Monday, October 29, 2012

Different Opinions on Women Underrepresentation in Physics

I saw an interesting article in BuzzFeed ** about a published study on gender differences in physics and biology.  The paper is titled "Gender Segregation in Elite Academic Science" and is by sociologists E. Ecklund, A. Lincoln and C. Tansey.  The article took a new approach in this field, not just quoting employment or student statistics but surveying 2500 physicists at elite institutions for their opinions.

The survey asked scientists why they felt there is so much more underrepresentation of women in physics than in biology.  The survey was followed up by interviews with 150 respondents.

There were significant differences in the views expressed by men and women, but not between physicists and biologist.  Men tended to not notice inequalities as much.  They also, on average, viewed shortfalls in the advancement of women as due to shortcomings in their background and not discrimination.  Women, on average, viewed discrimination as the primary reason for few women in physics.  They viewed the physics culture as being more inherently discriminatory than that in biology.

It is instructive to see some quotes from the study:

“morphological differences and biological differences [make men better at] hardcore math and physics.” — male assistant professor, genetics

“Physics is more difficult for girls and you need a lot of thinking, and the calculation, and the logic. So that’s maybe hard for girls.” — male grad student, physics

"Women have to make a choice [because] the woman ends up being the primary caregiver if they have children.” — male postdoctoral fellow, biology


“I think women ... want to have more of a sense that what they are doing is helping somebody. ... Maybe there are more women in ... biology [because] you can be like ‘Oh, I am going to go cure cancer.’” — postdoctoral fellow, biology

“Male-dominated departments are really unpleasant for women. [...] Men can be huge jerks in those situations.” — female associate professor, biology

“It’s not going to be solved until we figure out how to help mothers figure out how to do the career and the kid thing.” — female associate professor, physics

One of the conclusions in the studies is that "few men in either discipline emphasized the present discrimination that women in science may face (and that men in physics hold a much larger share of senior faculty positions) suggests that discrimination is not being adequately addressed in physics departments at top research universities."