Foreign Correspondent Checking In

By Sean Carroll | July 4, 2006 12:51 pm

Joyeux 4th of July, mes amis américains! I am checking in from Montréal, a temporary stopover on the way back to the U.S. of A. from a brief visit to Quebec City. I was there for Renaissance Weekend, an occasional (five times per year) gathering of the important, demi-important, and merely interesting and/or well-connected to get together and talk about stuff.

I had a great time, and I would be happy to tell you all about it if RW goings-on were not strictly off the record. (For example, I could reveal the amusing story behind how nanotechnology pioneer Eric Drexler met his wife Rosa Wang, or how I took down a huge pot from Scripps College president Nancy Bekavac when my quad tens demolished her ace-high flush, but rules are rules.) But I am perfectly within my rights to share things that I said myself. I gave a few mini-presentations, among which was one in a series of two-minute lunchtime talks on “What I Would Do If I Could,” a rather free-ranging topic if ever there was one. Other people suggested banning torture, printing people’s phone numbers on their license plates, or moving to a chocolate-based economy. Here was my little spiel:

If I could propose one thing, it would be to do everything in our power to encourage young girls to get excited about science, math, and technology.

As a physicist, I know that my field is only about ten percent women. There is a theory on the market, occasionally suggested by people in positions of power and influence, that an important contributor to this imbalance is a difference in intrinsic aptitude. The technical term for this theory is “bullshit.” I say this not as a starry-eyed egalitarian, but as one who has looked at the data. This is a theory that makes predictions, and its predictions are spectacularly wrong. If they were right, the fraction of women that dropped out would rise at the higher ranks, as the competition for positions became more fierce; that’s not true. The percentage of women scientists would be basically constant from place to place; that’s not true. The fraction of women getting physics degrees would be stable over time; that’s not true. The truth is that women drop out of science between high school and college (and, tellingly, disproportionately more women try to specialize in physics later in college than those who choose physics as a major during their first year). And they do so because they are discouraged by a million small signals that add up to a powerful cumulative message.

We shouldn’t encourage girls to be enthusiastic about science, math, and technology because we need more scientists, mathematicians, or engineers. We should do so because many young girls are potentially interested in technical fields, and this interest should be celebrated, not deprecated. Support to pursue one’s passions is something that everyone deserves, regardless of their chromosomes.

Let freedom ring, everybody.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Travel, Women in Science
  • Rien

    Nice spiel. But prepare for invectives from our Harvard friend.

    Sorry for being off the topic, but I’m curious: what do you think about Barack Obama’s recent religious talk? Topic for a post maybe?

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    Never mind the fact that it’s bloody easy to find non-intrinsic-aptitude causes why women would flee from physics if you just look around a little bit…. If there’s a bullet wound and a smoking gun, you don’t have to insist that if we look hard enough, we’re sure to find stab wounds on the body.

    -Rob

  • Harv

    Great talk, Sean! :)

    Thanks (from a woman scientist)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Rien, I haven’t had a chance to look over Obama’s talk, as I’ve been traveling and concentrating on work. It’s good to engage with religious people, it’s bad to buy into Republican talking points. But it is off-topic — maybe I’ll get a chance to post about it soon.

  • Kea

    If there’s a bullet wound and a smoking gun, you don’t have to insist that if we look hard enough, we’re sure to find stab wounds on the body.

    Except that there might well be bullet holes and stab wounds.

  • Annie

    Thanks from another woman (grad student this time :) )

    Sometimes I wonder if I am lucky, lucky, lucky that I have never run into any creepiness, discrimination or discouragement, or if I am just naive, naive, naive to believe that I haven’t!

  • Kea

    Annie

    I felt the same when I was younger. Trust me, the latter is true.

  • Jack

    “As a physicist, I know that my field is only about 10 percent women”.

    And 80% wine, and 10% song.

  • http://www.pyracantha.com Pyracantha

    As they say down South, bless your heart, Sean, for caring about women in science.

  • Belizean

    Sean,

    The under-representation of women in science and engineering relative to men is due overwhelmingly to differences in intrinsic interests than to differences in intrinsic ability. Given this, efforts to recruit women into the hard sciences will only have a marginal effect. They will be as fruitful as efforts to increase the number of men specializing in primary education, library science, or women’s studies.

    Support to pursue one’s passions is something that everyone deserves, regardless of their chromosomes.

    Sure. But how strong could one’s “passion” be, if “a million small signals” can dissuade one from pursuing it?

    We shouldn’t encourage girls to be enthusiastic about science, math, and technology because we need more scientists, mathematicians, or engineers.

    Agreed. We shouldn’t encourage anyone to enter those fields, because there is currently a surplus of technical labor. [Unless, of course, you agree with Big Business that tech types should be paid even less than they are now.]

  • Kea

    Cough.

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    Belizean, what do you mean exactly with “intrinsic interests”, and how did you verify that they are different from men and women?

  • http://astromalte.blogspot.com/ Malte

    Philip Greenspun has argued that women are just smart enough to realise that careers in science are a bad choice for nearly everyone, while men’s status anxiety blinds them to reality. If this is even partly true, encouraging girls to go into science is going to improve things only very slowly, and what we need to be doing is making science competitive with other career options.

  • Belizean

    PK,

    By “intrinsic interests” I mean the innate tendency for women to be in general more interested in people and social relationships. While men are more interested in objects and mechanical relationships.

    That these differences are innate is obvious to anyone who’s experienced chronic exposure to a sample of young children of both sexes. It’s so obvious that the burden of proof lies with those asserting the contrary — that these differences are not innate. I don’t think, however, that there are very many developmental psychologists under the age of 70 who still assert this.

  • Cynthia

    Belizean,

    Let me see if I am interpreting your comment#14 correctly…

    It seems that you are implying that a woman – with her inferior innate mechanical skills – would probably not be able to repair her broken air-conditioner. However, a woman – with her superior innate people skills – would probably be able to manipulate a man into repairing her air-conditioner.

    Feel free to correct my interpretation of your comment… In the meantime, I will simply declare that your comment is riddled with flaws.

  • http://spacecatrocketship.blogspot.com/ Pacian

    Referring back to Sean’s post, the following statements seem to apply to Belizean’s hypothesis as much as the ‘aptitude’ one:

    The percentage of women scientists would be basically constant from place to place; that’s not true. The fraction of women getting physics degrees would be stable over time; that’s not true.

  • ObsessiveMathsFreak

    That these differences are innate is obvious to anyone who’s experienced chronic exposure to a sample of young children of both sexes. It’s so obvious that the burden of proof lies with those asserting the contrary — that these differences are not innate.

    That’s not good science. If you want to prove that differences between the genders are innate, then you must perform experiment. Without experiment, it is the null hypothosis that should be accepted, namely that there are no differences.

    Remember in all this, that gender is only one of the more obvious dichotomies that can be made in a human population. There are many others which might often result in more striking contrasts in the data. Take for example the differences that might be observed between introverts and extroverts. Or between left and right handed people. Or between persons with different blood groups. Or indeed, persons from different socio-economic groups.

    Most of these studies draw their conclusions from the mean of the data. This is often not a very useful quantity. For example, on average, anywhere on earth, the sun shines for 12 hours in a day. But this only occurs one day in every year. In paticular applications, the general mean may not be helpful.

    The rising trend of women obtaining higher level qualifications in the sciences, and in academia in general, brings into question “obvious” conclusions drawn from anecdotal exposure to young children. It is clear that it is these established views that are need of experiment to test their veracity.

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    #10 Belizean
    >because there is currently a surplus of technical labor.
    Perhaps you need to define ‘technical labor’, because, with the exception of a few, most western countries are hungry for technical savvy workers. If I take a random sample of a classified ad list from one of the hungriest technical markets, the S.F. Bay area in California, the sci/biotech, medical/health, software, technical support, internet engineers job arenas are far from experiencing a ‘surplus of technical labor’.

    In this January 2000 Economist article titled Career Evolution,
    http://www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=277491
    we read how fast the industries in the United States are changing, and that those which don’t change go under quickly. Quoting from the article:

    “The information technology industry in America is growing more than twice as fast as the economy as a whole—and in every state it is producing more job changes.”

    and

    “In the 1950s, when three out of five American workers were “unskilled”, education was considered a bonus; now the one in five workers who is unskilled is at a big disadvantage. The need for continual re-education extends even into the later stages of most working lives. Few can any longer afford to rest on their laurels, or to rely on experience which rapidly becomes obsolete because of technological change.”

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    Belizean: the fact that girls get dolls to play with and boys get fire engines (from an extremely early age, I might add) does not have any influence? Come off it! If you treat children according to the expected role model, they will conform.

    The only hope for you to prove your position is to find the implicating genes. In the meantime, we can’t really know whether these interests are innate or not.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Belizean, there might very well be differences in intrinsic interest, just as there might be differences in intrinsic aptitude. I suspect that the “intrinsic” nature of those things is greatly exaggerated due to the difficulty of separating non-intrinsic factors, but I’m willing to keep an open mind.

    However, in both cases, you can’t be expected to be taken seriously if you simply leap from some tests of young children to an explanation for what is happening at the faculty level without taking into account the mountains of data concerning what goes on in between. As Pacian says, the idea just doesn’t fit the reality, especially the fact that there is a higher percentage of women switching into physics later than the percentage who choose it as a major in the first place. There are systematic biases that discourage girls from pursuing an interest in science, and as those biases are being combatted, the numbers are getting much better (just as they have done for law schools and medical schools, which are essentially 50-50 by now).

    If we were to eliminate the systematic biases to the point where intrinsic qualities were plausibly the most important factors determining the fraction of women in the field, I’d be happy. Right now we’re not close.

  • Chris W.

    Regarding your spiel, Sean, see the NY Times’ July 4 interview with biologist Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard (Nobel 1995):

    Now 63, she directs the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany. In her off-hours, she works to improve the status of women in science.

    With her own money and a $100,000 award from Unesco-L’Oréal’s Women in Science Program, she has organized the Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Foundation, which offers grants to young female scientists for baby sitters and household help.

  • Supernova

    Hey Sean, I’m really interested in this thing about women switching into physics later — I haven’t heard it before. Do you have a link or a reference for it?

    What amazes me about this whole debate is the number of people who are willing to ignore societal pressures, as if we’ve “solved” the discrimination problem and therefore all these “intrinsic” differences are showing up in a vacuum. Seems to me you can’t hope to uncover any small intrinsic effects until you’ve eliminated the other factors that are likely to swamp them.

    …how strong could one’s “passion” be, if “a million small signals” can dissuade one from pursuing it?

    The problem is that half the population is getting the million small signals and the other half isn’t. Pretty hard to infer anything about differences in “passion” level in that case.

  • justin

    “If I could propose one thing, it would be to do everything in our power to encourage young girls to get excited about science, math, and technology.”

    This strikes me as a little odd. Of the multitude of heinous problems facing human civilization, why does this one come to the top of your list?

    To me at least, it is not obvious that the gender imballance in science is really causing that much suffering. In theory it would be nice to have more equal representation, but my impression is that most women don’t go into science simply because they find it less interesting (—for whatever reason). It is not because they were thwarted by an inpenatrable wall of prejudice and discrimination at the college level and beyond.

    Of couse, it is possible, even likely, that women are less interested because of systematic prejuduces—i.e. societal expectaions—which influence the child’s personality and interests from a very young age. In some sense this is sad, but I don’t think most women regret that “if only dad gave me a truck instead of a barbie doll when I was 3, I would have been a completely different person than who I am today, and there is a slight chance that that person would be a better, happier person than who I turned out to be.”

  • Supernova

    Pervasive prejudice doesn’t strike you as a heinous problem? Is the problem of racial underrepresentation in scientific and technical fields more worthy of our attention in your mind, or does it suffer from the same irrelevance in the grand scheme of things?

    I’m playing devil’s advocate to some extent — sure, there are lots of life-and-death issues out there to worry about, and one could argue that many of them are more dire than the issue of women in physics. But there’s a sense in which one has to pick one’s battles. We in academic physics may not be especially well placed to help end global warming, for example (though many of us try to do what we can with donations, political engagement, etc.), but we are in a perfect position to advocate for an end to discrimination within our field of specialty.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Supernova, thanks for answering Justin’s question. As to your own about switching into physics later, I wish I had a reference but I don’t. The statistic was mentioned by Tim McKay during the course of a talk about the results from studies done by the University of Michigan ADVANCE initiative, but I don’t know if it’s been published. I thought it was an important finding, as it suggests a concrete proposal that would help encourage women in science: universities can structure curricula such that students can complete a physics degree in three years rather than four (which is a good idea anyway).

  • justin

    Dear Supernova,

    “Pervasive prejudice doesn’t strike you as a heinous problem?”

    Strangely, no… at least it is not obvious to me that the problem is so big as to be called heinous. A heinous problem would be a situation where someone with motivation and aspirations is being denied opportunities afforded to the more privaleged. But as I said, this does not strike me as being the situation in science. (To the extent that it is, it is a major problem). I don’t think it is a moral travesty when a woman decides that she is more interested in literature than chemistry, even if that preference was to some extent influenced by broad gender stereotypes learned at a young age. We are all influenced by societal expectations, for better or worse. In the end, our choice of intellectual and professional interest is an intensely personal thing.

  • justin

    I have to admit to playing a little devil’s advocate too. My problem is that I tend to think of things in terms of individuals rather than statistics… if every person is living a happy, fulfilled life, why should it matter what the current numerical gender ratios are in typical physics departments?

    Of course, not everyone lives a “happy life,” and sexism is still a major problem in scientific academia, even if it seems (to me) that most women scientists remain unphased. I just wonder whether “proportional representation” (as such) is really the right goal to pursue.

  • Supernova

    We are all influenced by societal expectations, for better or worse. In the end, our choice of intellectual and professional interest is an intensely personal thing.

    Of course it is. And I think you and I are in agreement that to question someone’s personal choice of intellectual and professional interest — or the choices of a class of people — would be to patronize them and assume they don’t know what’s best for them. Certainly none of us is taking that position.

    But what if that personal choice is not directly based on intellectual interest but feelings of discomfort and lack of collegiality in one’s professional surroundings? Being fed up with not being credited for one’s own ideas? Wanting a job in which one’s involvement with one’s family life is not seen as a liability or an indication of not being “serious” about one’s work? Distribution of resources (office/lab space, funding, students) that systematically favors male colleagues (as has been shown at MIT, for example)? Women facing such difficulties may well choose to leave the field, and this choice may well be the best one for them; but it seems to me that this situation indicates the field has serious problems that need to be addressed. In some sense, we’re interfering with women’s choice of intellectual and professional interest.

    No one would tell a woman who left that she made the wrong choice and would be better off coming back. But wouldn’t it be nice if young women of the future were able to make their choices based on interest alone and not these other factors? Even if we accept “socialization via Barbie dolls” at a young age as inevitable, there are still many factors that discourage women from careers in the physical sciences and need to be addressed.

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    There’s always a bigger problem.

    If you use the argument that there are more important problems in the world, then pretty much none of us can justify thinking about anything other than (a) potential devstation of civlization due to coming climate change, and (b) the genocide-du-jour, currently in (at least) Darfour.

    However, just because there are other bigger problems doesn’t mean that a given problem isn’t real! Sean is a physicist. The problem of gender discrimination in physics is a problem *in his own house*. It’s eminently rational for him to consider that one of the biggest problems worth spending his time and energy on, if he considers it a problem at all.

    -Rob

  • Anonymous Ph.D.

    The Greenspun article is interesting. I have no grand theory about the situation, but I can attest to the “million small signals” adding up to significant discouragement. But ultimately what’s driving me (a woman) from the field is the lack of job opportunities, the job insecurity, and the low pay. I should note that I am an astronomy postdoc. I want to have a choice over where I live, enough money to buy a house, and enough money to support a family if I choose to have or adopt children. These concerns are overwhelming the positives, which are many, of my chosen field of specialty.

    I will probably leave science entirely for business/statistics/strategy. Why? Because I want to be around different people. Sometimes I get so sick of it I could scream. The same color, the same introverted personalities, mostly the same gender, mostly the same economic class equals the same ideas and the same opinions. I hope that I will encounter a broader range of the human spectrum in the business world. Maybe it won’t work, but I’m ready to give it a try. I think I will feel an immense sense of freedom once I get a job outside academia. As long as I can negotiate enough vacation time.

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    Justin — two points:

    if every person is living a happy, fulfilled life

    They’re not. There are even people who have been extremely succsful in science who are unhappy about the conditions; there are more who have left science, not because they weren’t interested in the science or didn’t have the aptitude, but because they didn’t want to put up with the general misogynistic bullshit.

    Here’s an editorial from a pundit of astronomy on the issue:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A360-2005Feb5.html

    it seems (to me) that most women scientists remain unphased.

    You don’t talk much in depth about these issues with many women, then.

    Most women I know in science seem unphased to me, only because I haven’t talked to them much about it. However, of the handful of women I have talked to in some depth about it, every single one has stories to tell that are between shockingly irritating and utterly hair-raising.

    Again, my evidence is anecdotal– but I would suggest that your anecdotal lack of evidence is merely evidence that you haven’t really tried to see if there is evidence.

    -Rob

    -Rob

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    But ultimately what’s driving me (a woman) from the field is the lack of job opportunities, the job insecurity, and the low pay.

    The first two are what really stress me out. And I’m a man…. I don’t directly have to deal with the misogynistic bullshit, which is just on top of the normal everybody-gets-this stresses.

    As for the pay: I know I could make a lot more in “industry”, but I also know that I make more than most of the people in this country, so I’m not so worried about the pay.

    But the job insecurity: that kills me. See http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/?p=27

  • Nobody

    I hate to break it to you all but things aren’t really any different in the business world or in the home. It’s a lovely idea to be able to spend your time pursuing only your most prized interests, but in reality most people have to work to make a living and not just for self-fulfillment. Anyone who is blessed enough to be able to truly engage in their intellectual pursuits with minimal interruption, interference, etc. from ‘lesser’ concerns AND to be paid for it should never complain about how ‘hard’ it is. Just the perscective from ‘below.’ How many women in prominent positions in any field have children? For instance, does Lisa Randall have children?

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    Anonymous Ph.D. : It’s possible to balance that work environment (where you state that you don’t experience people with a wide range of personality types) with a completely different environment outside of work. For example, by using your off-work time to engage in hobbies that have nothing to do with physics/science.

  • Another Anon

    Anyone who is blessed enough to be able to truly engage in their intellectual pursuits with minimal interruption, interference, etc. from ‘lesser’ concerns AND to be paid for it should never complain about how ‘hard’ it is.
    The point here is that women in science are suffering from more disruptive influences than men doing the same work. Also, I don’t know what point you are trying to make wrt children. Lisa Randell doesn’t have children – how is this supposed to demonstrate that things aren’t any better in the business world?

    To Anonymous PhD: Amen! to your whole comment. I am only about to start my PhD (though I have been in grad school for a couple of years already – don’t ask!) but I doubt that I am going to continue in academia beyond that. I don’t think I want to spend my 30’s without any clear idea where I am going in life. I love to move around, but equally, I want some sort of stability, at least in the form of confidence that I will have a job in two years’ time. I just spent a weekend with a friend who is working in the City. I’m not sure I’d want his job, but his life – yes. He admits work isn’t exactly exciting, but he’s on the way to a life he wants.

    To Annie: 1st grad school I tried, the issue wasn’t so much discrimination as creepiness. Like more than one guy turning up uninvited at my house in the evening, or trying to push the boundaries of “friendship” way too far. And the guy with porno in his cubicle, which the school did nothing about though I complained. In addition to this, I have experienced also the being ignored by faculty thing. I say something, they just glance at me and don’t respond; a guy says the same and gets a full answer.

    To be fair, I have also been in a class in which the (young) professor said “great question!” whenever a girl asked, but dismissed the same or similar comments from guys. But those situations are definitely in the minority. IT’s great you haven’t noticed it yet, but eventually I suspect you will. Good luck in the meantime…

  • justin

    Dear Rob Knopp,

    I think you’re missing my point. What I am arguing is that the gender ratio in science is mostly determined by the relative interest in the subject between males and females. It is not obvious to me that this discrepancy, in and of itself, is a major injustice. Most people have decided whether science interests them by the time they graduate from high school — long before they can have an inkling as to the social pressures and problems of working in academia. Sexism and other prejudices in the scientific community is an extremely important issue, but one that (I think) has only a small effect on the large gender descrepancy. So if sexism in academic science is the central concern, gender ratios may not the correct or relevant guage with which to measure progress.

    I have talked to women scientists before. I hear a wide range of attitudes about women’s issues in science. Some have had terrible experiences… others have had few problems. Some are very engaged in women’s issues in science… others prefer to downplay the distinction between genders (my girlfriend is in the later class). However, I have never met a woman who has quit academic science purely on the basis of the discrimination she encountered. (I can only imagine such a thing in the most eggregious circumstances … for example sexual harrassment from a thesis advisor). On the whole, a woman persuing a science PhD or more is strong and is not going to be phased by bullshit.

  • Belizean

    Let me see if I am interpreting your comment#14 correctly…
    It seems that you are implying that a woman – with her inferior innate mechanical skills – would probably not be able to repair her broken air-conditioner. However, a woman – with her superior innate people skills – would probably be able to manipulate a man into repairing her air-conditioner.
    Feel free to correct my interpretation of your comment… In the meantime, I will simply declare that your comment is riddled with flaws.

    Geez. It’s like I’ve gone back in time to 1972.

    Cynthia, you must have missed the memo stating that it’s now okay to admit that men and women are innately different and remain a feminist.
    If you want to believe that males and females have innately identical interests, you go right ahead. If you want spread the gospel that socialism raises the median standard of living more than capitalism does, knock yourself out. If you think astrology predicts the future, well, hey, it’s a free country. But you really can’t expect someone living in the 21st century to patiently refute for you these tired positions of another era. I wish I was up for that, but, frankly, I’m not. Maybe another time.

  • NL

    Peeve: phased

    It’s “fazed”, people.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    And the fact that some people are unfazed by it doesn’t make the bullshit any more acceptable.

  • Belizean

    The only hope for you to prove your position is to find the implicating genes. In the meantime, we can’t really know whether these interests are innate or not.

    Nor can we know whether there is a civilization of intelligent beings living in the center of the sun.

    PK,

    “Knowing” simply means holding a conjecture that seems most consistent with our experiences, which include formal experiments. The notion of innate interests better explains the phenomenon of young girls and boys adhering to stereotypical behavior patterns despite explicit attempts to change them. [For example, boys (however young) given dolls tend to decapitate them and use them as weapons; girls (however young) given toy trucks tend turn them into cuddle toys or lose interest in them. Do try this experiment at home.]

    These effects needn’t be genetic to be innate. It appears that one can modify the innate interests of a child by modifying the hormonal environment to which it is exposed in the womb. Excessive exposure of a female fetus to prenatal androgens produces a tomboy, under-exposure of a male fetus produces an effeminate male. [See Matt Ridley’s popular works and the journal references therein.]

  • Belizean

    a random sample of a classified ad list from one of the hungriest technical markets, the S.F. Bay area in California, the sci/biotech, medical/health, software, technical support, internet engineers job arenas are far from experiencing a ‘surplus of technical labor’.

    Amara,

    Most of those jobs are offering a mere $60,000 per year or so to perform extremely demanding work, for which one must have mastered many technologies that did not even exist a decade ago, while living in the most expensive part of the country. The evidence of a surplus is the low salary offered for such a demanding job.

    You could just as well argue that there is a shortage of physicians in the bay area, because few are willing to work there for $60K.

  • NL

    $60k is entirely adequate compensation for work which requires a bachelor’s degree and Competence, more likely, is.

  • NL

    Er, that’s garbled.

    $60k is entirely adequate compensation for work which requires a bachelor’s degree and less than 5 years of experience. Competence, not mastery, is expected.

  • Supernova

    I have never met a woman who has quit academic science purely on the basis of the discrimination she encountered.

    Therefore such discrimination doesn’t exist, or isn’t significant? Lack of (anecdotal) evidence isn’t evidence of absence. I’ve never met anyone with AIDS; can I therefore blithely claim it’s not an enormous factor in the lives of millions of people?

    Anyway, I would argue that it shouldn’t be only the “strong,” “unfaze-able” women who get to be physicists (if they want to). It shouldn’t be only the “strong,” “unfaze-able” men either. But the unfortunate truth is that men don’t face nearly as many “fazing” factors along the way.

  • Supernova

    The notion of innate interests better explains the phenomenon of young girls and boys adhering to stereotypical behavior patterns despite explicit attempts to change them.

    Interesting, therefore, that the percentage of women pursuing careers in physics and other technical and scientific fields has been increasing in response to explicit efforts to encourage such “non-stereotypical” behavior…

  • http://valatan.blogspot.com bittergradstudent

    why are we talking about girls and dolls when French women are twice as likely to get a PhD in physics than American women? Like Sean implied above, let’s explain THAT little phenomenon before we start even talking about all this stupidity about inherent differences.

    Oh, I get it, French women are genetically predisposed to act like American men. Or something.

  • Robyn

    I have boy/girl twins, and it was not because of prompting one way or another that the girl had girly interests and is much more oriented towards what other people think (about her!), while the boy isn’t. This isn’t statistical of course, but the difference MAY be indded valid at a population level. But so what. That has stuff all to do with an interest in physics and stuff all to do with whether or not more women should be encouraged to pursue curiosity about the natural world and translate that into a profession.

  • http://www.pinkpanthersblog.com/ Margaret

    My mom wanted to do science but lived at the wrong time. She got me interested in science at a very young age and I really wanted to do astronomy but alas…I don’t have the math for it. I can do geometry and I was doing trig before I knew there was an actual name for it but I never was able to decipher algebra. I don’t have a daughter to interest in science but I’m working on my great nieces now!

  • macho

    Sean and Supernove,

    The reference you are looking for is the study/book by Xie and Shauman.

    It’s amazing and depressing how this conversation never progresses. It would help if people would read the literature and stop with the anecdotal stories (all of which have a counterexample).

  • http://www.pinkpanthersblog.com/ Margaret

    Okay you want an explanation? Religion. There it is in it’s ugliness. American women are exposed to religion from birth to death on a far more aggressive level than anywhere in Europe. Want proof? How many women scientists do you see in the Muslim world? Getting little girls interested in math and science is great but weaning everybody away from a ridiculous superstition based on a fear of death is vital to our survival as a race.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    macho, yes, the lack of progress is depressing, which is why it’s worth repeating the obvious over and over again.

    The Xie and Shauman book is Women in Science : Career Processes and Outcomes.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/joanne/ JoAnne

    Belizean & Justin: Just what rock have you climbed out from under?

    Sean: Interesting statistic about women switching to physics later. I have never heard it before, but indeed did so myself. I took my first physics class ever as a sophomore in college to fill a science credit. I ended up liking it and took a couple more classes Fall quarter my junior year and then switched to physics in the spring of my junior year. Needless to say, I had alot of catching up to do…

    BTW: I have known (and supervised!) many women who have quit academic science purely on the basis of the discrimination they encountered. It is not unusual.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Anyone who doesn’t think that some women actually are pushed out of the field by discrimination needs to enlarge their tiny universe of anecdotal evidence.

    On the flip side, more happily, encouragement works as well! It’s surprising what impact being told “You can do it” or even “Give it a try, see if you like it” can have.

  • Supernova

    Thanks for the Xie & Shauman reference! I’ll check it out.

  • Belizean

    why are we talking about girls and dolls when French women are twice as likely to get a PhD in physics than American women? Like Sean implied above, let’s explain THAT little phenomenon before we start even talking about all this stupidity about inherent differences.

    Comparisons with France might not be particularly helpful. A higher fraction of female Ph.D.s might, for example, simply be a consequence of France being a more credential-driven society than ours. Credentialism tends to flourish in inverse proportion to the strength of local capitalism. French capitalism can’t be particularly robust given that we just witnessed weeks of rioting when the French government considered passing a law that gave businesses the right to fire worker under the age of 26.

  • Jack

    Amd yet there are those who would deny the existence of closed timelike worldlines.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    In other words, Belizean, the fraction of women physicists in France is heavily influenced by contingent social factors, while here in the U.S. (at precisely this moment) it is simply a natural reflection of intrinsic predispositions?

  • Belizean

    That’s not good science. If you want to prove that differences between the genders are innate, then you must perform experiment. Without experiment, it is the null hypothosis that should be accepted, namely that there are no differences.

    No. In the absence of an experiment one assumes the least controversial hypothesis. Otherwise, we’d have to be neutral about whether civilized beings are living in the middle of the sun, whether eating freshly severed skunk heads cures the common cold, or whether the two-year warranty at Circuit City is worth buying.

    In this case the least controversial hypothesis (except where it conflicts with prevailing religious dogma, as in various old-line university departments) is the seemingly obvious one.

  • Ponderer of Things

    Nature features “Cosmic Variance” as one of top 5 science blogs (and the only physics-related):

    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v442/n7098/full/442009a.html

    You’d think you see a blog entry on Cosmic Variance about it, or something…

  • Belizean

    In other words, Belizean, the fraction of women physicists in France is heavily influenced by contingent social factors, while here in the U.S. (at precisely this moment) it is simply a natural reflection of intrinsic predispositions?

    Yes. My guess is that social influences affecting whether a woman will pursue a physics career are currently weaker in the U.S. than in France. Hence, the fraction of U.S. female physicists is currently more a reflection of innate interests. Should physics in the U.S. become more glamorous, prestigious, secure, or lucrative — i.e. if the pro-physics social influences strengthen sufficiently — this will change.

    Sean,

    My view is that females as a group are innately more interested in people than in objects and consequently less interested in physics than are males. I do not hold that a female’s interest in physics cannot be increased by external influences.

    It should be clear, to take an extreme hypothetical example, that a society that tortures women who do not enter a physics program and rewards those that do, will have more women physicists irrespective of whether females are innately interested in the subject.

    The phenomenon that you adduce — women becoming physics majors later in their college careers than men — seems to support my view. Women aren’t as naturally attracted to the subject and need to be coaxed into it by welcoming physics professors.

    The degree to which the fraction of female physics Ph.D.s in a society is a reflection of innate interests of women as opposed to social influences depends on the relative strength of these influences. Obviously, to zeroth order (i.e. in the absence of social effects) the fraction of Ph.D.s is totally due to innate interests. The question is whether this zeroth order approximation applies to our society, i.e. whether social influences in the U.S. are small compared to innate interests. I think that in this particular case they are. The reason is that there are no forces in our society that act to suppress the innate feminine interest in people over objects. And pro-physics and anti-physics social forces acting on women are relatively weak. They’re so weak that it’s possible not to notice them, even if you’re female. Social influences, then, are at best a first order correction.

    Of course, there’s nothing to stop a society from increasing the pro-physics social forces acting on women. It’s just a question of whether the effort would be better invested elsewhere.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    The phenomenon that you adduce — women becoming physics majors later in their college careers than men — seems to support my view. Women aren’t as naturally attracted to the subject and need to be coaxed into it by welcoming physics professors.

    Sorry to give up on attempts at constructive engagement, but … that’s just one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.

  • http://valatan.blogspot.com bittergradstudent

    They’re so weak that it’s possible not to notice them, even if you’re female. Social influences, then, are at best a first order correction.

    I almost never hear a woman saying this, especially after two years or so of grad school. I do hear men saying this quite frequently, even arguing that women are at an advantage for hiring and whatnot, which I find laughable.

  • Belizean

    Yes, now that you mention it, I see that that phrase does conjure up an amusingly creepy picture.

  • http://valatan.blogspot.com bittergradstudent

    btw, apologies if you are a woman Belizean, I shouldn’t assume

  • Belizean

    bittergradstudent,

    I talked two women that I know — a physics post doc and a physics grad student — about this very subject. Neither noticed any discrimination. [Although, one of them complained that she’s constantly being hit on by guys she considers unattractive. And it’s challenging to rebuff their advances without straining her professional relationship with them.]

    They could be flukes. But, by contrast, I can’t think of a single person in my extended family who is older than 60 and didn’t experience anti-black racial discrimination first hand.

  • Kea

    They could be flukes.

    Or…for some mysterious reason…they are not keen to talk to you about the subject.

  • Supernova

    The phenomenon that you adduce — women becoming physics majors later in their college careers than men — seems to support my view. Women aren’t as naturally attracted to the subject and need to be coaxed into it by welcoming physics professors.

    What about the phenomenon of attrition? Proportionately more women than men change college majors from physics to other fields, proportionately fewer women than men go on to grad school in physics, and proportionately more women than men leave grad school before getting a Ph.D. I suppose the women who leave have been mercifully awakened to the fact that they weren’t innately interested in the subject after all? (It’s interesting to note that the female undergrads who leave physics have higher grades in their physics courses than do their male counterparts who leave.)

    Kea has a very good point about the anecdotal evidence. It is very difficult for women to talk to men about these problems, for fear they will be seen as complainers who are advocating for “special treatment” or who can’t hack it in physics and are looking for a scapegoat. This is especially true if the man asking the question is competitive with or senior to the woman. Belizean, you aren’t by chance these women’s adviser, are you?

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    I imagine Sean talked about women in physics rather than world hunger or peace in the Middle East, because the first problem is something he can actually do something about. Attack an important problem in which one can be effective in, even if it is not the most important problem in the world is a good strategy, IMO.

    Regarding Sean’s efforts, the two possible negative responses are:
    1. It is futile.
    2. It does harm.

    I don’t think that even those who believe that the ratio of women to men in American physics is determined entirely by innate, unalterable factors, and thus the effort is futile, could argue that Sean’s efforts would do harm, provided it is not an attempt to lower standards. But I see Sean as advocating that girls compete more vigorously, that they be taught and engaged better in the sciences. Better teaching and more exposure to science will also benefit boys. And it is not as though Sean will be able to commandeer all the resources available to benefit his pet scheme.

    Therefore I don’t see why there are so many critical comments. :)

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    Belizean: “Comparisons with France might not be particularly helpful. A higher fraction of female Ph.D.s might, for example, simply be a consequence of France being a more credential-driven society than ours.”

    Then you would need to explain Italy, where the population-at-large thinks the degree is mostly a useless degree (Comment #16), while the number of men and women PhD earners are about half and half. Italy is still a large ‘exporter’ of PhDs (i.e. Brain Drain) because of the large societal and economic factors against science in general. To have access into the literature comparing different countries such as France and Italy, Google on “Eurodoc”. Here: Comparison of Higher Education Studies in Different Countries. In this document, you’ll find numbers of men versus women PhDs for many fields, but unfortunately not specifically for physics; the tables usually list subjects: Engineering or Natural Sciences. Regarding Italy, for those who stay in the country for their degree, please notice the number of research doctorates awarded to men and women, which are roughly equal (see tables 6 and 8, page 67 and 68).

    The number of women with full academic positions (versus positions at CNR / INFN / INAF / ENEA etc. — research institutes) is very low however; women are penalized every step along the way in top-level academia. You can read about that in this paper: Academic Scientific Careers in Italy.

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    Belizean: “Most of those jobs are offering a mere $60,000 per year or so to perform extremely demanding work, for which one must have mastered many technologies that did not even exist a decade ago, while living in the most expensive part of the country. The evidence of a surplus is the low salary offered for such a demanding job.”

    It looks you agree that technical skills are necessary to some level. I’m aware of the living prices in the Bay area. I moved away just before the dotcom bubble and subsequent burst, but I’m back there frequently (family and friends and my permanent U.S. address is in San Jose). I’m sure that Bay Area employers are aware of the cost of living. If they couldn’t provide a liveable salary then they wouldn’t be advertising all of those positions. 60K is a liveable salary for a recent university graduate or otherwise skilled technical worker. (When I was living there, my salary as a MS Physics educated scientific programmer working for government astronomers was 40K.)

    The number of open skilled positions (university or trade school level) is very large. If one doesn’t have some basic technical skills, I think that one’s career future will hurt. There are fewer, to be sure, highly skilled (PhD +) positions, but don’t see anything wrong about that.

    Data.
    Technical jobs at dice: no preference on job location (worldwide), required travel and type of job (full-time, contract) returned 87,566 jobs. Another job site http://www.careerbuilder.com/ , by selecting all United States and then selecting the individual job areas: ‘Science’ returned 6632 open jobs, selecting ‘Telecommunications’ returned 2847 jobs, ‘Skilled Labor Trades’ returned 39,758 jobs, selecting ‘Pharmaceutical’ returned 5570 jobs, selecting ‘Informational Technology’ returned 32316 jobs, selecting ‘Engineering’ returned 30,843 jobs, selecting ‘Biotech’ returned 1671 jobs (actually I would have thought this would be a factor of 10 higher; there must be better biotech job sites). I think that Monster will give the same or more results (http://www.monster.com/)

    Now for PhDs. At PhDs.org, selecting ‘Physical Sciences / Math’ one finds 135 jobs, selecting ‘Life Sciences’ one finds 45 jobs, ‘Engineering / Computer Sciences’ one finds 140 jobs, ‘Academic’ one finds 45 jobs, ‘Industry / NonFincance’ one finds 60 jobs, Quantitative Finance one finds 90 jobs. Searching all (physics) jobs at Physics Today returns: 117, searching Nature jobs, just using a keyword ‘technical’ for all jobs at all locations returns 83 positions.

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    Belizean says:

    In the absence of an experiment one assumes the least controversial hypothesis.

    But are you adopting the least controversial hypothesis? Not according to this blog. Perhaps it is where you come from, but why does that carry more weight than the discussion here?

  • Ponderer of Things

    If women are more interested in people than in objects, then why are there more women in other disciplines – like biology? In my exprience there’s more women who are chemists than physicists, but I don’t have numbers to back that up.

    I think there’s clearly some discrimination, but at the same time the peer pressure from the rest of society to pursue other fields is a bigger factor. Reaching some “critical mass” of female students and female faculty may help in eradicating some of these problems.

    And let’s not forget that any institution that discriminates against some group will in the end suffer because other (non-discriminating) institutions will take advantage of this and snatch the best talent away. So perhaps a combination of “critical mass” effect and simple capitalism will be the key to solving these problems?

  • http://www.jumplive.com chimpanzee

    The Cream Rises to the Top

    The case of Lounette Dyer/PhD Caltech is an interesting story

    Lounette Dyer
    Cofounder and chief technology officer, Cogit Corp.

    The daughter of a barber and a factory worker in the blue-collar town of
    Muskegon, Mich., Dyer was the first member of her family to attend
    college. An accomplished percussionist, at age 14 she played marimba and
    timpani professionally. She was also a brilliant math student, but so
    backward was her small public high school that her tenth-grade typing
    teacher chided her for dropping his class to take a college-level calculus
    course at a nearby community college. “When you graduate from high school,”
    he scolded, “you’ll be able to make good money typing.”

    She ignored his advice. After earning a B.S. in computer science and
    mathematics (with a minor in music) from Western Michigan University, Dyer
    got a Ph.D. in computer science from the California Institute of
    Technology. “Once I eliminated academia as a career choice, there was no
    question that I would start my own firm,” says Dyer, who lives in a San
    Francisco loft. But first she needed some work experience.

    She wrote software at Xerox spinoff ParcPlace Systems, Greenwich Capital and
    Teradata before cofounding HyperParallel Inc. in 1994. The young software
    firm was soon paralyzed by an unwieldy equity structure. In June 1996 Dyer
    quit to cofound her second company, this time with Robert Flynn, whom she’d
    met at Teradata.

    Their San Francisco-based Cogit Corp. writes so-called data mining software,
    which uses complex algorithms to uncover patterns in massive corporate
    databases. Potential customers include: Bank of America and BellSouth.

    Though Dyer is only 35, her reputation in Silicon Valley is
    established. “When she called, it took me about a nanosecond to decide to
    back her,” says Ruthann Quindlen of Institutional Venture Partners, whose
    firm gave Dyer $1 million for a stake in Cogit. A second venture capital
    firm, New Enterprise Associates, has chipped in another $1 million.

    She’s on the Caltech Board of Trustees, I assume partially because of her gender (it looks as if she’s totally qualified). Interesting thing, she eliminated Academia as an option & pursued entrepeneurialship. Of all things, she received negative influence by a male teacher in HS (“all girls should take typing, because secretarial work is all they’re good for”). This contrasts with Danica McKellar (who was failing math in HS, but got support from a female HS math teacher), who went on to take math courses @UCLA (late, on a whim..kinda like Joanne): graduated w/honors & co-published a significant paper.

    Update: she’s started a new company.

  • Annie

    I also think — even if you accept, or play Devil’s Advocate with, the idea that women are more interested in the “social” and men are more interested in the “physical” — so what? There’s a lot of grant writing, networking, conference attending, colloquium giving, mentoring undergrads, organizing a group of grads all jockeying for the hot thesis topic, proposal writing, data sharing (like the Virtual Observatory), and involving of other colleagues in the job that we label “science.” There’s also getting along with your dean and department chair, serving on department committees, and serving on other academic committees or scientific advisory boards.

    I know this argument is always trotted out, but I think Belizean and I might be in agreement that for every desk jockey who works all day in a haze of equations and code and finds it unbearable to have to deal with students, there’s some other person out there communicating to the public, working in outreach, and schmoozing to secure funding. We disagree because he believes the former to be a man and the latter a woman.

  • http://spacecatrocketship.blogspot.com/ Pacian

    French capitalism can’t be particularly robust given that we just witnessed weeks of rioting when the French government considered passing a law that gave businesses the right to fire worker under the age of 26.

    It can’t help the rest of your argument to misrepresent something tangential to it, can it? Correction: the right to fire anyone under 26 in their first two years of employment, without having to give a reason. One can argue that this would help or hinder a capitalist society, but I don’t think it is implicitly necessary for it.

    Without experiment, it is the null hypothosis that should be accepted, namely that there are no differences.

    No. In the absence of an experiment one assumes the least controversial hypothesis. Otherwise, we’d have to be neutral about whether civilized beings are living in the middle of the sun…

    How is the null hypothesis regarding life in the middle of the sun that these beings may exist and could be civilised?

    Of course, there have been experiments. A meta-study last year found that although studies finding differences between men and women got a lot more press, most studies found no difference. A friend of mine wrote about this in a post entitled Men Are From Earth, Women Are From Earth and I bask in the vicarious eloquence of his title.

    But, I forgot, we are here talking about the supposed innate interests of the sexes. Surely a person’s interests are even more likely to have been affected by the way that they have been treated? Their equal aptitude has apparently been accepted by all. You contend that the differences in interests between the sexes should be considered to be natural until someone here presents evidence that they are caused by social pressures. When they do present evidence, you dismiss all tendency towards physics as social pressure and laud all tendency away from it as ‘innate interests’. I’m sorry, but this really seems like someone bending the facts to their worldview to me.

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    In this case the least controversial hypothesis (except where it conflicts with prevailing religious dogma, as in various old-line university departments) is the seemingly obvious one.

    Er… I look around at my department of 29 professors (two women), I look at the casual thrown-away comments that are all over the place, I look at what I’ve heard (yes, anecdotally, admittedly) from quite a number of women here and elsewhere, and I’ll tell you what: the obvious hypothesis is very different from what you seem to think is obvious.

  • Ponderer of Things

    a few more random points:

    I have a bit of a moral dilemma about encouraging anyone to go through grad school. On one hand, science is exciting and all that… but practically – job security sucks, pay is low, hours are long and there’s over-supply of PhDs. Most young people are a bit naive about these issues at the time they enter grad school, and only become aware of it at the end of postdoc.

    So why should we encourage women (or anyone?) to choose physics as their career?

    Second – what about social interactions factor? Scientists are introverted people, and there’s a lot of weirdos that I have met through grad school. If I was a woman, this would probably qualify as “creepy” rather than “funny” experiences.

    Third – some departments solve the problem of improving equality status quo by simply hiring female grad students from overseas – russia, china. At least it was the case in my school. Does this count as a positive change, or is it simply a ploy?

    Fourth – since we are talking about foreign students – I can assure you that nationality-based bias is as big of an issue as gender-bias. But for some reason I don’t hear people talk about it. For example, asians are not considered “strong leaders” and despite a large representation in sciences, they hold very few leadership positions – likely more disproportionately than women or minorities.

    Fifth – as long as we are talking about foreign students. If the goal is to have equal representation of the two genders (something I tend to agree with), then what about other criteria? I am playing devil advocate here, but what about equal representation of students from middle east, africa or south america? Does it mean we need to reduce the number of students from soviet block, china, korea and india?

    Sixth – I disagree with a lot of points Belizian makes, but it makes me wonder if we are trying to desperately encourage women to do something that they may have very little interest in doing. We are clearly not there yet, but what if he is correct, and there’s a difference in some sort of innate interest, that would limit female:male ratio at, say, 1:2. It’s the same question as with affirmative action – how do we know that the problem is solved? And how much can departments do to ensure equality? What if even with all the encouragement from professors and high school teachers, physics is still more interesting to males than females?

    Seventh – how much of what we say and the way we act represent our true feelings on the subject, and how much of it PC?

    Ok, enough of “devil advocate” points here. While I can easily come up with counter-arguments, it’s not enough to paint a self-consistent picture.

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    I have a bit of a moral dilemma about encouraging anyone to go through grad school. On one hand, science is exciting and all that… but practically – job security sucks, pay is low, hours are long and there’s over-supply of PhDs.

    Yes, I have the same problem in general. To some extent, you can view this as a separate problem from the gender imbalance. At least in Physics, we still “train” everybody to become a professor or researcher, even though we know there won’t be jobs for all of them to do that. But if we fix that problem, using the gender imbalance (in the sense of “whew! at least we don’t have to worry about getting rid of half of the population”) isn’t really a moral way to proceed. Yes, perhaps we should produce fewer PhD’s… but the people who should get those PhD’s may not be well-represented by the pepople who are doing it right now.

    Scientists are introverted people,

    That’s a stereotype.

    My own observations — again, this isn’t really hard statistical evidence, but more my own cynical lense on the world — is that the people who go furthest in science (in terms of being well-recognized, having the best positions and funding, etc.) are much like the people who go furthest in any field. That is, the self-confident (at least outwardly), aggressive, even arrogant types. Our society socializes men to be more aggressive and arrogant than women, and who knows, perhaps there is some innate tendency for those with a Y chromosome to tend to be more aggressive and arrogant. I am not convinced, however, that “aggressive, arrogant, and focused on one’s own self-interest” is what is really best for science. That is, I think that some of what propels people forward the most in science may actually be somewhat detrimental to science. Given that, if you accept that women tend to, on the average, be less arrogant and aggressive than men (either because of social or intrinsic factors), it might be that it would be better for science if the imbalance were the other way.

    The more introverted you are, the greater the obstacles in your way in succeeding in science. “Success” comes not just from technical ability and brilliant insight, but from schmoozing and pushing your agenda, just as in anything else, unfortunately.

    I disagree with a lot of points Belizian makes, but it makes me wonder if we are trying to desperately encourage women to do something that they may have very little interest in doing.

    I think that’s the wrong way to state it.

    We souldn’t encourage anybody to do something that they may have very little interest in doing. Women are not a monolithic block; they are composed of individuals, just like any other broad group of people.

    There is evidence, however, that there are more barriers against women who are interested in science getting into science than there are for men. That’s the problem. No, we don’t want to encourage women or men or anybody else to do something they really don’t want to do. However, we do want to remove the barriers. Unfortunately for some of the individuals involved, part of the way to remove the barriers is to just get more women involved to help bring perspective to the issue, to provide role models both for young women as well as for older men (who need to see that women really can do this stuff), and so forth. This is unfortuate, becasue the “early adopters” are going to suffer the other bullshit that’s impossible to get rid of a priori.

    -Rob

  • ObsessiveMathsFreak

    No. In the absence of an experiment one assumes the least controversial hypothesis.

    This is not correct. Occam’s razor is the guiding tool in the absence of experimental data.

    The least controvertial hypothesis initially was that all celestial bodies revolved around the earth., and behaved differently to each other. However, after enough experimental data was gathered, this view had to be modified, via epicycles, and eventually had to be changed. The simpler assumption that all mass obeyed the same gravitational laws lead to the correct agreement with the data.

    Again remember that the dichotomy between men and women is only one of many which can be made. It falls to those proposing it why this dichotomy should be held above all the other in this context. The assumption being made is that there are innate differences, yet few experiments attempt to separate the innate from the instructed. If the difference are innate, we should expect to be able to deduce a relationship between the differences, based on say, hormone levels etc.

    In my exprience there’s more women who are chemists than physicists, but I don’t have numbers to back that up.

    I would find this unsurprising, given the vast arrays of advanced unguents and potions adorning the shelves of many impressionable young girls across the world.

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    A few more random points, answering the beginning of the last message from Ponderer of Things:

    “I have a bit of a moral dilemma about encouraging anyone to go through grad school. On one hand, science is exciting and all that… but practically – job security sucks, pay is low, hours are long and there’s over-supply of PhDs. Most young people are a bit naive about these issues at the time they enter grad school, and only become aware of it at the end of postdoc.”

    “job security sucks”

    Is it so special in other industries? I watched my brother-in-law go through 4 rounds of downsizing at HP, on the fourth round his position was eliminated.

    “pay is low”

    Usually (with the exception of places like Italy or Greece), the salary is liveable or more than liveable.

    “hours are long”

    Yeah, but you can fight and (usually?) succeed to get your time to be your own

    “over-supply of PhDs”

    I am not sure about this. There are certainly fluctuations in the market from the people with available job positions compared to the people with PhDs, but I’m not convinced it is a chronic condition. For example, these references from Google Answers: http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview?id=578583 would argue that there are not enough PhDs. And why do you think that US businesses are so frightened about the large numbers of new Chinese engineers?

  • Ponderer of Things

    Amara,
    I think you are talking about industrial physics, where things are a lot better. But a lot of physicists may not have that option (astrophyics, high energy, atomic, nuclear, all of theory), at least they are not as useful to employers as someone who worked on laser systems, UHV chambers, semiconductors or biophysics.

    For these people the market sucks because if you can’t land a faculty job after numerous postdocs, the options are pretty slim. Basically you can keep doing soft-money postdoc-like position with very low pay, or you can re-train yourself in finances, software, consulting or some other field unrelated to your primary field of expertise. This is rather unfortunate and depressing – I see it as a waste of resources, time and effort, especially as many PhD’s spend 6, 7 or 8 years doing research, followed by a couple of 2-3 year postdocs, which quickly become the norm. In a global market this situation would eventually correct itself, except there’s very little feedback from people forced to quit physics in search of a job that can pay the bill, to the naive graduate students who think their future is so bright.

    I wish there was a crystal ball that someone could look into at age 21 or whatever, and it said something like: “With

  • Ponderer of Things

    sorry, got cut-off

    I wish there was a crystal ball that said to the class of 30 incoming grad students:

    One (two max) of you will succeed as a faculty member at solid research university.

    Two or three will end up teaching in liberal arts colleges with no chance to do top research (which doesn’t stop you from being in denial about it). In the end you will convince yourself that it’s precisely what you wanted in the first place.

    Three of you will end up as staff members in government labs, after failing to land that dream faculty job.

    Five of you will get good training in experimental technique (condensed matter/materials/bio) and will go into industry.

    Five of you will drop out of grad school still young enough to become successful engineers, patent lawyers, doctors, stock-brokers or whatever.

    The rest fifteen or so of you will not be able to land that dream faculty job after 7 years of grad school and 6 years of post-docs. So in your mid-30ies, no family, maybe a significant other who you dragged across the country forced to relocate 3 or 4 times, you will have to forget everything (or almost everything) you learned in grad school to become a wall street quant, McKinsey consultant, or software hack – if you are lucky. But you will also notice that on corporate ladder you are not that much further up ahead than some 21-year old college graduate. Except he is fresher, hungrier and younger than you.

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    I do understand. I didn’t want a PhD for many years for many of the reasons that you listed. Heartbreaking for me to see the trials of the graduate students and postdocs, and I didn’t want that life for myself. I changed my mind (Comment #68) though, with the help of a serious work injury, at which point I needed to evaluate my life and follow my heart (got my PhD at age 40). Moving to Europe shifted my perspective, as well (more time for myself, hobbies, etc.). One thing we might emphasize to Physics PhDs, is that your training might not land you in the long-term job of that particular field. Instead it prepares you for a way of thinking that is useful for many technical fields, if you can accept being flexible.

  • Supernova

    Thank you, Rob, for your last comment (#78); it was very well said.

  • Belizean

    Amara,

    We are trying to understand the cause of the relative dearth of female physicists in the U.S. The conjectured primary causes are

    1) discrimination or discouragement directed disproportionately toward females
    2) an innately lower interest among females in the subject

    Neither of these conjectures precludes the possibility of a country in which, for example, 90% of physicists are female. That’s because both of theses depressive effects can be compensated for by social inducements. People, for example, seem to have an innate revulsion for death, but we can always increase the number of morticians by making this occupation more glamorous, lucrative, prestigious, secure, or otherwise more attractive. If 90% of the physicists in Slabovia are female, we cannot in the absence of fairly intimate knowledge of Slabovian society understand why. The profession of physician became overwhelmingly dominated by women in the old Soviet Union. That fact alone tells us nothing about whether there is a sexual difference in intrinsic predispositions to practice medicine.

    In order to know which of the above conjectures matters most within a given society, we’d need some way of quantifying them. Short of that, we’re stuck with our qualitative judgment of the relative strengths of these within the societies in which we live.

    In my case, I see hundreds of billions of dollars invested in the assumption that women and men have different interests (chick flicks vs. action flicks, romance novels vs. techno thrillers, Lifetime Network vs. Spike TV, fashion industry vs. pro sports, etc.) and repeated experiential evidence that this dichotomy (people/social vs. objects/mechanical) of interest patterns exists from birth. Even cognitive scientists and developmental psychologists have dropped the zero-difference dogmas of the 50’s & 60’s. Stacked against that there are the subtle discouraging signals that girls allegedly receive in the educational system. Even if such signals exist, it seems unreasonable to suppose that they are primary explanation for female under-representation in physics as opposed to a higher order correction.

  • Belizean

    In this case the least controversial hypothesis (except where it conflicts with prevailing religious dogma, as in various old-line university departments) is the seemingly obvious one.

    Er… I look around at my department of 29 professors (two women), I look at the casual thrown-away comments that are all over the place, I look at what I’ve heard (yes, anecdotally, admittedly) from quite a number of women here and elsewhere, and I’ll tell you what: the obvious hypothesis is very different from what you seem to think is obvious.

    Rob,

    Are you saying that you are are in an old-line university department (i.e. one in steeped in the social dogmas from over 40 years ago including that of zero-innate sexual differences) and yet the idea of a sexual difference in innate predispositions is not controversial?

  • Nobody

    “The point here is that women in science are suffering from more disruptive influences than men doing the same work. Also, I don’t know what point you are trying to make wrt children. Lisa Randell doesn’t have children – how is this supposed to demonstrate that things aren’t any better in the business world?”

    If you’d get your head out of your academic ass you’d be able to see that the problems (“suffering from more disruptive influences than men doing the same work”) of women in academia are no different from the problems of women anywhere- in business, at home, where-ever. The point about children is that when a woman is a mother that job does (and should) become her primary concern over any other. To continue with the Lisa Randall example, if she had children she would probably not have had the time and energy to do as much as she has in physics. Look at the business world and you’ll see countless examples of women who had to choose family or career. It’s a matter of biology more than anything else, whether we like it or not. But I don’t think that brain function/intrinsic aptitude is necessarily the very relevant factor that all these elevated minds want to say it is.

  • Annie

    But when a male physicist becomes a father, that job does not (and should not) become his primary concern over any other??

  • Supernova

    Yes, there is a whole world of assumption implied in that little parenthetical (and should). :)

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    Belizean: Your conjectures are a moving target and I gave you data.

  • macho

    Here’s some recent data from the aip from a survey of women physicists:
    http://aip.org/statistics/trends/reports/iupap05.pdf
    One of the highlights of the survey:

    “Although a majority of the responding women physicists said they would choose physics again, a majority also reported being discouraged about physics. Many spoke about negative interaction with colleagues, including many stories about discriminatory attitudes (Table 17). Eighty percent said that attitudes about women in science need improvement (Table 18).”

    Discussions such as the one on this blog would benefit from using data instead of vague impressions and anecdotal stories. It is a serious issue and when a majority of women in the field still this way, it’s time to listen to them.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    But macho, dealing with the data would make it harder to believe that men are better than women at physics because boys like to play with trucks. Where’s the fun in that?

  • macho

    You’re right — perhaps my mind has been clouded by the fine Colorado Whiskey (George Stranahan’s special brew) that has been flowing freely out here in Aspen. A little physics, a little hiking, a little whiskey — who needs data?

  • Belizean

    … men are better than women at physics because boys like to play with trucks

    Gee! I must have missed section of this thread in which this was argued.

    Macho,

    Good work in finding data that shows that U.S. women graduate students feel discriminated against. Unfortunately, the discussion appears to be about whether discrimination or innate disinterest better accounts for low number of female U.S. physicists. So we need a comparison of the magnitude the two effects.

    It is now generally acknowledged (except by hard core holdovers from the 70s) that male and female brains differ at birth (not just in humans but also in vervet monkeys) along the people/social vs. object/mechanical axis.

    The question, then, is this: “To what degree do innate mental differences between the sexes correspond to different levels of interest in physics during adolescence?” Possible answers are

    a) none — [We know a priori that innate mental difference cannot exist.]

    b) a small degree (not enough to largely explain the dearth of female physicists)

    c) a large degree (enough to largely explain this dearth)

    Unfortunately, this is one of those sticky nature-vs-nurture questions. There’s no data, because there doesn’t seem to be any way of raising girls in an environment known to be free of discrimination against them. That’s why we’re stuck with judgments. If you’ve found experimental data addressing this question, please share.

  • macho

    The data are based on survey responses of over 1350 women physicists, only 30% of whom are currently full-time students. So it is not graduate students who feel discriminated against, but women at every level, including those who are tenured faculty at major institutions.
    I posted a detailed list of references several months ago on this blog (don’t know how to go back and find it, but you probably can).

  • Bob

    What percentage of all households has one gender doing all the cooking?

    Now, what percentage of all chefs in restaurants has the other gender doing all the cooking?

    (Notice how I loaded up that first question with the second one?
    It assumed that everyone has my age and came from a household with a married couple living in it.)

    I have been on this planet for 57+ years and have failed to see even ONE female chef in that time. Does this imply that women cannot cook and have some inherent repulsion to learn it?

    Secondly…

    Why was it that witchcraft (self-taught chemistry) became popular right when alchemy rose up in practice? Why was it punished?

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    (second sending, don’t know where the first went to). What is the context of the second question? It seems to have come out of the blue. Anyway, I have a hobby-ist interest in the 2000 year historical trail of the alchemists, and have a good reference book at home: Promethean Ambitions by William Newman.

    Witchcraft and alchemy. It’s not a true link in the sense that the Canon Episcopi was written about three centries before the transmission of alchemy from the Islamic world to Europe. The Canon text gives no indication to the aurific art (witchcraft). It was only much later that some sources connected the two.

    The Canon episcopi written about the 10th century, addresses two claims of the time. The first is that certain heretical women worship the pagan goddess Diana in large groups to which they have been trasported over great distances in a single night on the backs of beasts, and the second is that the same women or others can be transformed into animals. The Canon rejects the idea that anyone can really change his shape or species as heretical and forbids the belief in the shape changing power of women. So this document is a reference to witches.

    About the mid to late thirteenth century, Dominican monk Martinus Polonus wrote in his Margarita decreti encyclopedia an entry for alchemy which begins with the phrase “alchemy seems to be a false art, because he who believes one species to be able to be transferred into another, except by the Creator Himself, is an infidel and worse than a pagan”. These words were echoed by subsequent writers and so alchemy and the Canon episcopi was then linked.

    To clarify definitions: Historically, alchemy is primarily an art of transmutation: one metal is turned into another, one living creature erupts out of the substance of another. Art was defined following Aristotle, which is: to 1) perfect natural processes and to bring them to a state of completion not found in nature itself (i.e. improve), and to 2) only imitate nature without fundamentally altering it, i.e.,. to imitate various aspects of the natural world.

    So shapeshifting and alchemy was linked by Polonus, but it was not tied to the Devil until the middle 1400s, when a Franciscan monk named Alfonso de Spina analyzed the question of the Canon whether witches can undergo spatial transport at tremendous speed and whether they can change their shape, and he says that only the Devil can do this. He links alchemy and shapeshifting and then with this line:

    “The cause is that he (the Devil) knows how to apply actives to passives, as appears in those things that the magicians of Pharaoh did. But that the Devil may cause one man to be converted to a serpent, bird, or plant – this is impossible for him. Therefore, many perverse Christian alchemists are decived having pacts with demons, and believing that they transmute iron into gold through their art.”

    De Spina and other monks rejected the idea the nature could be improved upon by ‘art’, and a large text named Malleus was subsequently written. The text denied the power of witches and gave a denunciation of alchemy. This book went through at least 26 printings between 1487 and 1669 and became the witchhunter’s guide. The Devil and demons were endlessly discussed and debated alongside the alchemical art-nature debate.

    Albertus Manus straddled both sides of the alchemy (pro/against) debate, but it was his student, Thomas Acquinas, who continued strongly Manus’ anti-alchemy position. Acquinas’ position was that demons were between humans and God, and more powerful than humans. At that time, many of the Medieval arguments against alchemy stemmed from giving demons too much power. Since alchemy represented a high point of the arts in its relationship to nature, it was a useful yardstick to assess the things that demons could or could not do. But the ‘transmutation’ of the alchemical art-nature debate into one involving demons, then unfortunately led to the Great Witch Hunt.

  • Richard

    The AMS on their news page

    http://www.ams.org/dynamic_archive/home-news.html#AWMpetition

    recently posted a link to an on-line petition being circulated by the Association for Women in Mathematics that reads:

    We are concerned regarding the inclusion of Dr. Camilla Benbow on the National Mathematics Advisory Panel because of her hypothesis that intrinsic gender differences favor males at the highest levels of mathematics. It would be unfortunate if the work of the Panel were to be disregarded because of an actual or perceived bias against women. We urge the removal of Dr. Benbow from the panel.

    The petition itself is located at

    http://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/474037752?ltl=1152298950

    The AMS itself said, regarding the link, that “The AMS is committed to working for the increased participation of women in mathematics at all levels.”

  • citrine

    Richard,

    Your post #98 pertains to an issue that always seems to pop up when gender imbalance topic is addressed. Why use population averages as a crutch to make decisions that pertain to individuals? Just because proportionately more boys/ are represented in the Physical sciences, that’s not a reason to discourage girls/ en masse. Let those who show interest and aptitude be encouraged, irrespective of how well or otherwise persons of the same demographic group are represented in the field.

  • Bob

    Amara,

    Good points and refreshment to the origins of alchemy. The point I was raising was not entirely out of the blue. It basically did point to how much the self-taught are a threat to the leadership dependent and to those who made a living by teaching.

    If everyone learned the art of being self-taught, would there be need for any teachers back then?

  • Belizean

    Re #95,

    Thanks, Macho. But the problem starts early. The low number of female tenured physics professor is largely due to the low number of female physics undergraduates.

    The question is, “Why the low number of female physics undergrads?” Nature (inherent disinterest) or Nurture (subtle discrimination)? Unfortunately, more data on female perceptions of discrimination at the higher ranks of the profession won’t help answer this.

  • citrine

    Re. post #99

    Somehow the formatting cut out parts of my comment. I meant to say …. boys/people of certain ethnicities are represented in higher proportions relative to the available population in the Physical sciences, that’s not a reason to discourage girls/people of other ethnicities en masse.

  • Bob

    If the problem is nurture, then data will be shown on a percentage that does not show an absolute…60/40…70/30..even 80/20…or 90/10 all show nurture as the cause.

    Nature displays itself like this: What percentage of humans can fly using their bodies only? Zero. They have no inherent capabilities. What percentage of snakes have hands, feet and wings? Zero again.

    What percentage of parrots can speak a language? According to linguists the answer is zero again. The parrot can mimic sounds but will not fly off into the forest, teach its fellow birds to speak nor will its language learned go through any history of weakening of consonants, shifting of vowels, dropping prefixes and suffixes and then building up new prefixes and suffixes with the following generations. Humans do it involuntarily.

  • Supernova

    Huh? Not following you, Bob.

  • Bob

    Supernova,

    Belezean has stated in #101 ” The question is, ‘Why the low number of female physics undergrads?’ Nature(inherent disinterest) or Nurture (subtle discrimination)?”

    If women are inherently disinterested in physics, then none of them are interested.

    Furthermore, what percentage of men show an interest in physics enough to take it up in school? Is it 100%?

    I think I am making a strong pitch on behalf on nurture and you might not agree?

  • Belizean

    If women are inherently disinterested in physics, then none of them are interested.

    Good grief. By the same reasoning, if women as a group are inherently disinterested in romantic relationships with other women, then none of them are interested such relationships.

    Or, if women are inherently shorter than men, then none are taller.

    Inherent disinterest like any biological property would not be uniformly distributed. To say that women as a group are inherently disinterested simply means that the median point of the disinterest curve among females is higher than the corresponding median for males.

  • Supernova

    No, Bob, I’m with you in the nurture camp on this one, but I gotta agree with Belizean that you’re far oversimplifying the claim that anyone is “inherently” anything. I don’t think anyone on the nature side is trying to deny that female physicists exist, or argue that they exist in spite of a complete lack of interest in the subject. It doesn’t do us any good to traffic in absolutes.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    http://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=2189555

    Short news-item, reproduced in full below:

    July 14, 2006

     TRANSGENDERED SCIENTIST SAYS BIAS AGAINST WOMEN EXISTS Stanford University neurobiologist Ben Barres has a unique perspective on the gender wars in science, as he has spent time on both sides of the fence. Barres writes about his experiences in an article in this week’s Nature. Now living as a man, Barres says he was received quite differently when he was trying to break into the scientific world as a woman. When he was Barbara, he was discouraged from attending MIT, and people thought he must have had a boyfriend who helped him with difficult math. Later, when living as Ben, Barres overhead another scientist say that “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but his work is much better than his sister’s [Barbara’s] work.” Barres argues that it’s not that women are inherently less interested or talented in science, but that they are held back by bigotry.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun
  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    I wish the changelings would write a book. They have a unique perspective that I think is very valuable to answer these questions. When this topic appeared before, I proposed (#63) a similar idea to what the above writer described, thinking to a good friend of mine who made the gender change in the other direction (male to female).

  • Supernova

    Here’s a link to Barres’ opinion piece in Nature (subscription may be required):

    Does Gender Matter?

  • Belizean

    Here’s another interesting tidbit.

    Girls turned off by boys’ own curriculum

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

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] cosmicvariance.com .

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »