Women in physics: seven comments for Alessandro Strumia
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.
7 thoughts on “Women in physics: seven comments for Alessandro Strumia”
Just to add to your comment about networking activities and how they are often engineered to exclude groups people: I was asked recently to organise a well-known meeting which lasts roughly 2 weeks. At the end, I had to decline because I was told there was an expectation that I should lead scientific discussions until late hours, and this was incompatible with bringing my family to the meeting. I was told that was part of the ‘tradition’ which makes this meeting successful. As a postdoc and younger scientist, I participated in earlier editions of the meeting, never joined late night drinking discussions (I like to sleep at night, somehow improves my thinking, and I’m not into drinking) and I somehow managed to do a lot of good work and help making the meeting a success. This is of course just a mild example of yet another hurdle, which joins all the others along the way. Maybe we should postpone the discussion on innate abilities until we have level playing field.
Thanks a lot for sharing Veronica. You make a very valid point.
Most of these points (perhaps without 3) are very generic. How is it then that women are the majority in health, social studies, Law and education? How do those fields differ from STEM? How did they overcome these hurdles?
And secondly, in your summary: “It is therefore natural that there are far fewer female physicists – female physicist do not face any discrimination.”
The first thing is still true. (if you accept 1). The second part does *not* follow from the first part. What Jumia (and Damore and others) are saying is that there may be other explanations than *only* discrimination that explain the M/F ratio in physics and at Google.
What is the really scary part, imho, is that the stats as presented by Jumia show there seems to be a correlation between gender equality countries and bias in favor of women hired. I would love to see data that debunks this.
Graham: Thank you for your response! I’m not sure what you mean by your first point. Are you asking for info on how other fields overcame these problems or why they don’t have these problems? If its the latter a lot of these issues get tackled when women have enough presence in a field. The initial conditions of physics was sexist and thats created a culture with lots of barriers baked in. For your second point Strumia really did make this fallacy while demeaning female colleagues, minimizing and denying the barriers they experience (not to mention the large literature supporting that they face such barrriers). It’s not like Strumia said “hmm i wonder if this could be part of the explanation but in the meantime lets remove these barriers” and faced a massive backlash. You can actually publish on the variability hypothesis within the appropriate field. However, the point is that given the plasticity of our brains and personality you can’t actually test if there would be variability on a level playing field until their is a level playing field (the final result could just as equally favour more women than men in stem by the way). On the final point the paper referenced is fairly recent (feb 2018) so with any study you have to wait until people try and repeat it with different methods and how it fits into the wider body of evidence in meta-analysis which could take a few years. My immediate reaction though (which seems to be supported by some follow up research) is that its explained by the fact that STEM is a very international field. Therefore, STEM gets more or less sexist as an international community and if a country gets more egalitarian STEM because more sexist in a relative sense. So I suspect its not a paradox. For a point by point rebuttal a complimentary effort was made on particlesforjustice.com which includes some useful links discussing these issues.
Ok, that is Strumia, not Lumia. My Italian is a bit rusty 🙂
The main point Strumia raised was that using gender quotas is a also a discrimination. Even if it is done for willing to do good, it is still a discrimination because it uses a criteria – gender – that has nothing to do with merit and competence.
He showed how it is impossible to even question that all the differences in STEM are due do discrimination only.
Regarding the so called gender literature – or grievance studies – I suggest also to read the work of these three scientists that showed how it is possible to publish absurd papers by acknowledging the main idea of discrimination: https://www.economist.com/science-and-technology/2018/10/06/another-set-of-fake-papers-takes-aim-at-social-sciences-nether-regions
Thank you for your comment Mark. This actually wasn’t Strumia’s main point, or at least if it was the slides were very poor at communicating that. If it was, then its a poor point, there is strong evidence that women face additional hurdles (as described in this post, which I recommend you to actually read) and it follows there should be means to not just address those hurdles, but to compensate for them while they are still being addressed.
For your second point its not as if Strumia said “hmmm I wonder if part of this can be explained by the variability hypothesis, but in the meantime lets remove these barriers” and had this reaction. You can publish on the variability hypothesis in the appropriate field. However, the point is that given the plasticity of our brains and personality you can’t actually test if there would be variability on a level playing field until there is a level playing field (the final result could just as equally favour more women than men in stem by the way). Strumia made a logical fallacy while demeaning his colleagues and denying their experience of additional barriers which is supported by the social sciences.
On your third point: even though I rarely relied on the literature in this blog post (again, it would be nice to get some evidence that you actually read it, since your comment seems completely decoupled), I would like to point out that the studies you link to seem to question the editorial choice about what subjects (dog rape) are considered interesting by that particular editor. Thats irrelevant to studies on implicit bias which I draw on. Of course, it is always important to wait until there have been multiple studies on a subject before giving judgement. This is the case for the implicit bias studies.