June 15, 2019

DISPATCHES FROM THE EDUCATION APOCALYPSE: An Unhelpful Study about Women in Physics.

Regarding item 3, what constitutes “suggesting people of your sex or gender are not as good at physics or math”? If people have literally said “Women can’t do physics” then they should apologize and change. On the other hand, suppose that a peer mentions arguments from James Damore’s controversial memo on gender gaps in STEM. Damore repeatedly rejected blanket statements about women, emphasizing the wide ranges of interests and abilities in both sexes (see, for instance, the figures at the top of page 4 of the memo). Nonetheless, reporters at leading newspapers have characterized him as arguing “that maybe women were not equally represented in tech because they were biologically less capable of engineering.” Since even journalists with professional obligations to check printed statements against original sources mischaracterize Damore’s detailed, footnoted memo in this way, it is quite possible that a student would similarly misinterpret offhand summaries of such arguments. Still, it would not follow that the physics community is a hotbed of sexism; it would simply mean that physicists should reflect on how to better approach difficult conversations.

Regarding item 4, how do people know that treatment is unequal and due to gender? Yes, sexist treatment does happen, and it is never acceptable. However, too many people have said “they’d never do this to a man” about things that routinely happen to men. For instance, a woman professor has lamented to me that a man delivered a soliloquy about how terrible his professors were when he took classes on her subject (at a different university), and suggested that everyone in her field should follow his suggestions for improvement. She took this to be a classic example of “mansplaining.” Alas, non-physicists—of both sexes!—routinely tell me (a cisgender male) what was wrong with their high school or college physics classes. What she regards as mansplaining, I experience as a daily occupational hazard.

Conversely, it’s entirely possible that the survey respondents have experienced unambiguously unequal treatment. Unfortunately, we don’t know what that mistreatment is or who perpetrates it. Do we need to admonish male students to let female peers participate as equals in study groups? Do we need to train laboratory instructors to give equal attention to men and women as they troubleshoot equipment? Or do we need to fire department heads who only bestow plum research opportunities upon men? We lack sufficient information to take targeted, relevant, and effective steps.

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