When I started the Quantum Messenger, I made the decision not to talk about gender, at least not for a while. Not because I don’t care about the issue: as a woman in physics I have obviously noted and dreaded the underrepresentation of my gender. But I did not want to risk this becoming a one-dimensional blog; I did not want to start out as (just) the feminist physicist, because I want to talk about many different things.
So why talk about it now? I’ve recently had a couple of conversations and discussions in which it became clear to me how much confusion and misunderstanding there really is about the issue, and more importantly, about how best to address it.
Firstly, I would like to make the general remark that I think that no one outside of a minority should be allowed to say that things are “not so bad” for said minority. There is a fundamental risk that such a statement rests on an incomplete experience of the status quo.
It is my belief that many of the differences between the sexes (including their representation in research fields such as my own) stem from cultural expectations and selective bias. That may be the sum of components we are not even aware of, such as the fact that heroes in children’s books are predominantly male, encouraged behaviour in children by both parents and media, expectations in the classroom, even the way we use language (“be a man”, “my pretty princess”). I think it is most clearly illustrated by this segment of an interview with Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
In my personal experience to date, things have actually not been so bad as a woman in my research field. But, and here’s the crux, often things don’t have to be unspeakably bad to lower minority participation. Rather, it can be the sum of lots of little things that discourages people to consider a career path.
I have only experienced these social forces in a comparatively meagre form, but I can still find some examples to share. When I scored well in the natural sciences in high school, I was encouraged to go into health care a lot more often than I was to do a more technical degree, and I’ve wondered if my gender was a (subconscious) factor in that advice. There have also certainly been people and even lecturers along the way that made women-in-the-kitchen jokes in situations such as the classroom. I have never not met a surprised gaze when I introduced myself as a physicist, and people have even assumed I was support staff, in the wrong room, a girlfriend of, etc.
Such things may attribute to people part of a minority feeling a higher pressure to prove themselves. I don’t particularly lack personal confidence but being (perhaps too) aware of being different has definitely made me hesitate to participate in the past, out of fear of confirming stereotypes. It is hard not to feel like an ambassador for your gender or other minority, and that can be a heavy load to carry.
I don’t have an easy solution, except that I think we should think deeply about how to tackle our personal gender bias, and minority biases in a broader sense. Everyone holds them, and I don’t think we should have the illusion that people will ever be completely bias-free either. However, the right response should be to be aware of your own personal bias and to reason against it.
 I hope you are as annoyed about this title as I am. It will become clear why I chose it anyways, if you watch the Neil DeGrasse Tyson video. But really, watch it, it’s good.
 With which, I must say, I personally had a lot of support from my excellent present and past advisors, but not everyone gets that lucky.
More intersting links: