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.


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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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