Dreaming of a more diverse physics community
Posted by Melissa on January 29, 2009
Natalie Angier’s article in last week’s New York Times has once again served as a reminder that in the sciences, and particularly in physics, we still have a long way to go before we achieve gender equity. I’ve had a number of conversations in the past week prompted by Angier’s article. In the various conversations, three questions about the current situation and future possibilities for women in physics came up repeatedly so I’ve included a few thoughts on those questions here.
Do you introduce students to the issues that women in science face or do you let students travel their own paths and meet challenges as they come to them?
I think this is a tough question. I don’t want to demoralize students or induce worries about issues that some women may not encounter. However, it is also helpful for women to be aware of the forces out of their control that impact their progress in school and in their careers, and how they might work to counteract negative influences.
My eyes were opened early, and I think it made a difference in how I made decisions. My mother was active in AAUW in the early 1990s when AAUW published its widely discussed report “How Schools Shortchange Girls.” We talked about that report around the dinner table when I was in about 9th grade, and I was never able to be ignorant in my education again. I suddenly noticed that teachers did indeed give different feedback to boys and girls in my classes. From then on, I realized that while I could control aspects of my performance/involvement in the classroom, there were environmental elements in my learning that I could never control. I learned that I had to monitor my experience, and that I had to make sure that my decisions and feelings were based on my own internal beliefs and preferences and not simply a reaction to environmental influences.
Are you optimistic about the situation of women in physics?
I have become less optimistic the longer I have persisted in physics. Initially, I imagined there existed a few old guards resistant to change, but that the attitudes and actions that hindered women in physics were on their way out. Yet I have had physicists of my generation say appalling things to me, and I continue to be disappointed in the complacency of people who claim to be allies.
What does make me optimistic is that women who have had 30+ year careers say that they have seen improvement over the course of their careers. However, now that the blatant discrimination is gone, the challenges are more insidious. For that reason, I think Virginia Valian’s book, Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women, might make good required reading for scientists. She explores “women’s lack of achievement in situations where nothing seems to be wrong.” Just because things look good on the surface does not mean that everything is good. Gender schemas are more powerful than many acknowledge.
What would you like to see in the future?
I’ve come to accept that there are so many factors at play in the issue of increasing women’s participation in physics that the solution is beyond simple prescriptions. Although we face challenges today, I dream about the future (with apologies to one famous dreamer).
- I have a dream that one day my physics classroom will reflect the demographic make-up of the college at which I teach and the demographics of the college at which I teach will more closely reflect the demographics of the nation as a whole.
- I have a dream that one day all future physicists will be taught by teachers who enjoy teaching physics, advised by advisors who support them regardless of their personal and professional goals, and welcomed by colleagues who want the physics community to be vibrant and diverse, not static and exclusive.
- I have a dream that one day physics faculty will be judged not just by the quantity of publications or the numbers on student evaluations, but by the quality of the range of contributions they have made to the community as a whole, and that these contributions can be made through meaningful part-time or full-time work.
- I have a dream that one day women won’t have to be the primary advocates for change, but that the status quo will be confronted by a broad based coalition of men and women, who want to lead balanced lives with time for paid work in a profession, unpaid work at home or in the community, and leisure. (I find myself inspired by the discussion Robert Drago presents in his book Striking a Balance: Work, Family, Life.)
- Most of all, I have a dream that by the end of my professional career posts like these will seem extremely dated. We’ll see…