Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

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Seeing what you want in the mirror

Posted by Melissa on June 30, 2009

This month’s Scientiae asks about mirrors, reflections, and perspective. One of the things that has become clear to me as I’ve persisted in physics is that one can see almost anything one wants when looking in the mirror, particularly with regards the status of women in physics.

Are things getting better? It seems so, according to the National Academies’ latest report on women in academic science.  Reflected in this mirror, the situation looks promising. As the executive summary notes: “For the most part, men and women faculty in science, engineering, and mathematics have enjoyed comparable opportunities within the university, and gender does not appear to have been a factor in a number of important career transitions and outcomes.”

Is there still significant bias? Sciencegeekgirl highlights a recent study about student bias in the evaluation of their high school science teachers, and the Backpage editorial by Anne Lincoln, Stephanie Pincus, and Vanessa Schick in this month’s APS News notes how gender influences APS awards. Both reflect a less rosy picture about equity for women in the sciences.

These larger contradictions, and the corresponding desire to see what one wants in the mirror, are a reflection of contradictory views at the personal level. If you hold a mirror to my professional path, it looks like a straight one, but when I consider how I’ve gotten here, I see much more meandering. The seredipitous events, changes of heart, simultaneous excitement and uncertainty about the possibilities–none of this is visible to an outsider, and yet this is how I characterize my journey. Now on the tenure track, the path is well-tread and clearly marked. Yet in the search for personal-professional balance, the effort to be authentically myself, and the challenges of balancing my personal goals and expectations against societal expectations about women, physics, career, and family, there is no well-worn path. And it is precisely the lack of well-worn paths and the variety of personal perspectives upon looking in the mirror that makes the larger picture so difficult to discern.

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