Guest Post: Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

I first met Chanda (briefly) when she was visiting the University of Chicago as a summer undergraduate research student. Since then we’ve corresponded occasionally about life as a physicist and which general relativity textbook is the best. She emailed me a thoughtful response to a couple of posts about string theory and the state of physics (here and here), and I thought it would be good to have those thoughts presented as a full-blown guest post rather than just a comment; happily, Chanda agreed.

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A few months ago, Sean posted an entry on this blog addressing his concerns about Dr. Lee Smolin’s (then forthcoming) book, The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next. Dramatically titled and well-hyped, Lee’s book was sure to arouse strong emotions and plenty of debate on publication. However, it managed to do that even before it was out, and the commentary on Sean’s entry included correspondence from Lee as well as several other great contemporary thinkers in theoretical physics. The dialogue was inspired, passionate, argumentative, sometimes rude, and always exploratory.

But something was missing. I wondered how there could be a discourse about the marketplace of ideas and about who gets to participate in science without a component that addresses the obvious (at least for those of us with some relationship to the US academic system): the community of scientists in the United States is overwhelmingly homogeneous, white (of European descent) and male. That sounds like a pretty narrow marketplace to me, given that over half of the US population is either female or a member of an underrepresented minority group or both. Surely this must mean that we are under-utilizing our potential talent pool in our drive to better understand the physical world.

As a member of the National Society of Black Physicists’ (NSBP) Executive Committee and Editor of their newsletter, I like to stay on top of the statistics related to these issues, so let me mention a few to satisfy those who like to see data. (All stats are borrowed from the NSF unless otherwise noted.) At the moment, only about 12% of doctoral degrees in physics go to women. The number going to people identified as Black/African-American hovers around an average of 14 per year out of an average 738 total degrees. That’s 1.8% despite making up about 12% of the population. Further investigation uncovers the (to me) monumental tragedy that almost no other field in science and technology is doing worse at diversifying than ours, physics. (See Dr. Shirley Malcolm’s symposium paper from AIP’s 75th Anniversary celebration.)

Knowing all this, I want to share with you how shocking it is to me when I have regular conversations with my peers who express to me that they don’t see a problem. And if they do express concerns to me, a lot of the time it’s guys who want more women in the field because they want to find dates. Sorry guys, we’re here because we’re interested in physics, not you, and on top of that, some of us like women better! And yes, sometimes it’s just a joke, but sometimes it’s hard to tell, and believe me, we’ve heard that one many, many times before. On the topic of seeing more people of color (Blacks, Latina/os, etc.) most often I am met with disinterested silence or an insistence (the knowledge base this derives from is always hazy, in my opinion) that there’s nothing the physics community can do to resolve the issue because the problem is in the high schools and has nothing to do with post-secondary academe.

This attitude is disappointing, to say the least. First of all, the numbers contradict these sentiments. While it is true that there are deeply troubling issues facing the K-12 education system in the US, especially in low-income neighborhoods which are disproportionately populated by people of color, women and other underrepresented groups fall out of the pipeline at all stages, from the post-baccalaureate to the post-doctorate level, and they do so at a much higher rate than white men. Clearly something is happening. What is happening is far too full a topic to tackle here, but perhaps I will be invited to say more about it in the comments section. I invite readers to participate in a knowledge-based discourse about this issue.

On the other hand, if you’re having a hard time figuring out why you should care about diversity, the President of Princeton can offer you a helping hand. In the 2003 Killam Lecture at the University of British Columbia, Princeton University President Shirley M. Tilghman identified four reasons for why we should care about diversity in science. I paraphrase them here:

  1. If we aren’t looking at the entire talent pool available, scientific progress will be slower by default.
  2. It’s possible that women and other underrepresented minorities will identify unique scientific problems that their majority peers might not.
  3. Science will find it increasingly difficult to recruit the brightest minorities as other fields diversify and therefore look attractive to members of underrepresented groups. An attractive work environment is essential to competing on the job market for the best thinkers.
  4. The scientific establishment ought to pursue diversification as a matter of fairness and justice.
    In a small (statistically insignificant) survey of various scientists and leaders in scientific organizations, I found that the question of “why is diversity in science important?” is addressed in these four points. While point four is possibly closest to my heart, I think that points one and two are two of the strongest arguments out there. (An aside: As I am tidying up this essay, one professor writes me and says that he finds four to be most compelling! I hope that others will agree.)

I would like to reflect on point one in the context of work in theoretical physics, specifically in quantum gravity and cosmology. If we are to take seriously the concept that what we seek in physics is truth and a better understanding, don’t we want to have the broadest pool of talent available to participate in the process? I think this applies to people and ideas alike. Until we have a theory that pulls out ahead of the others, what are we doing arguing about whose theory is doing better? Right now, neither loops, nor strings, nor triangles, nor anything else has ANY data to back it up, so perhaps the best thing we can all do on that front is get back to work.

An aside to that last remark: It’s hard to get to work when no one will hire you. It remains true that even if I do good work in my field, if my field is not strings, I will have a difficult time finding a job in theoretical physics. Some might argue that this is fair because I have made the foolish error of working on a silly (let’s say loopy) theory. But honestly, to those who like to toe that line, I’d like to say that since you don’t have the LHC data in hand or anything else that proves/disproves strings/loops/anything else, at this stage we’re all in the same boat. And what if strings is wrong? Has the physics community gained anything by suppressing and/or ignoring the alternatives?

To speak in more general terms, I could ask the broader question: what has the scientific community gained by choosing not to pro-actively welcome a broad and diverse set of people and ideas into the fold? Well, again there isn’t enough space for the details, but there is increasing evidence from research in science education that supports the point that diversity of perspectives accelerates problem solving.

Moreover, a fellow grad student and active member of NSBP’s sister organization, the National Society of Hispanic Physicists (NSHP), pointed out to me that we can definitely be aware of what the scientific community potentially loses when people from different backgrounds aren’t allowed to participate in science. Laura noted that our society has thrived on the contributions of women like Marie Curie (discovered radioactivity) and Emmy Noether (Noether’s theorem) and African-Americans like Benjamin Banneker (early civil and mechanical engineer, self-taught astronomer and mathematician). At this point, I think it is easy to ask and answer, “what would our world be like without the Marie Curies and Benjamin Bannekers?” Most likely lacking.

But another, equally important question isn’t raised often enough: What are we missing by living in a world where only the Marie Curie’s make it through? A few women and underrepresented minorities have always found a way to challenge the status quo. Let’s face it: physics is hard for anyone. It’s not hard to imagine that it takes a certain type of determined personality to overcome barriers and make new discoveries. What of the rest? The people who didn’t find the right friends and family to help them? The ones who never had a chance to learn physics? The ones who thought that people who look like them don’t succeed at physics? (And yes, they are out there; I’ve met some of them.) Might we be further along in our understanding of dark matter? Perhaps, perhaps not, but until we push harder to integrate, we’ll never know.

At this stage, it occurs to me that many of you will look at my definition of diversity and think it is too narrow. I’ve left out all of the international collaboration that goes on in physics, and surely, isn’t that a wonderful kind of diversity which is plentiful in our world? Yes! One thing that endeared the Perimeter Institute to me almost immediately was the fact that my peer group hails from all over Europe and Asia, and at the lunch table, as many as five or more cultures may be represented. But to me this highlights the problem — if the North American physics community has been able to welcome an international populace with open arms, why can’t they do the same with the diversity that already exists at home?

In the end, perhaps this is not a fair way to raise the question. International members of the physics community also have to confront issues of racism and discrimination. Racism is not a uniquely American problem, nor do people of color suffer alone from it in the US. But I still have a question, then: if the academy is ready to bring those of us who earn Phds into the fold, why isn’t it doing more to encourage more of us to reach that far? Those of us who do make it that far are left wondering why it doesn’t bother anyone else that we are more likely to see a German in our graduate classes than another Black person.

The challenges we face in confronting these issues are not easy. First we must accept there is an issue, a problem. Then there must be open discussion about how we understand the problem. I realize that it is difficult to step into someone else’s shoes and understand where they are coming from. But to an extent, like Albert Einstein before us, we must rise to the challenge of the barriers placed before our understanding and transcend them.

For my part, as a Black woman, I would ask my white (and male) peers to remember that many of us (though not all) experience our differences as a negative in this environment. Where I see it as a Black cultural tradition to lend a helping hand even as I continue to achieve my own dreams, others see my commitment to NSBP as a signal that I am wasting my time not doing science. Do my friends who play music in their spare time get this same signal? Moreover, many of us who are women or people of color or both are often involved in efforts to change the face of science. When we are challenged about that by our peers, not only are they standing in our way, but they are also failing to recognize that for many of us, this investment in the community is necessary to our survival, much like someone else might say playing music is for theirs.

Furthermore, where I wish to understand other people’s choices of identification, there are those amongst my peers who have felt they had the right to make my choices for me. I find myself now terrified of mentioning my Blackness in any way, lest I become dehumanized, my personal identity reduced to an object of debate. These are examples of the way my background has been turned into a negative for me. I know others have similar and worse experiences, and surely, this is one major leak in the aforementioned pipeline. My hope is that physics will evolve not only in concept, but also in its sensibilities about who a physicist is and what she looks like. What if we came to value our heterogeneity, to see it as an advantage?

It is important to note that there are white men out there thinking about these issues. I know Sean Carroll is one of them. For me, Professor Henry Frisch at the University of Chicago has been an amazing mentor. His father, the late Professor David Frisch of MIT, was influential in the graduate career path of Dr. Jim Gates, now an accomplished African-American theorist at the University of Maryland. People who take the time to be concerned, therefore, do have an impact. A common complaint that I hear from interested people is that there aren’t enough people with diverse backgrounds in the talent pool when they are choosing grad students, postdocs, and faculty. I believe that this points to a fundamental problem that physicists can help with: somewhere a pool of talent is getting lost, and we need to push harder to find it again by taking a pro-active role in education policy, mentoring (studies show this makes a big difference in minority performance), and anti-discrimination activism.

I hope that many of you will take this to heart and realize that for the sake of science, if nothing else, diversity matters. There’s a lot to be done to change things, and I encourage you to support work that is being done in your community, whether it’s by contributing hours designing a website or giving a tour of your department to local students who wouldn’t normally be exposed to science. Moreover, I strongly urge you, especially those of you who are not from an underrepresented background, to take seriously the idea that not everyone experiences the physics community like you, not everyone has the same ideas, that some people face real barriers to academic progress, and that we’re all better off when we make a genuine effort to listen to and understand the other side.

Before I finish, I’ll make a last comment on the science. One of the ways I’ve seen these divisions hurt us is the way in which we seem completely stuck on some pretty major problems. As it stands, we have a standard model of cosmology where we don’t know what form 96% of the energy of the universe takes, and we only know the barest of details about the properties of dark energy and dark matter. The model is also still hazy on many of the details of the first 400,000 years or so. This is where the quantum gravity community should rise to the challenge of seeking new and unique ways of approaching the problem since the old ones clearly aren’t working. This means we have to encourage new ideas. Even if they turn out to be wrong, we’ll probably still learn something. So to partake in some near trademark infringement, it’s time to “Think Differently.”

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein earned her BA in Physics and Astronomy and Astrophysics (yes, it is gramatically incorrect on her diploma) from Harvard College in 2003. She went on to earn an MS in Astronomy and Astrophysics at University of California, Santa Cruz (2005), where she studied black holes in higher dimensions. She is now beginning a Phd under Dr. Lee Smolin in Waterloo, Ontario, recently dubbed the Geek Capital of Canada. A product of the integrated public magnet schools of Los Angeles, she is proud to be both a Black woman and a physicist.

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73 Responses to Guest Post: Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

  1. Elliot says:

    Annie,

    I agree with your argument but it stands in contrast to Chanda’s point #2 above suggesting that female/non-white scientists may identify scientific problems that white males would miss.

    There is a subtle but important difference which in my opinion Chanda needs to rethink to strengthen the case for increasing diversity. Her point #2, I feel suggests that there are genetic differences, which I think opens the door to subverting the argument.

    I agree with nonname. This is an ethical issue and we should be doing the right thing here.

    Elliot

  2. noname says:

    To put it another way- if we somehow managed to come up with a scheme that discrimated against most blacks/latinos/women, but not the most brilliant ones, would that be okay?

    I think the answer is no, because the problem is not that science is being slowed down, the problem is the discrimination itself.

  3. Jeff says:

    A few months ago the National Academies released a well-publicized report on gender and race in science and engineering. It generally concluded that there was evidence of bias against women and minorities and that much work is needed – the conclusion that I, for one, believed already. When I looked through the report, however, I was surprised to come away with a different impression of the evidence with respect to women in physics (actually “physical sciences”, not including chemistry) specifically.

    Among other things, the committee compared the percentage of women reaching various levels of academia (post-doc, assistant prof, tenure, etc.) with the percentage of Ph.D.s granted in that field at appropriate times in the past. In other words, you don’t care if the percentage of female tenured professors today is lower than the percentage of female Ph.D.s today – the real way to test the pipeline is to compare it with the percentage of female Ph.D.s a decade or more ago. When you do this, many fields show signficant evidence of a leaky pipeline but I was very surprised that “physical sciences” does not.

    At least in this field, this report didn’t convince me that bias in academia is currently our problem – the physics faculty is male to a great extent because it is old and because few women start out in the field. It looks like the issue does start earlier, at least in terms of gender, possibly because of a lack of role models from the “bad old days”. We need to keep working at the academia level, but I think the real push has to happen earlier.

  4. Jeff says:

    The poor representations of minorities and women in the sciences are generally discussed in terms of conscious and unconscious bias. I wonder to what extent they are just the most visible result of deeper problems.

    (1) I’m curious how much of the racial disparities in higher education are economic in origin. It is vastly more likely for a well-off suburbanite at a good school to end up as a scientist than a poorer student with no support network (e.g. good schools, family friends with post-college education). It is also a shame of this country that underrepresented minorities are more likely to be economically disadvantaged. I’ve always thought that more attention should be paid to race as a proxy for economic and social background, rather than just in terms of prejudice.

    (2) The academic life is a tough one in the sciences, and one not very compatible with having a family. It’s relentlessly competitive, not that highly paid, and even if you do well you don’t have job security until long after many of us want to start having families. My own professors got their Ph.D.s in the vast expansion of the field in earlier decades, a luxury today’s young people don’t have. Women may be more visible in leaving science for these reasons in many sub-fields (since they obviously have it tougher in terms of maternity leave and child care), but I think we also lose plenty of promising young men for this reason as well.

    These points are not at all intended to demean the problems of women and minorities in these fields, just to suggest that some may be broader and not solely a result of prejudice.

  5. Annie says:

    Elliot — I see what you’re saying and thank you for your thoughtful reply. I think this is a sticky issue, but I suppose that I agree with Chanda that there is the possibility that different perspectives can lead to different ideas. I am sure I don’t need to point out to you that unequal access to opportunities in the sciences is far from being the *only* sphere in which the average minority experience differs from the average white/male experience.

    Successful Physicist from a Nontraditional Background A may work along like his/her colleagues on some major problem, while SPfaNB B might think, “Hey, I fought like hell to get here, and now that I am I’m not going to play it safe” and move on to hot topics. Just to point out – I work in astro, not pure physics, so my ideas of what constitutes a “different” idea might be skewed a little from other readers here.

    I don’t want to put words in Chanda’s mouth, of course, and this is just my reading of her argument based on my own experience, but I think she’s talking about differences of *experience* as a person and not differences of genetics as a brain in a body. I also don’t think Chanda was saying that “X group will have BETTER ideas” but that pursuing a diverse set of ideas is, in and of itself, a better idea than any of the individual lines of thought may be.

  6. Annie says:

    Jeff — I obviously can’t speak for everyone wrapped up in this, but when I speak about conscious or unconscious bias, I don’t necessarily mean on the part of individuals. Systems can be biased. These systems are biased! I would consider both of your points to be examples of bias although I wouldn’t consider them to be examples of prejudice.

  7. Elliot says:

    Annie,

    As long as genetic differences are kept out of it, I don’t disagree. I’d be very interested to hear back directly from Chanda on this point as I think there is some ambiguity in point #2 as stated.

    Elliot

  8. Chanda says:

    Great discussion everyone!

    To clarify a great point of contention:
    There’s a reason I never mentioned genetics, and that’s because I think that’s not the point. Annie is dead on in her reading. I apologize for not explicitly saying that genetics was not the issue. I was under the false impression that not mentioning it at all would be a signal as to its level of importance to me!

    To clarify about point two, which I borrowed from President Tilghman, Annie is also correct in her analysis of this point. In my particular case, I have chosen to take a risk with my research (or working for Lee is seen as a bit of a risk anyway!) and yes, my background played into it. I’ve fought my ass off to get this far, and now, I’m going to do what I want, even if that means not playing it safe. And regardless of that particular aspect of the issue, I do believe that people of different backgrounds bring different experiences to the table, and this of course shapes how people think. Different thinking can lead to different ideas. Again, this has nothing to do with genetics!

    Also, as someone of Jewish descent, I’d like to back up Matt’s concerns about how our heritage is being discussed here.

    And finally, to the person who wondered why there aren’t more Muslims in science, I suggest that you do some research and get back to us because I am curious too, and obviously the issue is important to you. The particular focus of my essay on Blacks and Latinos stems from the fact that these are the communities I know (my step-mother is Chicana, and I grew up in a Chicano neighborhood), and I think it is inappropriate to write such a personal essay about something that is so outside of my experience.

    There’s so much more I’d like to respond to, but unfortunately, no one here at Perimeter has managed to figure out how to build a time machine, and I’m a little crunched for that particular currency 🙂 I do hope, however, that I may be able to say more later.

    Chanda

  9. Chanda says:

    Logizmo,

    for you I return to make a few comments!

    I am so thrilled to hear that you are interested in physics, and I hope you pursue it. It’s true that MIT is a tough place, but the classes I took there while I was an undergrad were some of the best I took while I was an undergrad!

    As I said in my essay, not everyone feels their background/difference as a negative. But I urge you to be aware that other young women may not share your experience and may not feel so encouraged. I have heard a variety of horror stories from women of all ages about comments made to them by professors, by peers in study groups, by their teaching assistants, etc. Most likely you will face at least one of these challenges, but hopefully you won’t! Regardless, I encourage you to look out for the impact these things may have on your peers and try and be a support if you do notice some of them faltering!

    I think MIT is a great choice because they have a history of putting a lot more effort into diversity and outreach in a way than I’ve seen other schools do. It is my hope that this will make a difference.

    Take care,
    Chanda

  10. Elliot says:

    Thank you for clarifying the point. Best of luck at the Perimeter Institute.

    Elliot

  11. Chinmaya Sheth says:

    #4 nigel cook writes:
    “There is far more arrogance in mainstream theoretical physics than probably any other subject, and there is definitely too much prejudice as well.”
    Why not politicians, philosophers,…? Calling people naive without giving (counter)arguments seems to be one of their favorite activities. This stuff about arrongance is just hypocracy. Also please be more specific in the form of prejudice you are refering to. National Academy of Sciences report “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering” says in its summary “Some fields, such as physics and engineering, have a low proportion of women bachelor’s and doctorates, but hiring into faculty positions appears to match the available pool.”

  12. nigel cook says:

    Chinmaya,

    Politicians are not as arrogant as theoretical physicists, they aren’t as cynical, they GET ELECTED, they hold responsibility, they are often bad, but not completely barbaric. Example: see http://electrogravity.blogspot.com/ , top post, for how physics is being run into the ground in the UK by arrogant crackpots at the top.

  13. nigel cook says:

    (By ‘crackpots’ I simply mean people hyping uncheckable abject extradimensional speculations and making loads of $$$$$$ for it. I didn’t make a cent from my Electronics World editorial in the October 2003 issue, which was a public service I’m proud of.)

  14. Chinmaya Sheth says:

    Nigel, why can’t arrogant people “GET ELECTED”? All they have to do is put on a non-arrogant front. Most physicists don’t have to get elected so there is no need to put on a show.

  15. Nicole says:

    About the ‘leaky pipeline’, the AIP study had some crucial flaws. It did not separate faculty at PhD granting instutions from teaching colleges, and did not treat the age distributions of male and female faculty correctly. Here is a study examining only the top-50 physics programs:
    http://lanl.arxiv.org/abs/physics/0506230

    It concludes that there is a leaky pipeline, that women physics faculty numbers are about 15% lower than expected.

  16. Amara says:

    #28 Jeff: “A few months ago the National Academies released a well-publicized report on gender and race in science and engineering.”

    NSF also has a recent (October 2006) report that might be useful: NSF Report Reveals Century of Doctoral Education Trends in the United States.

  17. Lorne Ipsum says:

    I’m surprised nobody’s brought up the recent study of women and math:

    http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn10333

    The short version: being told upfront that you’re not going to perform well on math tests because of genetic traits (in this case, gender) becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in later test results. This shouldn’t come as any surprise, but it’s always good to get experimental support for “common sense.”

    I’ve got to imagine the same psychological mechanism would play out in other fields as well. It definitely should provide incentive to encourage all kids to pursue math and science, not just the ones that look / love / pee “like me.”

  18. Jeffsan says:

    A great discussion! The OECD recently did a study of declining interest in science and technology (S&T) studies among youth and found that physics was among the disciplines most affected by declining interest among females. Female participation rates in postsecondary education have been going up overall (largely due to major efforts to attract young women to pursue university degrees), but in S&T the rise has been slower relative to the average. Biological sciences are attracting more females that physical sciences. As to the causes, the study places more “blame” on postsecondary institutions than several people in this post seem to want to do. A lack of flexibility in curriculum, lack of diversity in role models, narrowness in curriculum, lack of relevance to how disciplines relate to the larger society are among some of the factors that the OECD study identified as turning females away from postsecondary S&T studies. Granted the problem exists at the high school level, but to say it ONLY exists there is somewhat blinkered.

    On the impact of diversity on ideas: In my own personal experience, I have found that diversity of experience and culture has a positive effect on intellectual endeavours. Only a purely positivist, rationalist understanding of science as the only objective route to “truth” could make one blind to this obvious experiential fact.

    On economic factors: The Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation has done research that finds low income families tend to have an inflated view of the financial cost of a postsecondary degree (think it’s more expensive than it is) and a lower expectation of the benefit. These misconceptions lead many low-income families and students to decide against postsecondary education.

    One final suggestion: read “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell. He tells of an experiment which unfortunately reveals “hard wired” prejudice against blacks even among people who are consciously non-racist and who behave in an egalitarian fashion. So we all have to work hard to support diversity.

  19. Excellent post, Chanda.

    Logizmo:

    I’m curious as to where you got the stat about women being more likely to be admitted to MIT. My understanding of affirmative action at most schools is that it’s unlikely to make more than a small difference, if any. It’s great that you’ve received so much support. Hopefully more women will have that experience.

    Lorne Ipsum:

    There have been a number of similar studies recently that link confidence/stereotypes with performance by women and minorities on math/science tests and IQ tests.

    –IP

  20. Luke says:

    Hopefully, not all of this has been said above. It seems to me that there is a lot of speculation about where biases in education and representation enter the stream (with apparently a large finger being pointed at high school) and how to fix that. It seems to me that there is simply a bias at all levels that we should recognize and admit to. This also leads me to say that in order to correct what we all should agree is a state of affairs detrimental to the progress of science (more on this later), we should probably try to treat this problem at every level we can. It’s obvious that we can’t fix the problem by treating it only at a college admissions level, or only at high school science education, we have to realize that, for a variety of reasons, there is some sort of science career discouragement going on at almost all levels of our education system. As people pass through the system, therefore, people who might become extraordinary scientists are filtered out, convinced by those around them that they will be better off somewhere else. As someone who hasn’t had this sort of thing done to them (as Homer Simpson says, “I’m a white male, age 18 to 49. Everyone listens to me, no matter how dumb my suggestions are”), I am always amazed (and horrified) to hear from colleagues about the various ways that they have been urged to leave science behind. Since I know how intelligent and creative they are, I have no doubt that we would be poorer without them doing research, and I am also sure that there are thousands of others who did listen to the hundreds of subtle (and not so subtle) hints that laboratories were not places for them. Every branch of science, and from what I’ve read above physics in particular, has suffered because this early and persistent filter that has no correlation with scientific ability, and deprives us of individuals who would pull the field forward. Finally, though the problem cannot be solved by removing one level filtering, it can be made better. Every time we can do something to stop an obstruction to science put up asymmetrically in front of our population, we open the field to more people and thus more ideas. And really, isn’t physics hard enough as it is?

  21. Maureen says:

    I’ve got to imagine the same psychological mechanism would play out in other fields as well

    There have been a number of similar studies recently that link confidence/stereotypes with performance by women and minorities on math/science tests and IQ tests.

    Google “Claude Steele”, the most prominent researcher in the field, or “Steele Effect” or “Stereotype Threat”, and you’ll get a mountain of that research. (Hey, someone had to give credit where credit is due.) And although this probably wouldn’t have any bearing on particle physics or pure mathematics, I’d argue that the fact that Steele is African-American did have an effect on his choice of research, and one could argue that one’s sex or ethnicity could urge a researcher into examining certain problems in biochemistry, climatology, biophysics, etc.

  22. Rob Knop says:

    (An aside: As I am tidying up this essay, one professor writes me and says that he finds four to be most compelling! I hope that others will agree.)

    I fully agree. Indeed, and I’ve been flamed for this, I think that there is enough fo an oversupply of scientists given the level of funding and the number of positions our society is willing to support that while increasing the pool will increase the average quality of scientists by default, that increase probably won’t be too huge. Good poeple already don’t get jobs. This is NOT an argument against increasing the pool, it’s just an argument that I think that argument 1 won’t really lead to gigantic gains.

    Argument 2 is very good. Hard to quantify, but then again, I don’t see how one could deny that a diversity of viewpoints and modes of thinking, all well-trained in the rigors of science, couldn’t help but make our approaches to problems in general more likely to succeed.

    But argument 4 to me seems like the dog-obvious absolutely best one. Isn’t it arguments like that that start out things like the Constitution of the US? Why must we insist on tangible practical gains to justify doing the right thing? Sure, there are also tangible practical gains, but doing the right thing should be good enough by itself.

    -Rob

  23. Rob Knop says:

    As a female high school student seeking to enter into the physics field, I would just like to say that there is a lot of support- even bias- towards women entering into this area.

    Of course, I am only at the stage of applying for universities, but I know that when I say that I am interested in physical cosmology, eyes light up.

    My eyes light up, and I want to say to you: hang in there.

    I think that part of the problem is that a lot of us men think that recruiting more women as a sufficient solution.

    I would argue that it’s a necessary part of the solution, but not a sufficient part of the solution. Sure, just doing that, given a lot of time, perhaps one day the problem will be gone. But the problem persists in Physics, even though we’ve been aware of it (at some level) for decades now.

    We recruit… but we also have to retain, and support. Women are recruited into Physics programs, but if they then feel marginalized once they are there, harm is done. There is evidence — statistical, I think, and anecdotal, I know — that climate problems are serious problems. I’ve had many women tell me stories about study groups, and how male students won’t think to ask female students for help, even when the female students are working on the same problem, or are more with it than the other men. We’ve all heard stories. And, I believe I’ve read some places about the (in general) better performance of women in Physcis at womens’ colleges than in most places — but I’d have to dig for the citation before I’d stand behind this.

    In any event, we should not just stop by recruiting more women and thinking we’ve done enough. We need to be aware that challenges keep coming even after women have been recruited, and we need to eliminate gratuitous and stupid barriers or obstacles.

    -Rob

  24. Jeffsan says:

    “We recruit… but we also have to retain, and support.”

    Amen, Rob! And those who think there’s no problem won’t/can’t do this.

  25. Annie says:

    Rob & others — I think one of the most amazing things I’ve received from reading & participating at Cosmic Variance is insight to my own situation. Several months ago as a first-year grad I posted that, while I was well aware of problems for women in my field, I felt that I had generally been supported. I worried that either I had been very lucky thus far (and therefore my luck could run out at any time) or very naive thus far (which would just be sort of annoying and sad and lame).

    Spending more time working with women and talking about these issues and thinking about them has changed my mind, a lot. At my undergrad institution, I was The female physics major for two years, and then was joined by another female student. Of course, since we ended up as good friends and always sat in classes together, maybe we became The female physics majors ;). Now, though, I work in a group with two other female grads & a female advisor, while sharing another office with four guys. My perspective has changed.

    I just read Rob’s comment (and his very kind blog post — I know that is precisely what you asked not to hear!) and realized, well, of course those things have happened to me. And intellectually I know that having had shouting arguments defending the fact that, no, seriously, I was in fact the only person in the room doing the problem correctly *could* have had something to do with the fact that I was also the only person in the room with a ponytail. But I just never thought of it that way. I don’t know if it discouraged me in any long-term way, but I do know that it discouraged me in those moments, and I do know that I still wouldn’t dare to argue such a point unless I was *absolutely certain* that I was correct.