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Steve Nahn | USLHC | USA

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Women in Physics

Well, I am a bit leery of this potentially inflammatory subject, but this issue has been popping up with considerable frequency lately, including  Colette’s comment to new blogger Vivian (Hi Viv), a NYT article from some weeks ago, and a Physics division all hands meeting to try to brainstorm about what we can do to increase diversity within our ranks.  Yes indeed, the gender ratio of bloggers is not representative of the field.  I suppose this is true for all jobs which aren’t “9-5”, but in Physics it is apparently more pronounced.

Now, for fairly obvious reasons I do not feel like I have a reasonable appreciation for what creates this disparity.    There are some common reasons I think I at least can rationalize:

  • the pipeline: that culturally we have unconsciously swayed young women away from the hard sciences at a young age, so there just aren’t as many female candidates for advanced degrees and academic positions in Physics.  There is truth to this, but some inconsistencies too, mentioned in the NYT article.
  • the critical mass: potentially excellent female physicists are dissuaded from the field because they don’t want to be the only woman among coworkers-it is always lonely in the minority.
  • an MIT specialty- the firehose: success in this field is quite demanding, like drinking from a firehose, there is a deluge of things to deal with in a very short time – many hoops to jump through, lots of long hours, very little time for non-work pursuits, none of which is particularly conducive to family life, although I do not understand why this should have a gender specific effect.

There are probably others, but as I am not female, I am not really in a position to speculate.   I welcome suggestions.

If I think about my own situation, it is definitely true that my (wonderful) wife does the lion’s share of the child rearing tasks these days, and being away at CERN for multiple weeks at a time is not something I could do if she weren’t so flexible.  This seems to be the case for (almost?) all of my male peers with children- the spouses are typically at home or have flexible working hours and do most of the heavy lifting in terms of child care.    For married female peers, first, there aren’t a lot of statistics, that’s the point of this blog.  I know a few who have  solved the “two body” problem and have husbands also working a strenuous schedule, even some who work in different cities/states, but they do not have kids, and arrange to fly a lot to be together when schedules allow, etc.  I know less that do have children, and depend on a nanny/daycare for child care.  Still, those options require someone to be home at the end of the day and on weekends, which is not always possible for the aspiring physicist.

But here’s the real kicker, I guess: I cannot think of a single example of the opposite of my situation- the wife is working the time consuming job and the husband has the flexible job and does the child rearing.   Maybe there’s another “critical mass” which is lacking, and that is the “stay at home” Dad, so a woman is forced to choose between a less time consuming career and having kids, or going for that time consuming career and either finding that rare partner who takes on the role of primary child rearer, or ending up without kids.  (Note I am not saying there is anything wrong with not having kids, but my impression is that most of us have the expectation that we’ll have offspring at some point.)  It is certainly true that physicists tend to have kids late, (perhaps post-tenure? there’s  study for someone) – I know because I am the exception, with a 13 and 11 year old- the vast majority of my peers have kids ~5-8 years younger than mine, or more, and maybe that delay while the biological clock is still ticking plays a role as well?

I do know that both at MIT and in the field as a whole we are trying to do something about it.  The American Physics Society has a Committee on the Status of Women in Physics and a  Women in Physics program, which offers site visits to improve the climate for fostering women (and other minorities) in your department, and the results of a survey titled “Is your Graduate Department in Physics Female Friendly?” which 168 insitutions (including MIT) have responded to.  At MIT, the Physics Dept. supports both graduate women in physics and undergraduate women in physics groups, and in my own division 2 of the last 3 hires were women (who are also excellent physicists).  My point is that there is desire and effort to improve the situation, but exactly how to do that is not particularly clear, at least to me- part of the meeting today was to raise awareness and brainstorm a bit, so that was the straw that broke the camel’s back for writing this blog- you are invited to share your opinions (although we will censor with a conservative fist lest this turn into “the battle of the sexes“).

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