Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Melissa Franklin, Harvard Physicist

The Harvard Crimson reports on the frank remarks of high-energy physicist Melissa Franklin upon winning the Spark Award for Women In Science from the Women in Science at Harvard-Radcliffe. Franklin was the first tenured female professor in the Harvard physics department.

Franklin said women in science today are probably no longer experiencing many of the challenges she had faced.

“The fact that you can sit here and look at me like I’m insane is fantastic,” Franklin said.

But she said society is still pervaded by the notion that women are naturally unsuited to science.

“What hasn’t changed is the fact that many men think that women aren’t the smartest,” Franklin said. “It’s just a belief they hold without having thought about it much.”
Franklin's experience isn't from the distant past; she received her PhD in 1982. However, when Franklin arrived at the Harvard Physics department it was truly an "old boy's club".
[Harvard physics professor Howard] Georgi describes the physics department in the 1980s as a male club that was "something out of an old English novel." But while chair in the early 1990s, he made the issue of women a top priority, and junior professor Melissa Franklin became the first tenured woman in physics. Since then, two more women have joined the senior ranks. Did he meet resistance? "Resistance is the wrong word--it was more bemusement and lack of understanding," he says.

Despite the relatively progressive atmosphere among Harvard physicists, however, Franklin says "this is not the nicest place to be an old woman. People are still condescending. They can be pretty rude." She recalls, for example, being asked in a departmental meeting to speak more quietly. "It was as if I was being told to be somebody else," she says. How does she cope? "You move a little way out of the action; you do your own thing," she says. "And sometimes I go into my secretary's office and cry." (From "Tenured Women Battle to Make it Less Lonely at the Top", Science 286 (5443): 1272 - 1278 (1999), subscription required).

Franklin considers the cutthroat competitiveness in many science departments to be one of the factors that discourages women from pursuing a career in science.

"[It's] no longer people saying things like, 'You shouldn't be in physics.' It's more the feeling you get: Does this person think you're smart or not?" Franklin says. "Eventually you spend all your time thinking about that."

Franklin says the competitive atmosphere fostered in science departments by their mostly male faculty members exacerbates this lack of confidence in women. "The problem is that people don't know what it feels like to be a minority in a field and they can't really understand," Franklin says.

I'd like to think that the presence of pioneering women like Frankin in science and engineering departments can make a difference in that atmosphere.

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