can of worms on its own — of whether one should or shouldn’t believe these things (somewhat exaggerated here for rhetorical effect) about physics in general. But guess what, folks: it IS possible to separate Physics from physicists! There’s no contradiction in believing in the ideal of objective science but recognizing the limitations of the all-too-human scientists who practice it. And there’s no shame in admitting that we all have biases. Men and women both, people of all races and faiths and sexual orientations ALL HAVE BIASES. I see it as part of our duty as scientists, in service of the objective ideal, to learn to recognize and overcome these biases in our behavior toward each other.

    O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
    How can we know the dancer from the dance?
    – W.B. Yeats, Among School Children

  • Victoria

    I just didn’t have the patience or time to read all of the comments in your recent posts on women in science (especially since so many of them were the result of seemingly-intelligent minds focusing on the irrelevant or completely misinterpreting your points), but I wanted to thank you for your arguments on the subject. As a female undergraduate astronomer, it’s a relief to have this kind of support. I am lucky to attend an institution where I feel like the entire physics and astronomy faculty is very supportive of women in science.

    And, in general (since I rarely comment), I just wanted to say I’ve always enjoyed your writing – from the Preposterous Universe days as well. I like reading your fellow bloggers here, too.

    Thank you,

  • Sean

    Thanks, Victoria. It’s definitely a big help to be in a supportive environment; we just have to keep working to make more places like that.

  • Elliot


    I think your point is very well taken. I think that physicists as a group tend to have an “inflated” belief in their own objectivity and this may be one of the causative factors at work here that they cannot recognize their own biases because it conflicts with their self image.

    I enjoyed the Yeats snippet too.


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  • Risa

    I’m interviewing all month and haven’t had time to post recently or even read this whole comment thread. But thanks, Sean. Obviously this isn’t the first time you’ve done so, but I’ll echo Julianne’s comment about how refreshing it is when men take this up as a serious subject worthy of their time and effort.

  • Philip Downey

    Everybody interested in this topic should also read this recent opinion piece in PLOS Biology. It’s about sex differences, and what can be done to improve sex ratios. Not make them equal, but improve them where they need it, and hopefully find the best scientists.

  • Arun

    In other words, how can we know when we’ve achieved the perfect meritocracy? (i.e., the correct metrics are objectively used to evaluate the suitability of a person for a job)?

  • Dissident

    #111: Excellent. But needless to say, the balanced, factual, reasoning approach of the author is on the wrong side of history.

  • Sean

    Dissident, since the beginning of the year you have averaged almost five comments per day on this blog, doing your best to be irritating without adding anything of interest. I would ask you to please ratchet it down to about one comment per day on average; more than that seems evidence of an unhealthy obsession. If you have more to say, it’s very easy to start your own blog, and we will always accept trackbacks.

  • Dissident

    Sean, you evidently find anyone who doesn’t readily buy your opinions irritating, be they lowly Dissidents or Nobel laureates. How silly of me to think that the comment section was intended for discussing ideas, pointing out alternatives and suggesting links to relevant online resources (and yes, for some goodhumoured jesting too, lest it all become dry and boring). If the real purpose of the “comment” section is to praise Sean, I’m afraid I’ll have little reason to post even one comment per year. Bye bye, and good luck. With your attitude, you’ll need it.

  • Anonymous Geek Revolutionary

    Vaguely relevant futurology: places like MIT, Caltech, University of Waterloo, etc will continue to select for geeks of both sexes. Perhaps there are minor hardware differences across males and females, but we’ll hack and port around them, and find those people already running geek software successfully with both the male and female chipsets. We will nuture them, and eventually create a third gender — math/sci/tech geek — which will map uneasily across sex, culture, ethnicity, and various other cultural and biological distinctions. We will continue to be socially awkward and offputting for a while longer, but we will eventually develop pleasing personal interfaces as we propogate the geek gender. We will prevail.

  • Mickle

    Count – it’s important to remember, when talking about personal preferences, that people tend to enjoy doing the things they believe they are good at. If people don’t think they are good at math, they avoid professions and lesuire activitites that require that they spend their time slaving away at it. And yet; witness sudoko. Hey! it’s not math, or a logic puzzle, it’s a crossword puzzle with numbers! (not) The number of women I know that have started playing sudoko, but would likely insist that they suck at simple math and logic, is just astounding.

    People who have always been in situations were they are members of the majority tend to either forget, or not ever even realize, that simply being a member of a minority (whether it be women in science, men in early childhood education, or a nerd in high school) can be challenging even when the majority doesn’t actively try to make it that way. The majority often makes assumptions about everyone sharing certain characteristics that are actualy unique to them, and then creates structures that reflect those assumptions. Plus, minorities can have a hard time developing relationships with other members than come naturally to everyone else in the group simply because there seems to be less common ground. When one is talking about physics, where most people have socially awkward pasts to begin with, bridging that gap can be an enormous obstacle, and one usually left to the minority member to figure out.

    I don’t take offense at being called a “socially awkward adolescent” – but I guess I’m like Rhett Butler that way. Everyone who managed to be a nerd and yet not be socially awkward in secondary school, feel free to take offense, but I don’t think we’re wrong in claiming you are the minority. Which, since we are talking about group dynamics, not individual characteristics, is rather the point.

  • Anna

    I rarely comment on the blog. Besides, this period of time, with the beginning of classes on one hand, and preparing results for the winter conferences on the other, is particularly hectic. But I’ve been trying to follow this thread on women in physics (although much of it has been said before on this blog…) and I can’t resist at this point to make a comment.

    Several people have been accusing Sean that he dismisses the possibility of differences between the sexes. But I remember when he posted a similar article on CV on Sep 22, 2005, titled “Bell Curves”. (I remember it because it was one of the rare occasions I had commented — and I do have an elephant’s memory anyway :) There, he provided links to previous postings he had made on the same subject on “Preposterous Universe”. If you follow the first of those links (from Jan 20, 2005), you will read his opinion on the possibility of biological cognitive differences. He doesn’t dismiss it, either in favor of one sex or the other. This is something that we can’t really measure. The point is, have there been systematic biases against women in science through the years? Can anyone deny this with a straight face? And if there have been, what can we do to remedy the situation?

    So give Sean a break, and lets concentrate here on the positive things we can do to encourage young women to take the science path. Lets take our daughters to the Science Museum instead of the “American Girl Place” after Sunday brunch. Lets buy them a telescope for their birthday instead of that sweater (or in addition to that sweater, what the heck). And yes, lets reassure them that it is OK to be smart and love math and science *and* wear a pink miniskirt at the same time. And that they should always, always speak up for themselves. And follow their dreams. And then lets build more day-care centers at our labs and universities. And teach our sons that raising their kids is half their responsibility (although I think most young men understand this already). And so on…

    I am not senior enough to have participated in faculty hiring committees, so I don’t know what is going on there. (All I know is that when I am hiring my postdocs, I am oblivious to their sex or color, I just want the person most suitable for the job at hand.) But I think that the problem of disproportionately few women in science starts at much earlier stages, in subtle ways, embedded in our societies. And this is something we can all do something about.

    By the way, I never thought of myself as a female physicist. I think of myself as a physicist.

  • Count Iblis


    your posting reminds me of study according to which women on average have less confidence about their mathematical abilities than men. I don’t remember the details of this study anymore.

    Another factor one has to consider is that mathematics isn’t really taught properly in high school at all. Proofs are almost always omitted. Almost no high school student can tell you why minus 1 times minus 1 equals 1.

    Perhaps if one started to teach ”real maths” in high school, the difference between male and female science students would become smaller.

  • Annie

    Count — that’s along the lines of what I was thinking with my earlier comments. If it’s easier for scientists of any gender to write good papers & present to a group well if they have been learning how to properly organize their ideas since kindergarten, it stands to reason that women who have had better exposure to “real” math — including more spatial stuff, which I think is really essential to start including in curricula — will have an easier time than women who didn’t run into this material until they were 20 years old.

  • Count Iblis

    Annie, I agree. Also, if you know more maths then you have more options to solve a problem so that you can avoid certain weaknesses you may have. E.g. despite the fact that I’m male, I’m not so good at visualizing 3d objects. But because I was so far ahead with my maths in high school, I was able to score 10 out of 10 most times in 3d geometry exams. I just solved systems of equations instead of doing drawings of projections to calculate what was asked.

  • Carpenter

    As a soon to be PhD in particle physics I would like to relate a story about the most moronic thing a man has ever said to me.

    I was at a summer school in theoretical physics at IAS. I was having a dinner conversation with fellow grad students about women in physics and one guy said to me that he thinks women are naturally more submissive/less agressive than men because during the sexual act the woman is the one who gets pentrated by the man.

    This person, who to all appearences seemed to be intellegent was trying to extract a meaning from something that was absolutely meaningless. I was surprised/dissapointed that I really didn’t know what to say to this person.

    This entire argument is just like that, trying to extract meaning about what is ‘natural’ (A word that barely means anything, in a sense everything is natural because nature allows it) If 15% of PhDs go to women and women do well in the field physics than it is utterly absurd to argue women lack the skills to do physics. No experiment or group of experiments has ever established that. No amount of brains lighting up , women rotating objects in thier heads, or psuedo-scientific sociobological fairytales have ever conclusivley prooved anything. I don’t see how they could when the only meaningful experiment, the ongoing participation of women in the field of physics, has shown that women do have the skills and ability.

    Honestly, women in physics will only feel comfortable if jackasses who think the act of sexual pentration or means something, at least learn to keep thier mouths shut when women are around,

  • http://1034:Incorrectkeyfilefortableusers;trytorepairit sisyphus

    Carpenter: Testosterone is definitely linked to aggressiveness, but.. whatever.

    Statistical arguments are inapplicable to the individual; either one can do X or one can’t – and that’s all there is to it.

  • Burrow

    ok, 1st, Carpenter, I’ve heard that exact same stupid belief before. (Someone said the same thing to me)

    2nd: I am a female physics major. I have always been good at physics. I tutored people in the AP class in High School even though I wasn’t taking it. I have always understood it and it seems to come naturally to me. I was not going to major in physics. I am a “non-traditional” student so I’ve taken some time to think about this. I got sat down by my physics prof (female, and feminist) and told that I was being silly doing my other major and that I was a scientist. For the first time in 15 years I am back doing what I love, physics. I was one of those women who didn’t want to go into math/physics b/c I bought into the things that I had been taught and thought that it would be too hard for me. As with last year, and my last physics class I am tutoring people again, yet the lab techs (people younger than me) say the most sexist things. To say that the dinosaurs are dying out is just plain ludicrous. These are people who will be my peers and I hate them all ready.

    It’s not about who’s born with more skills, it’s about how those skills are nurtured. It’s about saying that boys are better at math and science and it’s about how we treat girls in the classrooms. There’s a Seattle group for women in science hooking up undergrads with women in their related fields. I have talked to about 6 women who were/are physicists and a lot of them left because of hostility. That’s not a welcoming environment.

    (Thanks Sean, it’s always great to hear that people are fighting for equality in physics.)

  • Carpenter

    OH whatever about testosterone… no one ever conclusiveley proved that women are less aggressive than men either let alone that they are by virtue of testosterone. And as for these statistical arguemts they should be folded neatly and shoved up Larry Summers ass because they weren’t true when they tried to apply them to Blacks in the Bell Curve and they aren’t true now. These ideas are grounded not in the pursuit of scientific knowledge but in the need for one group of people to prove that the exosting social order could never be different. If they were really grounded in fact then everyone would have to conceed that we don’t have any proof that these things are true. We haven’t shown that there are large structural differences in the brain let alone what differences might mean…scientists are even backpeddling away form the corpus collasum crap. We haven’t prooved that different skills are innate rather than learned, in fact eveidence seems to point away from that. We haven’t prooved that lower standardized test scores are linked to intellegence or that they reflect on peoples abilities or theythat they reflect ‘natural’ differences.

    The question we have to ask is why people insist on claiming these things are true when they in fact aren’t established at all.
    Is it becuase male scientists feel like they have something to loose?
    Is it becuase everyone says it and thus people accept it s true without bothering to question it?
    Is it because likethose who believed the world was made of 5 platonic solids that were the regular polyhydrons…the idea that the sexes are exactly opposite and complimentary too simple and symmetrical to be false?

    I can tell you that I have never met someone who beleived in innate differences in math science ability that hasn’t also believed in a miriad of other unfounded stereotypes like women being less agressive, more psycologicaly weak, less courageous, less good in leadership positions, as sexually submissive etc etc etc.
    These things are myths that were invented for a specific sociological purpose and have been repeated until everyon accepts them despite the lack of hard evidence.

    The problem with women in physics is obviosly that we have to deal with sea of unspoken prejudic and we have to waste our time wondering who we know is a jackass and what they are going to say next.

  • Anonymous agitator

    I propose stapling leaflets which say “Discrimination hurts us all” on noticeboards in physics departments across the country.

    Well, does anybody have any better ideas?

  • Supernova

    Great idea, Anonymous, but I’m afraid the people who are doing the real damage aren’t the idiots going on about sexual penetration, but rather the ones who truly believe that discrimination no longer exists and therefore they don’t have to change anything about the way they go about their business and interact with other people — that the system is either no longer broken or will fix itself given time. It’s hard for people, even well-meaning ones, to admit that they (that we all!) are still implicated in the ongoing problem.

  • Quibbler

    Well said, Carpenter. You’re absolutely right.

    “I propose stapling leaflets which say “Discrimination hurts us all” on noticeboards in physics departments across the country.”

    Discrimination must exist for it to be hurting people. I like this idea, can I staple it to people’s foreheads?

    “the people who are doing the real damage aren’t the idiots going on about sexual penetration, but rather the ones who truly believe that discrimination no longer exists and therefore they don’t have to change anything about the way they go about their business and interact with other people — that the system is either no longer broken or will fix itself given time. It’s hard for people, even well-meaning ones, to admit that they (that we all!) are still implicated in the ongoing problem.”



  • Count Iblis


    Why not listen to today’s edition of Science in Action:

    The report on ”Shadenfreude” should be interesting.

  • Carpenter

    Sweet Jesus the stereotypes never stop comming. The only Shadenfreude I’m interested in is when a guy in my research group flat out toldmyofficemate(a woman) that all women,even the physicists,are bad at math and theres nothing she can do about it, because obviously thenly reason he would do that is because he lacks any social grace and enjoys whatever emotional shock he may have caused her.

    It is absurd to keep having this argument.
    Long ago white peoplemade up the myth that blackmen were wanton and lewd and wanted nothing more thanto rape white women. The remnants of this hyper masculinization reamain today with the idea that backmen have larger genitals. This ‘fact that everyone knows’ isn’t true and never was but it has wound its way into the unconcious belief systems of many Americans.

    Women are wellrepresented in other sciences and in math. I think thesolution isto market physics and forge strong support groups for women a ta llevelsof education to counteract the effects of comon prejudice. Lots of girls don’t even know physics is an option for them. I also think physicists need ti be educated about where these subtleprejudices come from . For example the story I have related about hypersexualization of black americans I learned inhigh school history classs. The story of how science has been misused for social ills is along one- from declarations that women were so ill adapted to physical excercise that even walking was a strain to them to the Piltdown man hoax ‘prooving’ greater cranialcapacity in caucasioans- and maybe it should be told in some kind of ethics class…along with telling people the dangers of plagerism and fudging data/error bars to make insignificant results look bigger.

  • http://1034:Incorrectkeyfilefortableusers;trytorepairit sisyphus

    Did the guy in your research group say “all women” – as in every individual female human, or “women” as in a statistical population. If the former, the fellow isn’t connected to reality; if the latter, he may or may not be right.

  • http://1034:Incorrectkeyfilefortableusers;trytorepairit sisyphus

    #129 Count Iblis: Yet another example of male-female differentiation. Nature or nurture?

  • Carpenter

    Yes this study with all of 32 data points definitelyprooves conclusivley that and sex difference w/r to fairness/punishment responses is biological in origin and therefore women must be bad at math hence under represented in physics…he and also have lower sex drives and be less aggressive.

  • Carpenter

    he was talking about all women even the ones already in physics but it scarcely matters. For some reason men think its acceptable to make derrogitory comments about womens abilities on average, and consider those women in thier immediate proximity as exceptions. I think I speak fora lot of women when I say that this
    does not make you sound like any less of an asshole. If anything, it is meant to invalidate your personal point of view
    B:”women are bad at physics’
    A:’Hey, I’m not’
    B:’Oh I didn’t mean you I meant women in general’
    A: *aorta rips open in attempt to supress outrage*

    see how B doesn’t exactly come off as a mensch?

  • Quibbler


    “A: *aorta rips open in attempt to supress outrage*”


    You’re quite right, of course, but this made me laugh. Thanks for that.

    “I think thesolution isto market physics and forge strong support groups for women a ta llevelsof education to counteract the effects of comon prejudice. Lots of girls don’t even know physics is an option for them.”

    I agree. How would you go about this (I blogged about this on my personal blog — I’m looking for ideas)?


  • http://1034:Incorrectkeyfilefortableusers;trytorepairit sisyphus

    #134 Carpenter: If we restrict ourselves to literal content, B could be merely a not terribly aware mensch. (oxymoron?).

    But, if we’re going to be honest (and sometimes honesty is unavoidable) we must acknowledge that in the real world much of a person’s identity is taken from statistically treatable populations: eg. “I, Jane Smythe, am a female, black, protestant, republican doctor.”.

    This is so even of the most ardent individualist.

    Anyone who attacks the status of females, blacks, etc., even with the most objective, dispassionate statistical argument, attacks Jane Smythe.

    Attacking all or any part of Jane’s identity in her presence is aggression.

    (I don’t suppose I’m telling you anything that hasn’t occurred to you; I just want to make clear my own take on the matter.)

    Any discussion with Jane re. any of the populations cited must be approached in a gingerly fashion – particularly by anyone who isn’t a member of the group being discussed.

    Or so I believe.

    If anybody cares.

  • aram harrow

    #17 says “Someone needs to do the damn study and obtain a convincing answer one way or the other.”
    but no controlled experiment of the effects of gender on physics learning is possible until you first eliminate the effects of culture on (a) how boys & girls are raised, and (b) how physics works. In other words, you have to eliminate sexism before the study is possible.

    So not only is the study nearly impossible (and to me reminscent of Bush’s calls to “study” global warming — more about implying false uncertainty than about trying to find truth in good faith), we know in advance that any “innate” gender differences are completely swamped by cultural effects. For example, look at how the # of women in physics varies over time, or from country to country (see this amazing graph). It seems quite unlikely that innate differences can say anything useful about there being 1-2% female physics faculty in japan and 47% in hungary.

  • http://1034:Incorrectkeyfilefortableusers;trytorepairit sisyphus

    137 aram: 47% in Hungary – really? That’s interesting. This is only anecdote, but I know lots of Hungarians; the men tend to be pretty macho. Even so, 47%. Hmm.

    Maybe it has to do with gender security. The Hungarians I know are high-libido.

    Maybe the sexier a society is the less sexist it is.

    Maybe not.

    Just a thought.

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  • chimpanzee

    Not because of any natural progression towards greater freedom and equality, but because a lot of committed people are working hard to removing existing barriers, and a lot of strong women will fight through the biases to succeed in spite of them. It’s happening already.

    I’ve seen a couple of stories on CBS News (2003) & CNN (yesterday), which seems to support the theory that the Environment (“Nurture”, in Nature vs Nurture) component is allowing women to get penetration into academics.

    A Massachussetts male high-school filed a lawsuit arguing sexual-discrimination..against BOYS!!

    CNN (yesterday):
    “..girls do outnumber boys on the honor roll and in advanced placement classes..”

    MILES O’BRIEN: A high school student in Massachusetts is on a crusade for equality in the classroom. He claims the academic deck is stacked against boys in his school district and he’s out to force the school system to reshuffle. Here is AMERICAN MORNING’s Dan Lothian.


    DAN LOTHIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT, (voice over): Seventeen-year-old Doug Anglin is a senior at Milton High School near Boston where the 1,000 plus student body is almost evenly split by gender. But Anglin claims the treatment is anything but equal.

    DOUG ANGLIN, HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT: I think the Milton High School system is designed to the disadvantage of males. The teachers assume that they’re lazy and they have bad work habits.

    LOTHIAN: He argues that makes it easier for girls to succeed academically. So the B student who plays soccer and baseball has filed a federal civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education. But School Principal John Drottar says gender never impacts the way students are treated.

    DR JOHN DROTTAR, HIGH SCHOOL PRINCIPAL: We don’t discriminate. We want to have every student given the equal opportunity to be aa successful as they can be.

    LOTHIAN: He admits that girls do outnumber boys on the honor roll and in advanced placement classes, but says that’s part of a bigger issue educators nationwide are grappling with.

    DROTTAR: It’s part of, you know, many studies that will tell you and discuss and try to delineate where the differences are.

    LOTHIAN: Studies show boys are increasingly falling behind girls and that they differ in their learning styles and behavior in the classroom. Harvard Medical Schools’s Dr. William Pollack, author of this book on the subject, says differences need to be addressed in order for boys to catch up to girls.

    DR. WILLIAM POLLACK, HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL: But we’re not taking the data we have and acting on it and creating curricula, new reading environments, new learning environments that boys will run to.

    LOTHIAN: Ask for Anglin’s complaint, which was filed with the help of his attorney father, the Department of Education says it is still under evaluation to determine if it is appropriate for an investigation. Milton’s principal says this controversy provides educators with a great opportunity.

    DROTTAR: To recommit to helping everybody do the best they can.

    LOTHIAN: Dan Lothian, CNN, Milton, Massachusetts.

  • chimpanzee

    A professor I knew, who would never in a million years have admitted to any bias in his view of male and female students, once expressed an honest astonishment that the women in his class had done better than the men on the last problem set. Not that he would ever treat men and women differently, you understand — they just were different, and it was somewhat discomfiting to see them do well on something that wasn’t supposed to be part of their skill set. And he was a young guy, not an old fogey.

    There are some datapoints like that in the CBSNews story (2003):

    CBSNews (2003)
    The Gender Gap: Boys Lagging

    Remember when girls became nurses and not doctors? Stenographers, not CEOs? Teachers, not principals?

    Well, that’s not the way it is any more. Thirty years after the passage of equal opportunity laws, girls are graduating from high school and college and going into professions and businesses in record numbers.

    Now, it’s the boys who could use a little help in school, where they’re falling behind their female counterparts.

    And if you think it’s just boys from the inner cities, think again. It’s happening in all segments of society, in all 50 states. That’s why more and more educators are calling for a new national effort to put boys on an equal footing with their sisters. Lesley Stahl reports.

    At graduation ceremonies last June at Hanover High School in Massachusetts, it was the ninth year in a row that a girl was on the podium as school valedictorian. Girls also took home nearly all the honors, including the science prize, says principal Peter Badalament.

    “[Girls] tend to dominate the landscape academically right now,” he says, even in math and science.

    The school’s advanced placement classes, which admit only the most qualified students, are often 70 percent to 80 percent girls. This includes calculus. And in AP biology, there was not a single boy.

    According to Badalment, three out of four of the class leadership positions, including the class presidents, are girls. In the National Honor Society, almost all of the officers are girls. The yearbook editor is a girl.

    While there are statistically more boy geniuses than girl geniuses, far more boys than girls are found at the very bottom of the academic ranks. School districts from Massachusetts to Minnesota to California report that boys are withdrawing from the life of schools, and girls are taking over.

    “Girls outperform boys in elementary school, middle school, high school, and college, and graduate school,” says Dr. Michael Thompson, a school psychologist who writes about the academic problems of boys in his book, “Raising Cain.” He says that after decades of special attention, girls are soaring, while boys are stagnating.

    “Girls are being told, ‘Go for it, you can do it. Go for it, you can do it.’ They are getting an immense amount of support,” he says. “Boys hear that the way to shine is athletically. And boys get a lot of mixed messages about what it means to be masculine and what it means to be a student. Does being a good student make you a real man? I don’t think so… It is not cool.”

    “Girls don’t necessarily get teased as much if they do well,” says Meredith, a graduating senior at Hanover High.

    “I think that boys are more, you know, expected to be the star athletes, to bring home the football title,” says Tom, another graduating senior.

    Their classmate Colby agrees: “I think maybe girls are a little more goal-oriented, where guys, in general, are more apt to go with the flow, like, ‘Well, if I do well in high school, that’s great. If I don’t, hey, that’s fine.’”

    The picture doesn’t get much brighter for young men when they get to college. Campuses are now nearly 60 percent female, with women earning 170,000 more bachelor degrees each year than men. Women are streaming into business schools and medical schools, and will be the majority at the nation’s law schools. At some colleges, they’re getting so many more qualified women applicants than men applicants that the schools are doing something that might shock you.

    “To make a class that’s 50/50, they’re practicing affirmative action on behalf of boys,” says Thompson. “Girls are so outperforming boys in school right now, one statistician said he took it out to its absurd endpoint and said at the present trend, the last man to get his bachelor’s degree will do so in 2068.”

    Even if that never happens, the trend is ominous. Boys are falling further behind girls in reading and writing, and still, there’s no public outcry the way there was for girls, and we wanted to find out why.

    “All the rhetoric in the gender equity movement is about how schools shortchange girls. There was almost nothing about how we could reach out to boys,” says Christina Hoff Sommers, a former college professor, now at the American Enterprise Institute. She blames the lack of attention to boys’ problems on feminists.

    “In order to advance girls, they exaggerated how vulnerable girls were, and they understated the needs of boys. They depicted boys as … the privileged beneficiaries of a patriarchal society that oppresses women, demeans them and trains young men to be sexist, misogynists,” she says.

    Sommers targets groups like the AAUW, the American Association of University Women, and feminist scholars. She says they published a blitz of studies and popular books depicting girls in crisis at precisely the moment when statistics showed girls were catching up to boys or moving past them in most academic areas. Sommers says the efforts on behalf of girls turned into what she calls a war against boys.

    “I don’t have a war. I am not in favor of saying that girls ought to get anything over boys,” says Jacqueline Woods, president of the AAUW.

    Sommers calls the AAUW and other similar organizations the “gender bias industry.” Woods disagrees: “Most people understand that gender equity is about making sure that both boys and girls have equal access to educational opportunities.”

    Sommers also accuses women teachers of favoring girls over boys. She says they reward classroom behavior that girls find easier, like sitting still, and punish boys for being, well, boys.

    “If boys are obstreperous and high-spirited and competitive, which most of them are, this is seen as behavior which is not tolerated. They see that as an expression of a toxic masculinity,” she says.

    Thompson disagrees with this: “I do not think that feminism has ruined the lives of boys.” He blames fathers.

    “Where are the men? Why aren’t men advocating for boys? We know that boys who have fathers who go to PTA meetings, those boys get better grades,” says Thompson, who believes there is a clear correlation when a father’s involved.

    “If your father only shows up for town soccer and town football and never goes to PTA meetings, well, duh, doesn’t take too much to figure out what your father values.”

    “Every small town in Texas turns out on Friday night to watch boys play football, and it’s lacrosse in Maryland, and it’s ice hockey in Minnesota and Massachusetts. Boys are demagogued, but not for their academic work.”

    He says that could be fixed in large part if schools recruited more male teachers.

    “I had a teacher at my school, and this teacher said, you know, ‘I’m the first man they’ve ever known who liked poetry and taught poetry,’ and this man is also their coach,” Thompson says.

    At Jefferson Academy in Long Beach, Calif., Franklin Goodman fits this bill. He coaches, and also teaches seventh grade math and science, where the ratio of male to female teachers is 50/50. That’s unusual enough, but there’s another big difference. During academic periods, the genders are separated, boys in one room and girls in another.

    “First of all, there aren’t any female distractions for them,” Goodman says. The boys told Stahl that other kids call them ‘gay’ for going to class with all boys, but they admit it’s been good for them. They learn more, they told her, without girls.

    The teachers use more physical activity and competition in the all-boy classrooms and tailor the courses to boys’ tastes, with more books on topics like war and science fiction.

    The school must be doing something right. Test scores for boys have jumped dramatically.

    Why aren’t boys’ academic problems a bigger issue? “There’s a little cultural secret at work here. Boys go out in the work world and earn more money,” says Thompson. “Nobody wants to admit what’s happening, which is, ‘You girls work very hard, but sorry, ladies, when you get out there, we’re not going to pay you equally. And you boys, it’s OK. You can loaf through school. You’ll get good jobs afterwards.’”

    But, Thompson says, there’s going to be a cold shower when the country realizes that women are completely dominating the numbers in professional schools. “We can’t have a country of women in white-collar jobs and men in blue-collar jobs. That’s not going to be good for this society.”

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  • Timothy H.

    Wow. I found this old post because I was looking for statistics on women in physics, and I am shocked by the crude political prejudice Mr. Carroll openly displays here. The totalitarian (fascist…Marxist, take your pick) view that history has a will and that they are on the “right” side of it is a despicable slander to delegitimize your opponents without having to make an argument from reason.

    I’m glad Mr. Carroll’s cosmology work is good, because he’s not going to be winning over anyone by his verbal reasoning skills. I’d be interested if I ever ran into him at a AAS meeting, to see if he can speak civilly with people he disagrees with, or if he simply harangues them until they decide not to bother.

    How obnoxious.


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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