Monday, March 10, 2014

Affirmative Action

Participants of the Northeast Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics at Penn State

I recently had the privilege of being an invited speaker at the Northeast Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics at Penn State on January 17-19. It was a three-day regional conference for undergraduates interested in physics and one of eight regional physics conferences organized by the American Physical Society. I spoke on gender issues: unconscious bias, stereotype threat, and impostor syndrome. It was a fantastic experience. The young women I met were smart, articulate, and confident. They listened attentively, laughed when appropriate, and asked insightful questions. In fact, the question time went way over and spilled well into the slot scheduled for lunch. I came away with the feeling that, if these women were any indication, then the future of physics was in good hands.


One of the questions they asked was about how to respond to their male classmates who taunted them about attending a conference about women in physics. What about the men? This is an all too familiar theme. I’ve heard the same type of sentiment expressed by both men and women about attendance at the Women in Astronomy conferences, about the continuation of the AAS solar physics division’s women’s lunch, and about the very existence of the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy. It may not be easy to justify these efforts if you have not had some time to think about them, but as a longtime member of CSWA, I’ve had plenty of time. The answer I shared with an auditorium full of young women went something like this: when men become an underrepresented group in physics and astronomy, they can have their own conferences, lunches, and committees to promote gender equality. Heck, if that happens before I retire, I would be happy to join the Committee on the Status of Men in Astronomy and help identify and overcome issues holding men back.

Every once in a while, it is good to remind ourselves of the mission statement: The CSWA strives to create a climate of equal opportunity in hiring, promotion, salary, and in access to research opportunities and infrastructure at all levels within the field of astronomy ranging from undergraduate and graduate programs and then throughout a career in teaching, research, and/or other astronomy-related fields such as public outreach.

In short, CSWA works to put itself out of business!

And that brings us to Affirmative Action, the topic of another of the many questions posed by the participants of the conference. What did I think of affirmative action? Did I think it had a place in modern academia? I answered that the physics and astronomy communities have suffered for too long under the yoke of affirmative action policies. (Not the answer you were expecting from the chair of CSWA? Please don’t stop reading here! There is a point to be made.) If policies give precedence to one gender over the other or one ethnic group over the others, then all science suffers. It means that we do not have a system based on merit, excellence, and ability. It means that too many people with the potential to do excellent science cannot get the training or the opportunities they need to compete. It means that we do not have a level playing field, and that some aspiring scientists will have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good.

In fact, history shows us that affirmative action has negatively affected science for all too long. In many cases, there was an official policy favoring one minority over the rest. In other cases, it was tradition, common practice, or the social norm. If you have not yet caught on, let me spell it out for you. The affirmative actions I’m talking about are the policies and procedures that favored white men over all other groups. Women and people of color were excluded from universities and jobs. Over many centuries, they were not even taught to read and write. Without these basic skills, how then could they be expected to make scientific discoveries?

It has only been in the past 50 years that some centuries-old notions about women have been disproved – that women’s brains were wired differently than men’s brains, that women were incapable of complex thought, that their place was in the home, that they were nurturing rather than logical, that they needed to be protected. How then can women even understand science let alone contribute to it? These outdated notions helped to contribute to the lopsided gender dynamic as represented in this famous photo of the participants of the Fourth Solvay Physics Conference that took place in Brussels in 1924. Marie Curie (third from the left in the front row) is the only woman. In fact, Marie Curie is the only “woman physicist” that most people remember.


Affirmative action is damaging when it favors one minority at the expense of others and leads to a vast imbalance, as in the case describe above for white men. I do believe, however, that it can have positive effects when it is used in an attempt to restore equilibrium to an unbalanced system. We can use it to help compensate not only for centuries of overt discrimination and decades of sexual harassment, but also for ongoing hurtles like unconscious bias, stereotype threat, and impostor syndrome, the very subjects of my talk at the Penn State conference.

If we try to contemplate the physics of the future, then excellence should have no gender, no race and no sexual orientation.