Speaking Out

By Sean Carroll | October 23, 2006 6:32 pm

Why do we keep writing about women in science? And even inviting guest posts that touch on the topic? Haven’t we more or less exhausted what needs to be said? Maybe it’s time to concentrate on cosmology and/or the World Series? After all, I’m not even a woman! Maybe I’m just trying to impress the chicks? (Honestly suggested at least once.)

Rob Knop has an excellent post up about a presentation he just gave to his department at Vanderbilt (where I’ll be visiting Thursday). He was emphasizing that the department — much like the vast majority of physics departments — doesn’t always present a hospitable environment to female students and postdocs.

We have an issue in our department right now which has (tangentially) brought up the issue of the climate for women in physics. We have a serious problem with the climate for women students and post-docs (at least). I don’t really know if it’s worse here than physics departments elsewhere; I know the climate is globally bad everywhere, and maybe it’s worse on average, or maybe it’s better on average. But I do know it’s bad here, and unless we think about it, it will stay bad.

In a short presentation to the department today, I included a slide with this statement on it:

The biggest problem among the faculty is that we all allow things to slide. None of us speak out when we see and hear things that we should be questioning. We are all, constantly, guilty of this; I can name a few instances for myself, and doubtless have forgotten many more.

In retrospect, using the absolute term “none of us” was probably a mistake, but certainly it’s rare when people speak out. This statement was close to a direct quote from a female graduate student I’ve talked to; I asked her what she thought the biggest climate problem was, and it was this: the fact that behaviors are accepted, not questioned, evidently by all.

Amazingly, some of his fellow faculty members didn’t agree! Other people/places might have issues, but not them.

In fact, it wasn’t until I started blogging about it that I really understood the depth of the problem. I had long known that women faced obstacles, but I thought that the vast majority of male physicists were benignly clueless rather than actively contributing. But there appear to be substantial numbers of people at all levels of academia who are quite convinced that the present situation is determined more by genetics than by bias. Reading the comment sections on these posts, notwithstanding the presence of a good number of thoughtful and intelligent participants, is an incredibly depressing exercise.

But it’s still worth doing. Progress doesn’t happen automatically; it’s because people make the effort to cause it to happen. And when it comes to women in science, there are good reasons why men should take it upon themselves to raise a ruckus. (I suspect that analogous statements hold true for the status of minority groups in science, although I readily admit to being less knowledgeable about those issues.)

I recently had coffee with my friend Janna Levin, author (most recently) of A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines. Janna recently wrote a provocative essay for Newsweek, entitled This Topic Annoys Me. The topic, of course, being the status of women in science.

But while earning my Ph.D. at MIT and then as a postdoc doing cosmological research, the issue started to loom large. My every achievement—jobs, research papers, awards—was viewed through the lens of gender politics. So were my failures. People seemed unable to talk about anything else. Sometimes, to avoid further alienating myself from colleagues, I tried evasive maneuvers, like laughing the loudest when another scientist made a sexist remark. Other times, when goaded into an argument on left brain versus right brain, or nature versus nurture, I was instantly ensnared, fighting fiercely on my behalf and all womankind. I was perpetually inflamed and exhausted. It permeated every aspect of my life. Take this very essay. Here I am, somehow talking about being a woman in science, trying not to even as I do so. Imagine my frustration.

The point is, it’s not easy to be a scientist. There is a great amount of competition (whether we like to think that way or not) for resources, especially jobs. Research is hard, as you are pushing with all your brainpower against some of the knottiest unsolved problems concerning the workings of the universe. Even if you did nothing else, being a successful scientist is a full-time job.

And then women, as a reward for making it through an already-difficult gauntlet made more harsh by lingering Neanderthal attitudes, are asked once they succeed to take on a whole new set of responsibilities — serving on extra committees, making public appearances on behalf of the department, providing a sympathetic ear to younger women. All worthwhile activities, no question, but not the kind of thing that pushes one’s research agenda forward. I admit that I had a certain initial reluctance to ask Chanda to contribute her guest post. She has something interesting to say (from a perspective I can’t possibly offer), and can certainly take care of herself, so in the end I felt quite comfortable making the request. But every minute spent on stuff like that is a minute that isn’t spent doing research. Women should be free to concentrate on thinking about black holes and the early universe, just like guys are.

It’s a balance, of course, and as a blogger I certainly believe that one can do research and other activities at the same time. But it’s completely unfair to expect women and minority scientists to do all the work in trying to eliminate the discrimation that they face. It is perfectly defensible, maybe even highly recommended, for any individual woman scientist to decide that the cause is better served if they concentrate on collecting data and writing papers rather than organizing conferences and raising consciousnesses. So, for the foreseeable future, it’s a good idea for the rest of us to put some effort into making the situation better all around.

In the meantime, how ’bout those Cards?


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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] cosmicvariance.com .


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