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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

View Blog | Read Bio

Women in Physics and Mathematics

Dedicated to Johanna[1]

There are two observations about women in physics and mathematics that are at odds with each other. The first is that there are relatively few women in science. In a typical seminar or conference presentation I have counted that just over ten percent of the audience is female. The second is that, despite the relatively few women, they are by no means second-rate scholars. The first person to ever win two Nobel Prizes was a woman–Marie Curie (1867–1924). But I do not have to go far-far away and long-long ago to find first rate women scientists. I just have to go down the corridor, well actually down the corridor and up a flight of stairs since my office is in the ground floor administrative ghetto while the real work gets done on the second floor.  Since women are demonstratively capable, why are there so few of them in the mathematical sciences?

A cynic could say they are too bright to waste their time on such dead end fields but as a physicist I could never admit the validity of that premise. So why are there so few women in physics and mathematics? It is certainly true that in the past these subjects were considered too hard or inappropriate for women. Despite her accomplishments and two Nobel prizes, Madam Curie was never elected to the French Academy of Sciences. Since she was Polish as well as a woman the reason may have been as much due to xenophobia as misogyny.

Another interesting example of a successful woman scientist is Caroline Herschel (1750–1848). While not as famous as her brother William (1738–1822), she still made important discoveries in astronomy including eight comets and three nebulae. The comment from Wikipedia is in many ways typical: Caroline was struck with typhus, which stunted her growth and she never grew past four foot three. Due to this deformation, her family assumed that she would never marry and that it was best for her to remain a house servant. Instead she became a significant astronomer in collaboration with William. Not attractive enough to marry and not wanting to be a servant she made lasting contributions to astronomy.  If she had been considered beautiful we would probably never have heard of her! Sad.

Sophie Germain (1776–1831) is another interesting example. She overcame family opposition to study mathematics. Not being allowed to attend the lectures of Joseph Lagrange (1736–1813) she obtained copies of his lecture notes from other students and submitted assignments under an assumed male name. Lagrange, to his credit, became her mentor when he found out that the outstanding student was a woman. She also used a pseudonym in her correspondence with Carl Gauss[2] (1777–1855). After her death, Gauss made the comment: [Germain] proved to the world that even a woman can accomplish something worthwhile in the most rigorous and abstract of the sciences and for that reason would well have deserved an honorary degree. High praise from someone like Gauss, but why: even a woman? It reminds one of the quote from Voltaire (1694–1778) regarding the mathematician Émilie du Châtelet (1706–1749): a great man whose only fault was being a woman. Fault? And so it goes. Even outstanding women are not allowed to stand on their own merits but are denigrated for being women.

But what about today, does this negative perception still continue? While I have observed that roughly ten percent of attendees at physics lectures tend to be female, the distribution is not uniform. There tend to be more women from countries like Italy and France. I once asked a German colleague if she thought Marie Curie as a role model played a role in the larger (or is that less small) number of female physicists from those counties. She said no, that it was more to do with physics not being as prestigious in those counties. Cynical but probably true; through prejudice and convention women are delegated to roles of less prestige rather than those reflecting their interests and abilities.

My mother is probably an example of that. The only outlet she had for her mathematical ability was tutoring hers and the neighbour’s children, and filling out the family income tax forms. From my vantage point, she was probably as good at mathematics as many of my colleagues. One wonders how far she could have gone given the opportunity, a B. Sc., a Ph. D? One will never know. The social conventions and financial considerations made it impossible. Her sisters became school teachers while she married a small time farmer and raised five children. It is a good thing she did because otherwise I would not exist.

To receive a notice of future posts follow me on Twitter: @musquod.

[1] A fellow graduate student who died many years ago of breast cancer.

[2] Probably the greatest mathematician that ever existed.


Tags: ,

  • Xezlec

    While I don’t deny the existence of social and cultural factors in the equation, I question the initial premise that anything other than a 50/50 sex ratio in the sciences (or any field) is an anomaly that needs to be explained or corrected. Do we really think it is impossible that males and females have different instinctive inclinations and preferences? I have often heard this hypothesis dismissed out of hand, but I’ve never seen anyone attempt to disfavor it by means of a rational argument. I’m not saying your mother wasn’t a victim of cultural biases, but how do we know for certain that there are as many women like her as there are male mathematicians? And even if some countries have closer to a 50/50 split, how do we know that that isn’t the result of a cultural bias *toward* women in science in those countries?

    And for a follow-up, even if all gender imbalance really is the result of cultural phenomena (which seems fairly likely since my instincts tend to be wrong about most things), is that necessarily bad? Don’t we value culture now? For instance, my own skill set, while probably not on a par with yours or your mother’s, nonetheless could have served me in any of a dozen different professions. I chose the one that was the most interesting to me, but who’s to say that what is interesting to me wasn’t determined in part by my culture? I’m very good at acting. If I had lived in a society like France that highly values the arts, would I have been a thespian instead of an engineer? And similarly, if women, affected by their cultures, embrace a different life than the one they would have in a different culture, is there any intellectual framework we can use to argue that one of those preferences is more “right” than the other? These kinds of questions bother me a lot.

    And in case anyone is offended by my comment here: I’m well aware that I don’t really know what I’m talking about. And in any case, I’m sure there is plenty of sexism in the world regardless of the answers to these questions. I don’t intend to diminish the plight of women in a male-dominated field, only to try to understand some of the finer points about which things we consider to be aspects of that problem and which ones we don’t know for sure are part of it.

  • Nice article, but I would like to mention also Emmy Noether, whose theorem is pervasive in theoretical physics


  • Pingback: Today’s Birthday: SOPHIE GERMAIN (1776) a mathematician | euzicasa()

  • Roha

    I found your last paragraph contradicting your stance in the article. You said your mom “probably as good at mathematics as many of my colleagues. One wonders how far she could have gone given the opportunity, a B. Sc., a Ph. D”. But then you say that it was a “good thing” that she got married, instead of getting a qualification, just so you could come into this world?

  • Mike Decker

    It’s such huge mess by now that the gender imbalances don’t really matter too much. I’m sure Emmy Noether enjoyed roughly the same respect as her male colleagues. Hopeless eccentrics. That was the equalizer. The kind of dull witted obsequiousness you tend to associate with the academically inclined. There might have been a peculiar kind of standoffishness when it comes to ostensibly cerebral career choices. Dangerously immersed in abstractions at the expense of earthier pursuits. Not just amongst women, though.
    If anything, the distinction you’re trying to make is the chasm that was presumed to exist between what used to be called the working class and the intelligentsia, boundaries that should have dissolved by now, in the realm of popular culture, anyway. What bonds the society together is a misapprehension of science, wanting to make it seem relentlessly innovative, in spite of the fact that most of the knowledge has already been acquired and assimilated. Chemistry is largely obsolete as a science now. Physics is even less interesting. Bogus knowledge tending to predominate.
    The big bang theory, for instance, speculating that the universe might have originated in some fashion, even if it flies in the face of the ordinariness that you tend to take for granted. Inertia tends to prevail, in the large, as everybody knows. Things can happen very quickly in the microcosm, and it might seem like the entire universe is being affected, a common illusion by now, thanks to the usual microelectronic conveniences.
    If you’re really wanting to invite women into the profession, you’d be better off to espouse hopelessly chauvinistic tendencies, like a sly matador. Open up the old wounds, Hemingway style. Emphasize the grave deficiencies. How likely is it that women are going to unlock the mysteries. You know how they can be. Unable to take the plunge, so to speak, and it’s a real source of frustration.
    Amateur experimentation is presumed to be obsolete by now, thanks to the advances that have been made and the expensive high powered machinery that seems to be required. With scattering experiments tending to predominate, an obsession that dates back to the 19th century. Hit and miss propositions. Not wanting to hit the jackpot.
    I worked at TRIUMF for one summer, when I was an undergrad. Rather pleasant, if not overly exciting. Lucky enough to be in the Theory Group, with Dr Fearing. Women tended to be the technicians, rather than the physicists, from what I can remember. Dale Adamson was the only other student in the combined honours program, and I think she was sort of outdistancing me. I dropped out eventually, and she might have followed through and fashioned a career for herself.
    Wouldn’t know what to say about TRIUMF. A dismal situation by now. It’s starting to look more like a Century 21 office, thanks to the encroaching development coming down Wesbrook, south of 16th, which used to be off limits. Maybe it’s time to shift gears, drop the lonely science guy routine, and get into selling real estate. Make some real money. An easy six week course.