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.

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58 Responses to Charming

  1. Petr says:

    I’m not sure what you’re getting at here.

    We shouldn’t forget that Feynman has an explanation: he graduated college in 1938 when, like or no, the world was sexist (and anti-semitic: Feynman went to MIT because Columbia had filled their “Jewish quota” for that year). This means that his sexism was a cultural inculcation, rather than a personal failing, whereas his charm was a personal trait. My own father, who was born in 1938, often railed against “women drivers” well into the 1980’s. When he learned to drive, women drivers were an extreme rarity.

    Does this excuse their behaviours? It excuses them from being judged by the standards of today but it also provides a window to better judge our progress.

    Culturally, science can be an enviroment of intense hostility and petty competition in and of itself. I’m not convinced that hostility, be it directed at either gender, can be fundamentally sexist. Nor can I see, given our undoubted progress in this regard, how sexism can sustain itself in the face of overwhelming anti-sexist pressure in the world at large. Although I’ll allow that a male of lesser character would use the fact of gender as in a hostile moment I can’t say whether this is because the male is sexist or simply because he knows it’s a sensitive subject and thus an effective weapon. I guess it is the difference between immoral and amoral behaviour.

  2. Koray says:

    As I don’t work in investment banking or law, I’d like to know how they are more supportive and less hostile to women. That nerds are the hardcore machos is surprising to me.

  3. anonymous woman scientist says:

    Sean: “Providing equal encouragement to everyone entering into science … would make for better science.”

    How so?

    (Seriously, I hope you will attempt to explain what you meant, because right now I am tempted to dismiss this post as an ill-conceived attempt to be politically correct.)

  4. Joshua says:

    AWS, I think Sean meant that providing equal encouragement will make for better science since then people who are very talented will not be forced out of science due to the “machismo pressure”. More talented scientists = Better science.

    People shouldn’t fail because they can’t handle the “scientific environment,” they should only fail by not doing good science.

  5. Ijon Tichy says:

    I don’t think people, especially adults, should be encouraged to continue working in the hard sciences. If I had been encouraged to finish my PhD thesis and embark on a professional career in astronomy, I would have become just another mediocre astronomer, doing unremarkable work of no real consequence. If you’re a genius or just an obsessive, smart person, you won’t need any encouragement to continue with your chosen field; the intellectual rewards will be enough.

    On the other hand, sexism is anti-human, and should be stamped out in all workplaces and institutions. Why should men be getting more encouragement than women? Why should women be receiving more discouragement than men? Feynman was a sexist pig, but men and women forgave him for such primitive behaviour because he was “charming” and “explained quantum mechanics to me as if I could understand it”. That’s fucked up.

  6. Sam Gralla says:

    I don’t think we need equal encouragement to have more female scientists; I think we just need more encouragement. I think we already basically have equal encouragement for males and females–the sexists are busy retiring as the equal encouragers take over the positions of power. The problem is, while equal encouragers do encourage equally, they don’t really encourage much at all. Females tend to need more encouragement than males (and let’s please not debate whether this need is innate or acquired), and this low level of encouraging all too often falls below their threshold. If we could just encourage everybody more, we’d have more female scientists. I’d say astronomy and astrophysics is poster child for the success of this approach.

  7. Ijon Tichy,

    I thought you had some thought provoking ideas in your first paragraph, but I don’t really agree with the second.

    Sexism may be anti-human, but it’s also characteristically human, found in every culture and time, just like every other prejudice. I don’t think you can stamp it out without breeding a new set of humans, possibly ones with men and women just alike. That doesn’t mean it’s good, any more than war, murder, rape, theft and all those other essentially human but annoyingly primitive characteristics are. You may supress it, but it will linger in the human subconciousness for the very good reasons that virtually every previous human society has found it convenient to specialize sex roles. A million years of evolution isn’t so easily discarded as last years fashionable diet.

    No doubt the female engineer, cook, company president found Feynman’s requests annoying, but it is a bit much to equate them with truly serious offenses against women like honor killings and forced marriages.

    The question I can’t get out of my mind is this: Why didn’t any of those women say “get your own damn soup old man!” It’s not like he owned the company. I have a sneaking suspicion that Feynman, amateur scientist of human behavior, was wondering how many times he would have to perform the experiment to get that result.

  8. rod says:

    Feynman was a genius. He should be remembered by his great contributions, not by his flaws.

    This kind of “homage” is of poor-taste, IMHO. Feynman died 20 years ago. He’s not here to defend himself. Moreover, he lived in another time, and judging him by today’s standards is unfair (like Petr said before).

    What’s the point of all of this?!? Is is a “Let’s bash Feynman so what we look less mediocre by comparison” kind of thing? I don’t get it. I really don’t. This is sad.

  9. jonm says:

    Unlike some posters, I wouldn’t give Feynman a pass ; it sounds like he was being a pig. That said, my thoughts on the NY Times articled …

    The survey results aren’t detailed enough to be useful, in particular we are not told how many of the women aged 35-40 dropped out to have families, or what the drop-out rate is for women who do not have children. Anecdotes are even more useless than normal when filtered through an organization that clearly has its agenda to pitch.

    The nature of the work itself may play a part. That the drop-out rate for investment banking is lower argues against a macho culture being significant. It seems to me that pharma companies have a lot of women and are female- and family- friendly, whereas engineering firms, especially the big EPC companies who build things like oil facilities and chemical plants abroad are more male-dominated, more macho and less family friendly. Aerospace companies fall somewhere in between.

    What are the comparable results for countries like Denmark and Sweden that are much more family-friendly?

    If it would greatly benefit competing firms and universities to introduce drastically more women-friendly policies (whether you think of this as granting equal conditions, or granting special privileges), then why aren’t they doing more already? Why hasn’t someone figured it out and prospered from it?

  10. fh says:

    If you want hardcore machos try the humanities. 90% female undergrad 10% female faculty in psychology in my old University. The fact that physics there goes from 15% to 10% is positively benign by comparison.

    If the macho culture is less then what it is in other fields of academia wouldn’t it indicate that it is not a SET problem but rather a more general issue that find’s its particular expression everywhere, but which is actually less prevelant in SET academia?

    (Though of course the 15% undergrad ratio tells us that it is much more so in general society. Though then one should also maintain that it is a real pity that men are discouraged from studying psychology by social pressure. In other words it’s a more symmetric kind of sexism we’re dealing with then.)

  11. fh says:

    “Why hasn’t someone figured it out and prospered from it?”

    Because the invisible hand of the market is a particular idealization that is applicable in some circumstances, subject to the social context? If people were as rational as that question suggests we wouldn’t have the problem in the first place I guess….

  12. Boltzmann's Reptilian Brain says:

    “He should be remembered by his great contributions, not by his flaws.”


  13. Ijon Tichy says:


    Sexism, by definition, is anti-human, i.e. against humans, but clearly it has been ubiquitous in cultures, societies and civilisations throughout the ages. I have no idea how much of it is due to nature, and how much to nurture. What I do know is that it’s a bad thing and it harms people, emotionally and/or physically. A sexist is not a complete human being, but rather a morally stunted sub-human. Same goes for racists and magical thinkers. Obviously, there is a spectrum of sexist behaviours ranging from mild to extreme; only an idiot would equate Feynman’s behaviour with honour killings and forced marriages. But a civilised society should not tolerate sexism just because it’s been around for ages.


    The ultimate disrespect one can pay to an historical figure is to not tell the whole truth, to build up myths that make us feel better, to leave out things that provoke negative feelings. I am not interested in a bedtime fairytale about Feynman; I am after the real man, warts and all. As for the unfairness of judging him by today’s standards, I don’t go in for that moral relativist bullshit. The hunter-gathers who practice(d) infanticide and child abuse as normative behaviours can only be judged as psychopaths and psychotics, and I’m eternally grateful that this sort of culture has been all but wiped out with the rise of agriculture followed by industrialism.

  14. rod says:

    @ Boltzmann’s Reptilian Brain

    Feynman should be remembered by his great contributions, not by his so-called “flaws” (note sarcasm) because:

    – he’s no longer among us. He can’t defend himself. He can’t stand up and respond to these accusations. To taint the memory of a deceased person who contributed so much to mankind is disgusting.

    -he was a scientist. He did great Science. That was his mission. He never wanted to become a role-model in terms of political correctness, nor did he ever aspire to be part of the moral authority.

    EVEN if he was sexist, he was just sexist. So what? He did not work for the Nazis like Planck and Heisenberg did. Von Neumann was famous for being sexist too. So what? Einstein was an absent father, and a serial philanderer. So what? Oppenheimer was a bit of a sex maniac and even hit on his friends’ wives. So what? They were scientists. Great ones. They never wanted to become the guardians of decency and morality.

    Are we going to become slaves of political correctness now?

  15. We may be confident that all the stone casters are themselves free from flaw, so they need not our permission to flail away at Feynman or whomever.

    The evil men do lives after them,
    the good is oft interred with their bones.
    So let it be with Feynman.

  16. Jennifer W. says:

    Feynman was a giant ass regarding women. You don’t get a free pass just because you die. We’re all going to die, and if we become great scientists or politicians we’ll all be held accountable for everything we do and are. Not just the pretty bits.

    Different people emphasize different things – some his science, some his barbaric views on women, some both.

    I can’t tell someone else what to attend to, what to ignore, in a great scientist, living or dead. Whatever resonates with them is their business.

    Feynman doesn’t need defenders. I imagine he might be mortified to know that he was to be treated as a god through his death – nevermore a controversial figure.

    I adore his lectures, there is no one (to my mind) that thinks more cleanly than he did about physics. If there is a concept that is not explained properly – has been handwaved over by my books and/or teachers – I go to Feynman. Any catch or any way a clever student can find to break the physics rule under investigation – he will have thought of it and explained it. Because he did all his science from the bottom up, knowing the very basic principles and building from there.

  17. Jennifer W. says:

    p.s. also, may I suggest a heaping dose of Margaret Mead, or any cultural anthropologist worth their salt, as far as sexism being an inherent part of our humanity? Unless you doubt the humanity of far-flung peoples, be prepared for a shift in your thinking.

    And when I say heaping, I mean it – read a lot of her work, and you’ll see all kinds of versions of sexism and also, amazingly, some cultures exhibit a shocking lack of such.

  18. Tom Snyder says:

    @ rod (#13)

    To say that Planck worked for the Nazis suggests that Planck was a Nazis sympathizer. For perspective please see


  19. rod says:

    This is ludicrous.

    Just because Feynman asked a few times for some women to get him a bowl of soup, it’s TOTALLY right to call him a “sexist pig” and a “giant ass”. The man is dead, he can’t defend himself, and people feel entitled to disrespect him like this. Of course, the people criticizing him here FOR SURE got to know Feynman in person, so they’re DEFINITELY not judging someone they never met based on urban legends.

    Feynman was not particularly nice on some grad students either. But these were mostly men, so it’s OK. We all know that women are so emotionally vulnerable that we need this idiotic PC campaign to prevent them from running away from this cruel man’s world.

    It is sad that people who are supposed to be educated behave in such a despicable manner. Feynman did not run a concentration camp. He did not ordered the atom bombs to be launched. He just asked some woman to get him soup. Of course, he’s a “sexist pig” and a “giant ass” for that. Of course…

  20. Jennifer W.,

    It’s obvious that the status of women varies greatly from culture to culture, but that’s not really the point. the point is differentiation of societal roles, or division of labor, by sex. It’s been a few years since I studied much cultural anthropology, but I recall no examples of pre-modern societies that didn’t differentiate societal roles by sex. I would be interested in hearing of any examples, but I doubt if they are common if they exist at all.

    I don’t know of any experienced and observant parent who hasen’t noted that boys and girls differ greatly (on average) in their interests and behaviors from the earliest ages. That those differences have a biological substrate is well documented, and from the standpoint of evolutionary biology, it would be astounding if they didn’t. None of these things excuse discrimination on the basis of sex anymore than the widespread prevalence of murder in primitive societies excuses murder in ours – but they do explain it.

  21. Jennifer W,

    One more thing: You say Because he did all his science from the bottom up, knowing the very basic principles and building from there.

    Feynman took the same attitude toward human relations, always eager to investigate any idea from the beginning. You might recall that Feynman once wrote an article entitled something like “Feynman Sexist Pig,” not to mention another with a title something like “You just ask them.” Contemptuous of cant of every sort, he would not have been likely to have failed to investigate the pompous pillars of PC.

    I like the idea that he was testing all these modern women, to see how many if any of them had the courage of their alleged principles. Of course he might just have wanted the soup, but I somehow suspect that the slightly ostentatious feminism of the scientist who inherited his desk would have proved an irresistable target to him.

  22. rod,

    I suggest you read a Feynman biography. The “sexist pig”, “giant ass towards women” monikers do not stem from soup fetching incidents.

  23. Boltzmann's Reptilian Brain says:

    CIP said “The evil men do lives after them,
    the good is oft interred with their bones.”

    Yeah, that’s exactly what I say when people say rude things about Pol Pot. I mean the guy’s dead, how bad can he have been?

    I assume that people think that it’s important to praise dead people for a reason — presumably one wants young people to regard them as role models. So I fail to see why good things about them are more important than bad things.

    Feynman is a particularly singular example because he and his groupies tried/try to associate his intense obnoxiousness with being a good scientist. You know, intolerant of pomposity, blah blah blah. And there are a lot of misguided young people who lap that up — the prize exhibit here being Tom O’Bulls, who of course loves Feynman and frequently celebrates him over at his blog, Ferment Each Reefer.

    Short version: the bad stuff is as relevant as the good.

  24. Anonymous says:

    I think the problem we all run into is when we start blurring the line between admiring a person who gave us many a contribution and hero worship.

    For example: I very much admire the work that Franklin D. Roosevelt did during his presidency. However, it’s rather unforgivable in my eyes that he also turned back a ship full of Jews in the early stages of World War 2, even though he surely knew what was to become of them if they were forced to return to Europe. Does that discolor my impression of the New Deal? Not really. Does that make me think lesser of him as a person? Somewhat, but I try not to think about it, as applying the standards of today to a person of yesteryear is plain unfair. The nice thing about the past is that you can admire the best of it without taking that entire era wholesale.

    I imagine 200 years from now every meat-eater here will be regarded as vicious monsters with no regard for animal life.

    Likewise, with Feynman I try to take the best of him: his love of physics and his love of teaching physics. But, I realize the man had many (ok, many many many) faults that I don’t endorse either. I don’t think the two ideas are mutually exclusive.

    Was he a sexist pig? Probably, but at the same time, I’m pretty sure a good majority of male Americans that grew up in his day and age were. Does that make it right? Absolutely not. But it is what it is.

    I do see a problem with some physicists that I have to come to know who completely venerate Richard Feynman, and there is something definitely wrong with that, especially when they emulate Feynman’s jerkiness. I guess this is all by way of saying, Hero Worship is bad. It’s maddening sometimes to see people who do not realize that there is a difference between admiring the works of a person and venerating said person.

  25. ike says:

    I’ll second Rob. This article was in very poor taste. Why don’t you also attack him for not opposing the racist policies of his day? Why wasn’t Feynmann out leading civil rights marches in the Old South, for example? Isn’t that a great failure on his part?

    How about Feynman’s honest and scrupulous investigation of the Challenger disaster? How about the fact that he was tailed and spied on by the U.S. government because of his rather mild opposition to nuclear warfare? And then you have your Feynmann diagrams.

    Really, the main issue in academics these days is not gender inequality, but rather the wholesale corporate invasion of the universities under the guise of Bayh-Dole patent & licensing laws. That is really the key discriminatory issue in academics these days – male or female is pretty irrelevant, but if you publicly oppose the corporate agenda (outsourcing their R&D departments to the taxpayer-funded public sector, while retaining control of all patents under Bayh-Dole rules), then you will never find a job.

    Gender is a safe topic for a young professor to discuss – but Bayh-Dole is not, unless you want to make enemies of the entire upper administration at your school. Oh, it used to be a big deal – Feynman’s classes at Caltech were uniformly white and male when he was recording the Feynman lectures.

    Why didn’t Feynman challenge this obviously racist and sexist behavior? Why didn’t he single-handedly flip Caltech’s policy around, and demand that minorites and women be allowed to attend his courses? What a disappointment, right? Why didn’t Feynman do the right thing? Why didn’t every single professor in the U.S. do they right thing?

    It’s called competition. Fact is, a lot of those old white professors in the 1960s got their positions via clubbiness more than via real skill – and if you let women and minorities in, you quickly find that good researchers come in all colors and sexes. However, today the new clubbiness is not based on race or gender – it is based on agreement with Bayh-Dole principles and patent & profit greed.

    Really, that is the litmus test for new professors in academia today. Pointing to the flaws in Bayh-Dole is a good way to not get hired, isn’t it?

    So, was every single person at Caltech in the early 1960s a racist, sexist pig? Somehow, that just doesn’t seem like a very well-thought out claim.