Last week at a women in physics conference, a prominent physicist named Alessandro Strumia gave a talk that dismissed and downplayed the experience of many women in physics, facing barriers at every step of their career. While I’m unlikely to understand this topic anywhere near as well as my female colleagues who live this experience, I think it’s important to do some of the mental work here and give a response below.
First I want to respond to the big picture of the talk. From a birds eye view his primary logic can be summarized as follows,
- There are more men than women in the world who are talented enough to be a physicist since the standard deviation of the IQ distribution is larger for men.
- It is therefore natural that there are far fewer female physicists – female physicist do not face any discrimination.
This of course is a massive bait and switch. The first statement does not imply the second! While it is logically possible that removing all barriers to women in physics (even taking into account IQ plasticity, cultural biases in IQ tests and socialization) there still remains a gender asymmetry – either favouring or disfavouring women (after all, a lot of things are logically possible). But there is no way to test this hypothesis in the current unlevelled playing field, which does not allow for a “ceteris paribus” experiment at all.
It is both morally and logically absurd, as well as unscientific, to use a currently untestable hypothesis as a justification for the status quo. Strumia’s motives for this rhetorical strategy are unclear, and it could be to do with sincere sloppiness. But the strategy allows him to play the brave scientist – daring to question an inflexible orthodoxy – while demeaning female colleagues and vindicate his personal missed promotion. He showed an astonishing ignorance of the vast body of literature on the barriers women do face.
In fact, anyone can play this game! Watch this:
- Some countries have a higher labour productivity than others.
- Therefore economic disparity is fair.
See how easy that is? Lest anyone is unaware of the significant barriers my female colleagues face here is a (possibly incomplete) summary below.
- Strumia’s metric does not take extra duties into account
In preparation for this blog, I spent a bunch of time working through the literature on discrimination and the variability hypothesis. This is time that I have not spent thinking of new research ideas, writing papers or promoting my work. But I could just as equally go through my career not spending any mental work on this at all. That’s the privilege of being a man! My female colleagues by contrast almost have to have honorary PhDs in gender studies to be able to defend themselves this field, and serve as token members of committees. How many papers and citations is that work worth if it was spent on actual physics?
On top of all of this my female colleagues are probably losing a bit of research time this week being distracted by this talk. Things aren’t usually this explicit – but I suspect from observation that time is lost on almost a weekly basis due to mental work from some form of sexism. Over a career all this adds up in citations and papers lost. On top of that there is the added pressure in discussions and when presenting your work of worrying that if you say something stupid (which we all do) that you are confirming a stereotype.
A common response is “well you can’t be too sensitive in this field. You need thick skin!” Well, this is one of the few examples in this blog I have some direct experience to draw on. Roughly weekly I will hear a comment either in or outside the field that either says or implies that being religious suggests you are dumber and/or an inferior scientist. However, I also get to experience what the rough and tumble nature of the field is like as a white male. I can tell you that the experience of hearing you are intrinsically dumber (and losing hours being distracted by it) is simply not the same as navigating the turbulence of this field. The experiences are simply not the same.
Our female colleagues can distinguish between these experiences, so perhaps we should take them seriously when they tell us about their enhanced pressure. Not only is it unfair for women to shoulder this extra burden, but the field loses talent as a result.
- Caring tasks and parenting have not been accounted for
I recently saw my amazing wife give birth to two children. While I cannot ever go through the experience myself to fully understand how difficult it is, I can speak about my observations.
In the first trimester you probably have the dreaded morning sickness, which is basically like having a gastric bug a few hours a day for three months. You don’t get any sick leave for this, and are expected to continue your research at the same pace as the men around you. The second trimester is relatively normal – but in the third trimester you suddenly find yourself not being able to sleep, as the baby is now large enough to wake you up at night. Again, your citation count on inspire does not take these conditions into account. And this is still the easy part!
I watched my wife breastfeed, and for six weeks we had supply issues where feeding would take a full hour every three hours. We were on a cycle of three hours, where she would breastfeed and then pump for the time where our child was asleep, so there was enough milk. Breastfeeding sucks the energy out of your since it is like giving blood every three hours. Even if the male parent does all the other domestic work, the female parent still has a heavier physical burden. On top of that your child is unlikely to sleep full nights early on – for us it wasn’t until our baby was six months old that we consistently got six hours a night.
Again imagine doing research during all of this! It is pretty common for a woman to breastfeed for a full twelve months. If you have two children during your early career you can expect to be impaired 36 months during the most fragile time of your career (consider having 3 years of a 6-9 year postdoc career impaired). This is even before taking into account persistent gender differences in the labour division at home.
Now you might say “Having children is your own decision! Why should we change the system to accommodate it?” Consider the following:
- Do we really want disincentives for some of the most talented women in society to bear children?
- Do we really want to lose the talent of women who also have an ambition to have children and look elsewhere to careers that are more accommodating?
- Is it really unreasonable for the field to accommodate parents of young children?
The burden of bearing children can be made more evenly spread in several ways – this is a topic several countries are already exploring.
- Women have reduced access to networking opportunities
If you are attending a conference as a female in this field consider the following,
- Most social activities there are chosen by and designed for men. These are not necessarily always choices everyone feels comfortable with. For example, having a beer one-on-one, or sitting in a hot tub at a workshop.
- Some activities you can not participate in, even if you wanted to. For instance, male physicist may be allocated shared accommodation.
- Missing out on all of this means less opportunity to bond, advertise your work, and you may miss out on stimulating research discussions or new projects.
- We are all sensitive to implicit bias
All of us absorb a culture around us, which is rife with sexist messages. It’s difficult to avoid some of these messages affecting the lens through which you view the careers of (other) female physicists. Some examples are
- Who do you pitch research projects to?
- Who do you try and work with?
- Who do you cite when doing a literature review?
- What determines good research taste?
- How do you referee a research paper or a grant proposal?
Gender bias may affect these decisions in subtle but definitive ways. Throughout a career, the cumulative effect may be very harmful.
- Sexual harassment has devastating effects
It’s very easy to dismiss this as a fringe factor, which affects few women. Alarmingly its not. Between 20-40 percent of women in STEM careers report sexual harassment during their careers according to the studies referred to here . This of course does not even count women who have experienced behaviour that was inappropriate, but not identified as sexual harassment by the victim. How do such experiences influence careers? How many talented female scientists leave our field? How many citations and papers are lost due to the distraction and trauma caused by this?
- Socialization and self-non-identification affect many young women
In searching for a path in life, people look for role-models, which whom they can identify. The vast majority of public scientists are male. Whether consciously or subconsciously, girls start to identify as non-STEM during their early teens – this is not surprising. Without examples, would you expect many to conclude that a career in theoretical physics is a normal and socially acceptable ambition? Add to this the repeated messages that women all throughout primary and high school that women are weaker at STEM. All this adds up to women choosing other careers and the field losing talented women as a result.
- We have not shed hiring discrimination in high energy physics
Finally after all these barriers, you still face one final barrier: you may face implicit or explicit bias when applying for faculty positions. These days, some institutes take some affirmative action which does address this last barrier (and only this last barrier!). Strumia proposes some research of his own, which suggests that this last barrier may be sufficiently compensated for, and this measures may perhaps even partly compensate for some of the previous barriers at the hiring level. So credit to him for that research! Of course the great privilege of being a male is that we can make these statements, without doing the mental work of trying to work out how what we found ties in with other literature including recent work. Unfortunately, this due diligence shows that women still face barriers at the hiring step in STEM . The cherry-picking in Strumia’s argument is disappointing: in what scientific setting do you not have to grapple with different lines of evidence to see where they are converging? Of course, us men do not often have to worry about this: no one expects us to be well-versed in gender studies to survive in this field!
This blog post was written by Graham White, postdoctoral researcher in theoretical particle physics at TRIUMF, Canada.