University of Chicago astrophysicist Evalyn Gates spoke at Cornell University on April 23 on the lack of women in physics. She finds it shocking that, while women make up nearly 50% of undergraduate math and chemistry majors, they represent only 22% of undergrad physics majors and less than 5% of full professors in physics. The Cornell Chronicle reports that Gates has a novel way of looking at the problem:
She said that the scientific community also needs to approach this problem like any other: "First identify the problem, review what's already known, analyze the data, account for biases and backgrounds and then experiment to improve the next generation."The slides from Gates' presentation are available on the Cornell Women in Physics site.
That's a revolutionary approach, considering that many physicists think the discrepancy is simply generational, and that time itself will even out the gender imbalance, she said.
"They're in denial. Meritocracy is a deeply cherished belief -- it's in everyone's best interest to believe that the brightest and most motivated students will succeed," said Gates. The data show, however, that merit is not what is keeping women out of physics.
In 2005, Gates wrote an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune in response to Harvard President Lawrence Summer's suggestion that innate differences between men and women are the root cause of the gender gap in the sciences. She points out the ridiculousness of that argument when there are clearly cultural reasons for some of the differences between men and women (and boys and girls) :
A man walking down the road comes upon another man who has an elephant sitting on his chest. Seeing that the second man is struggling for breath and wanting to help in some way, the first man thinks very hard for a few minutes.
"My friend, " he says gravely, " you might want to see a doctor - such shortness of breath as you so clearly exhibit can be a sign of a serious heart problem."
Then, nodding his head sagely, he continues down the road, pleased that he remembered the recent warnings of the Surgeon General and happy that he was able to help a fellow traveler.
Now, the trapped man may indeed have a heart problem (although he didn't before the elephant tackled him, and the fact that he's still alive in spite of the elephant's weight and the stress of the situation would argue his heart must be in pretty good shape) but it's rather ridiculous, not to mention very bad manners, to even speculate on such possibilities while the elephant is still happily parked upon the poor man's chest.
The real trouble is that some are still unable to see that dern elephant.
- Discussion on the letters page of the December 2006 issue of Physics Today of Gates' editorial in that journal, including Gates' measured reply. R. Stanek has a more snarky red-editing-pen response to the correspondents claiming that there really is no bias in physics (via AstroDyke).
- Gates' official University of Chicago Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics profile.
- Gates' personal page with more information about her research