Charming

By Sean Carroll | May 30, 2008 11:19 am

Via Swans on Tea, a great article about Richard Feynman’s days in the 1980’s working for Thinking Machines on their groundbreaking massively-parallel computers. (Reprinted from Physics Today.)

Richard did a remarkable job of focusing on his “assignment,” stopping only occasionally to help wire the computer room, set up the machine shop, shake hands with the investors, install the telephones, and cheerfully remind us of how crazy we all were. When we finally picked the name of the company, Thinking Machines Corporation, Richard was delighted. “That’s good. Now I don’t have to explain to people that I work with a bunch of loonies. I can just tell them the name of the company.”

But then there is this:

The charming side of Richard helped people forgive him for his uncharming characteristics. For example, in many ways Richard was a sexist. Whenever it came time for his daily bowl of soup he would look around for the nearest “girl” and ask if she would fetch it to him. It did not matter if she was the cook, an engineer, or the president of the company. I once asked a female engineer who had just been a victim of this if it bothered her. “Yes, it really annoys me,” she said. “On the other hand, he is the only one who ever explained quantum mechanics to me as if I could understand it.” That was the essence of Richard’s charm.

“Charming” and “sexist” are not actually exclusive properties. We don’t have to say “he is sexist, but very charming, so it’s okay”; nor do we have to say “he is a brilliant and charming man, but incorrigibly sexist, and therefore cannot be admitted to possess any good qualities.” People can be talented and charismatic and warmly human, and yet have a looming blind spot when it comes to gender.

All of which is perfectly obvious, but worth reiterating because the pervasive culture of science is steeped in a sort of geeky pseudo-machismo that is handed down through the generations. Charming it may be, but far from harmless. The latest evidence to add to the teetering pile comes from a new study by the Center for Work-Life Policy, who looked at the career paths of women in science, engineering, and technology.

Based on data from 2,493 workers (1,493 women and 1,000 men) polled from March 2006 through October 2007 and hundreds more interviewed in focus groups, the report paints a portrait of a macho culture where women are very much outsiders, and where those who do enter are likely to eventually leave…

They also do well at the start, with 75 percent of women age 25 to 29 being described as “superb,” “excellent” or “outstanding” on their performance reviews, words used for 61 percent of men in the same age group.

An exodus occurs around age 35 to 40. Fifty-two percent drop out, the report warned, with some leaving for “softer” jobs in the sciences human resources rather than lab bench work, for instance, and others for different work entirely. That is twice the rate of men in the SET industries, and higher than the attrition rate of women in law or investment banking.

The reasons pinpointed in the report are many, but they all have their roots in what the authors describe as a pervasive macho culture.

Engineers have their “hard hat culture,” while biological and chemical scientists find themselves in the “lab coat” culture and computer experts inhabit a “geek culture.” What they all have in common is that they are “at best unsupportive and at worst downright hostile to women,” the study said.

Too many scientists figure that, if someone leaves the field, it must have been because they weren’t good enough. There are other reasons. Providing equal encouragement to everyone entering into science would not only make for happier people, it would make for better science.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Women in Science
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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

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

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