We Suck (But We Can Be Better)

One day in grad school, a couple of friends and I were sitting at a table in a hallway in the astronomy building, working on a problem set. The professor who had assigned the problems walked by and noticed what we were doing — which was fine, working together was encouraged. But then he commented, “Hey, I’m confused — you’re all smart guys, so how come the girls have been scoring better than you on the problem sets?” Out loud we mumbled something noncommittal, but I remember thinking, “Maybe they are … also smart?”

This professor was a good-hearted guy, who would have been appalled and defensive at the suggestion that his wry remark perhaps reflected a degree of unconscious bias. Multiply this example by a million, and you get an idea of what it’s like to be a woman trying to succeed in science in a modern university. Not necessarily blatant abuse or discrimination, of the sort faced by Marie Curie or Emmy Noether, but a constant stream of reminders that many of your colleagues think you might not be good enough, that what counts as “confident” for someone else qualifies as “aggressive” or “bitchy” when it comes from you, that your successes are unexpected surprises rather than natural consequences of your talent.

But even today, as we’ve recently been reminded, the obstacles faced by women scientists can still be of the old-fashioned, blatant, every-sensible-person-agrees-it’s-terrible variety. A few months ago we learned that Geoff Marcy, the respected exoplanet researcher at Berkeley, had a long history of sexually harassing students. Yesterday a couple of other cases came to light. U.S. Representative Jackie Speier gave a speech before Congress highlighting the case of Timothy Slater, another astronomer (formerly at the University of Arizona, now at the University of Wyoming) with a track record of harassment. And my own institution, Caltech, has suspended Christian Ott, a professor of theoretical astrophysics, for at least a year, after an investigation concluded that he had harassed students. A full discussion can be found in this article by Azeen Ghorayshi at BuzzFeed, and there are also stories at Science, Nature, and Gizmodo. Caltech president Thomas Rosenbaum and provost Edward Stolper published a memo that (without mentioning names) talked about Caltech’s response to the findings. Enormous credit goes to the students involved, Io Kleiser and Sarah Gossan, who showed great courage and determination in coming forward. (I’m sure they would both much rather be doing science, as would we all.)

No doubt the specifics of these situations will be debated to death. There is a wider context, however. These incidents aren’t isolated; they’re just the ones that happened to come to light recently. And there are issues here that aren’t just about men and women; they’re about what kind of culture we have in academia generally, science in particular, and physics/astronomy especially. Not only did these things happen, but they happened over an extended period of time. They were allowed to happen. Part of that is simply because shit happens; but part is that we don’t place enough value, as working academic scientists, professors, and students, in caring about each other as human beings.

Academic science — and physics is arguably the worst, though perhaps parts of engineering and computer science are just as bad — engenders a macho, cutthroat, sink-or-swim culture. We valorize scoring well on tests, talking loudly, being cocky and fast, tearing others down, “technical” proficiency, overwork, speaking in jargon, focusing on research to the exclusion of all else. In that kind of environment, when someone who is supposed to be a mentor is actually terrorizing their students and postdocs, there is nowhere for the victims to turn, and heavy penalties when they do. “You think your advisor is asking inappropriate things of you? I guess you’re not cut out for this after all.”

In 1998, Jason Altom, a graduate student in chemistry at Harvard, took his own life. Renowned among his contemporaries as both an extraordinarily talented scientist and a meticulous personality, he left behind a pointed note:

“This event could have been avoided,” the note began. “Professors here have too much power over the lives of their grad students.” The letter recommended adoption of a three-member faculty committee to monitor each graduate student’s progress and “provide protection for graduate students from abusive research advisers. If I had such a committee now I know things would be different.” It was the first time, a columnist for The Crimson observed later, that a suicide note took the form of a policy memo.

Academia will always necessarily be, in some sense, competitive: there are more people who want to be researchers and professors than there will ever be jobs for everyone. Not every student will find an eventual research or teaching position. But none of that implies that it has to be a terrifying, tortuous slog — and indeed there are exceptions. My own memories of graduate school are that it was very hard, pulling a substantial number of all-nighters and struggling with difficult material, but that at the same time it was fun. Fulfilling childhood dreams, learning about the universe! That should be the primary feeling everyone has about their education as a scientist, but too often it’s not.

A big problem is that, when problems like this arise, the natural reaction of people in positions of power is to get defensive. We deny that there is bias, or that it’s a problem, or that we haven’t been treating our students like human beings. We worry too much about the reputations of our institutions and our fields, and not enough about the lives of the people for whom we are responsible. I do it myself — nobody likes having their mistakes pointed out to them, and I’m certainly not an exception. It’s a constant struggle to balance legitimate justifications for your own views and actions against a knee-jerk tendency to defend everything you do (or don’t).

Maybe these recent events will be a wake-up call that provokes departments to take real steps to prevent harassment and improve the lives of students more generally. It’s unfortunate that we need to be shown a particularly egregious example of abuse before being stirred to action, but that’s often what it takes. In philosophy, the case of Colin McGinn has prompted a new dialogue about this kind of problem. In astronomy, President of the AAS Meg Urry has been very outspoken about the need to do better. Let’s see if physics will step up, recognize the problems we have, and take concrete steps to do better.

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40 Responses to We Suck (But We Can Be Better)

  1. srp says:

    Sean’s broader concern with the atmosphere of academic science seems appropriate if you read the whole way through the linked piece about the Caltech incidents. The professor in question drove off male as well as female grad students with his behavior and attitudes. Nobody would have noticed or cared about these male students were it not for the more-topical complaint of sexual harassment. Caltech is at least putting some processes in place to prevent or address similar behavior in the future.

    Solutions will have to confront deeper issues about “boundaries” here–is it reasonable to expect good astronomy research to be produced in a corporate-style environment with 9-to-5 norms and strict standards of upright professional behavior at all times? A “good old boys” club atmosphere with pressured and maladjusted faculty unleashing their ids on anyone they can kick around can’t be the answer. But a consuming absorption in research, tending to erase boundaries between “work” and “life,” may be an important ingredient in generating creative, productive research; Overbye’s accounts of astronomical discovery seem to point in that direction. What is needed is some way of modulating faculty behavior without killing the unreasonable passion of committed discoverers.

  2. John Barrett says:


    The thought had crossed my mind that the professor in question could have possibly believed that the women actually were able to do the assignment more effectively. At the time the remark was made, he may have not made the link that it could be seen as a form of harassment. It is entirely possible that the remark was that short sighted or single minded. It could be a downfall of the male psyche, which I mentioned earlier. Although, I do not know how those ideas relate to left and right brain ways of thinking. He could have solely been under the impression that the men were having problems, because they were goofing off instead of actually working together. He could have thought that the reason was because the women were not engaged in social activities like the men were (a more in depth singular minded point of view), and he wanted them to acknowledge that. There is no way to be sure really, given the nature of the second hand information. That is how rumors and lawsuits get started…

  3. Omega Centauri says:

    My impression of a statement like this will separate the men from the boys, is its a standard expression of speech. I also think if anyone is capable of removing personal or gender biases from such a statement is is physicists, to them its more like an equation, and is effortlessly translated into : The people cut out to be physicists will survive, those that aren’t won’t. It really would have sounded strange if he had said “will separate the adults from the children”.

    My memories of astrophysics grad school, was that the whole process was like climbing a pyramid, at every step of the climb a significant fraction of the aspirants will fall off, so that by the time you reach the top, only maybe one one out a hundred or so will remain. These are of course horrible odds -especially considering that even on the bottom rungs students are typically a couple of standard deviations talentwise above the average college student. So I think the knowledge, that most of these students are gonna get wrung out of the pipeline must create a powerful incentive for profs to want to dehumanize them, that way the pain of seeing the vast majority drop out can be minimized. The problem may be inherent to having a lopsided ration of real-physics positions versus aspirants. But, it can be awful for those students.

  4. Patrice Ayme says:

    Do Violence, Bias and Abuse Help Research?

    Thanks to Sean for the excellent essay condemning abusive harassment of women in science. A reminder: sexist research found, decades ago, that the brains of women and men were different. Many powers jumped on that result to claim the poor results of women in science, or the intellect in general, were thus justified.

    However, upon closer examination, that was simply not true. Unsurprisingly, it was found female and male brains are not quite the same, except that one could not tell, and some of the differences are the opposite of what’s expected: most brains are a haphazard mosaic of female and male features.


    In the end, the influence of some hormones rule, which have nothing to do with pure intellectual performance.

    The reason for this is obvious: prehistoric life required women to be pluripotent. When men were far away hunting big game, patrolling territory, or at war, women had to be able to replace them completely, even for defense and hunting. More recently, Roman legionnaires were very surprised when they discovered that German women wielding swords turned out be what prevented German men to retreat.

    The reason for having a non-sexist society is that we double the number of brains, thus increase considerably the number of ideas. It was obvious all along that females could perform at the very highest mental level: Emilie du Chatelet, after all, discovered the concept of energy, ½ mv^2 (Newton confused energy and momentum, apparently). She also discovered a few other things, such as infrared radiation, although she died in childbirth.


    So sexism is a form of abuse, and, ultimately, not just a form of abuse of particular individuals, but of society itself, as it deprives society of half of its best elements.

    And that is the connection with the violence made to graduate students. The American fundamental research system depends upon 120 institutions. However, many of the most prestigious universities, in their most prestigious departments depend upon a system of exploitation, or even abuse, of their students.

    It works this way, even in public universities: the graduate students make all the necessary work (be it basic research or basic undergraduate teaching, or both). However some of these university departments have ridiculously low rates of attribution of the PhD. Say 10%. This means they use to teach, or do research students who, statistically, have no probability to get what they are after.

    It seems clear in the behavior of Harvard’s (Nobel Prize) Corey. By telling his star student who committed suicide that, after five years, he had made “no intellectual contribution”, Corey was actually committing a crime. OK, the law does not strike this sort of abuse yet for what they are: potentially lethal abuse. Why? Because this is so typical of what happen in so many graduate department in the USA. It’s a bit as when there were slaves everywhere in the USA: it was legal, and it felt normal.

    It is important to remedy this. How? Notice science was not as cut-throat in the 1960s: young professors could afford to buy a house next to a prestigious university (it’s not the case anymore). Young professors were typically on tenure track, graduate student were treated decently, etc.

    Then things changed: American man had landed on the moon, science was not needed anymore. Investment in science went down, culminating with Congress yanking out the super collider. Society decided to do science and intellect on the cheap. Cut-throat academia came into being.

    Treating women students well enough to have as many of them as men will improve quality, it will also force society to realize that research cannot depend upon abuse and exploitation of people, but its exact opposite: the fragile blossoming of ideas rejects relations brimming with the grossest powers.

    Rejecting violence, exploitation and abuse will force society to put more (relative) resources into (fundamental) research, the way it used to be, not so long ago. Ultimately thinking blossoms from the debate of many minds. Cutting throats does not help. However, a cut-throat establishment may want research to be in its image, abusive and exploitative, to justify its own mood.

  5. Anonymous says:

    regarding “how come girls are scoring more”, perhaps a little sympathy is needed for social inertia as long as it is not blatantly harmful. For example this professor wasn’t discriminating against women by giving them lower scores just because they were women (as some social studies research suggests). And Sean, you were a student I am assuming a long long while ago 😉 Perhaps today one can expect more from your generation of professors. With time perhaps even more. To some extent I wonder what role affirmative action plays into this kind of perception, even if the women concerned were not beneficiaries of such policy.

    “… engenders a macho, cutthroat, sink-or-swim culture. …” Any discipline will reflect the character or culture of those participating in it. What if physics departments did not value scoring high on tests, instead valued not speaking up, lack of technical proficiency, lack of work ethics, not devoting lives to work. Limiting the scope of influence of thesis advisors might be a worthy goal. To some extent I feel all of this is a consequence of funding mechanisms. As funding for physics research becomes more and more limited, the competition will only get worse. And as more funding is diverted by government to social studies objectives of physics departments rather than lab equipments and server time, this will only get worse.

  6. Anonymous says:

    to Patrice Ayme:

    Science can only give us “is”, not “ought”. What if female brains were found to be different, what if science showed evidence for eugenics, should our political philosophy have been modified? I hope not.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Actually, this might be humorous: it might be asked why Sean and the “boys” were working exclusively in their male gang and excluding the women (who were clearly brilliant). So why not nudge them with a bit of neg: hey you guys are so exclusive, but those whom you are excluding are actually doing better 😉

  8. Hillbilly Rex says:

    I had an undergrad calculus professor who was a notorious hard ass; really went out of his way to make the course way more difficult than it should be for a freshman level calc II course. Definitely overcompensating for his failures in life. It was great in that he drove you to be the best you could be and you would remember the material forever, but that’s because it was so needlessly difficult and you were panicking to learn everything in exact detail because you knew he was really trying to screw you over. Your grade wasn’t based on performance, it was based on how much he liked you and how much you kissed his ass during his smoke breaks; that guy.

    This guy was in his mid 40s and used to hit on all the cute girls in my class. He would specifically find the most attractive ones and tell them ‘in private’ (I eavesdropped because he was giving off some pretty rapey vibes) “you’re so talented, come see me in my office later so we can continue talking about it”. And it’s not just this one incident, which you really had to be there to pick up on the body language, creepy touching and pick-up vibes, it was hundreds of times with multiple girls in my class and everyone who had him could give a similar story about something outrageously, sexually inappropriate that he would pull. Anyway I was 26 at the time, I’ve seen some creepers and I’ve been a creeper in my younger years… I can spot it when it’s happening. This girl was Korean, English as a second language, different social cues and body language. She was his main target in my class. Drunk guys at bars with no boundaries didn’t try this hard. She always showed up to class with her boyfriend, who was way more fluent in English. I pulled the guy aside and told him to talk to her and make sure she doesn’t go to this professor’s office by herself ever, because this professor was giving off so many red flags that it was the only time in my life that I honestly felt like a person I had met has probably been sexually assaulting women for years. He did so many inappropriate, sexual things. I really wouldn’t be surprised if he had raped someone. He was a real piece of shit. I got an A in his course, he really like me because I was older and more experienced, a pretty chill guy but also into my fitness routine(back to him overcompensating by looking for the approval of who he thought was cool), but every time I saw him after my course grade had posted on my transcripts and it couldn’t be changed, he wanted to stop and talk. My response was usually along the lines of, “fuck off you sleazy piece-a shit” and then just walked past him. He had been there for 20 years before I was there and it’s been a good 3 years and he’s still there. I reported him and spread the word, but obviously nothing ever came of it.

    I talked to the same girl’s boyfriend later and he told me the same professor tried to feel her up in his office in private one day. Sometimes you wish things were still like they were in the 1950s where you could just go kick someone’s ass for being the piece of shit that everyone knows they are. And instead of getting ragged on for being on the internet all the time, it was “playing with numbers like a lazy buffoon”.

    Anyway, that’s my contribution for the next 6 months. The only thing I’ll add is that I see a lot of discrimination in the other direction as well. I get hit on by these early 20s girls all the time and the only thing I can think is, “god, you are so ridiculously hot, but there’s no way in hell I’m going to put up with your distorted view of the world and all the double standards society has brainwashed you with in the past 5 years. Please stop trying to make it happen”. And by trying hard to not show interest and politely turn them down, I’m of course an asshole for doing so in a polite and reasonable fashion. As true as it is that women face these problems, we’re seriously overcorrecting it to the detriment of our society. America can’t seem to get away from extremes and implementing everything in excess. I like equality, but I like EQUALITY, not shitting all over men because historically they treated women poorly. So much of it seems more like revenge now than actually correcting. It’s overcorrecting for sexism by being sexist to men and overcorrecting for racism by being racist to white people. With all the symmetry in nature, you would think that we could find some in society and have a nice balance, but I guess being so asymmetrical in our culture is how we got this far. Asymmetry is just part of the human condition.

  9. Diogenes says:

    Did I read this right? Is there an opening at Caltech?! Sean I will need a letter of recommendation post haste . Academia is full of power inequalities that are deleterious to the mission of a university. We know income inequality turns good people into jerks and the income gap between professors and grad students is astronomical. Using Marie Curie shows there is also a double standard because she slept with her husband’s students and did not object to a duel fought over her honor. Luckily we have an apt quote about why the duel did not take place. “[She] has a sparkling intelligence, but despite her passionate nature, she is not attractive enough to represent a threat to anyone.” -Albert Einstein

  10. Haruki Chou says:

    “My own memories of graduate school are that it was very hard, pulling a substantial number of all-nighters and struggling with difficult material, but that at the same time it was fun. ”
    — It all depends on particular circumstances. My friend’s memories are not so good, studying hard while working night time for minimum wage, waiting alone for the bus in the cold, getting flooded in a despicable basement, with no money to go to the cafeteria or buy a coffee. Eventually he had to quit, and not for a lack of talent. My comment is a bit off-topic, but science idealism can not always be embraced while struggling in the real world. In a society with rising inequalities, the field is not level for all.

  11. eric says:

    What does “too cutthroat” have to do with harassment and gender bias?

    Oh, lots. I can think of at least four ways (though two are related, so I have labeled them a and b)
    1. A more cutthroat professional environment makes bias easy to hide or discount, because outsiders will just chalk it up to misunderstanding or the student ‘trying to get ahead.’
    2. “Cutthroat” is somewhat like saying everyone signed up for a very rough ride. The obvious follow-on is that if the ride delivers bumps you didn’t anticipate, you have little right to complain about it. We told you there would be bumps. So…stop whining about the bumps. (Just to be clear, I don’t agree with this argument. But that’s a way in which ‘cutthroat’ is relevant to the presence of abuse.)
    3a. A more cutthroat professional environment tends to require managers and evaluators to consider less and less relevant criteria for promotion/support just by its very nature. If you initially think that the best way to pick a student to get a benefit is on criteria A, B, and C, but all your students score equally high and well on A, B, and C, now you have to make up criteria D. And when they all pass that with equally flying colors, you have to come up even less relevant criteria E. Pretty soon things like who did your laundry or brought you a sandwich start counting because everyone is equal on all the more relevant criteria.
    3b. “Cutthroat” is often just a more socially acceptable way of the university or the department or the professor saying “I evaluate on loyalty dedication to my cause, not just work product.” And turning your professor in for sexual misconduct does not show loyalty to the university, department, or professor. This is, incidentally, why the military also has a big problem with sexual harassment; because they value group loyalty, it makes it hard for abused members of the group to bring for allegations of abuse against other members of the group.

    A more charitable way of putting this is that when you have a lot of competitors that are extremely close in terms of high-value

  12. Carol M. says:

    Thank you for writing this article. Whenever I read or hear the question of why there aren’t more women in traditionally male fields I wonder why no one seems to understand that women put up with persistent, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt hostility. In school I was often the only woman in the classroom, and now in my career it’s the same way. I hoped things would get better, but the improvement has been marginal; in many ways it’s no better than it was 40 years ago. I’ll be retiring before too long, but wish things could have improved. In addition to problems at work, there is also the problem at home. Women usually take care of the children and the elderly, with no accommodation at work. Thanks to some changes in the law, employers now must give time off, but that is generally unpaid, and women who take advantage of it spend a lot less time at work, losing pay and job advancement. There are exceptions but that is still the general rule.

  13. Ed says:

    The smartest person in my Physical Chemistry classes was a woman. Quantum mechanics was a big part of the second semester and we spent a lot of time studying together. It was a successful collaboration and we both did well in that class and in our subsequent careers.

  14. Edward McIsaac says:

    For one so eager to dispell the notion of condicio sine qua non appealing to a supernatural agency, I find your appeal on this issue a bit contrived and disingenuous for having dismissed any notion of a Lawgiver giving rise to what you would define as a “standard” of morality. The argument for morality (or equity as you call it) May find you in the sticky quagmire where an appeal for justice contravenes the survival of the fittest. Perhaps, if you would look as intensely into the agency of morality as you have the physics of the universe you may find the Logos that “gave life to everything that was created.”