Several people, including Peter Woit (before me) and Sean Carroll (after me) wrote essays about women in physics, and because I think that this issue is very interesting (and in the American academia, it is also clouded by feminist mist and myths - which is a nice combination of syllables, is it not?), I can't resist to write something about the topic as well.
The male scientists do not have a monopoly in their fields anymore. There are fields in which the women are making more impressive contributions than men.
Also in physics, we are surrounded by many women and girls who are very smart. They can also be smart and beautiful, if you allow me to make another point. They can write papers that are more technical than the papers of their male colleagues, and they can be stronger personalities when they defend an idea. The most cited high-energy physicist in the last 5 years is female, and I am happy that her office is next to mine. The president of the APS is female, too. Marie Curie Sklodowski had received two Nobel prizes for physics and chemistry and Maria Göppert Mayer one physics Nobel prize. Nevertheless, the percentage of women in physics continues to be small. Usually we don't distinguish the physicists according to their gender - and I think that generally we should not distinguish - but sometimes it may be useful or it may be fun.
That's a good point to start. Let me redefine the word "feminism" to denote the ideology based on the assumption that females are being exploited by the males, and radical steps must be done against it. Many of us have lived in a regime based on "marxism-leninism" which is based, among other things, on the idea that the working class is being exploited by the capitalists, and radical steps must be done against it. Well, some steps have unfortunately been taken in the latter case, and many of us have had experienced the consquences.
The formulation of the previous paragraph makes it clear that I am not going to defend this type (and most other types) of feminism. Incidentally, a feminist according to my definition does not have to be female. It can be a male, but then it means that something is not right about him, I think.
Feminists also believe that men and women do not differ in any way (perhaps, some of the most realistic feminists realize that there are at least some differences related to reproductive physiology). They believe all possible types of unscientific ideas. For example, they believe that the only natural state of affairs is when males and females have the same representation (50 percent vs. 50 percent) in every single field of human activity, and anything else proves that there must necessarily be some discrimination going on.
The influence of this ideology at the U.S. academic institutions - namely the policies that try to "protect women that are discriminated" - is discouraging for several groups of people:
- first of all, the affirmative action is discouraging for the successful and talented females (or other "minorities") who want to be (and can be) equally good or better than their male (and other female) colleagues. The existence of affirmative action tells them: "If you get a job or an award, it's not quite because of your abilities and work. It's partly a bonus for your not having a penis (or for having a different color of your skin than your friend, or whatever else)." I know very many women (and members of other "minorities") who don't need any support of this sort. In fact, I would even say that every time this discussion starts somewhere, the girls who are already in physics confirm that they don't want this "help".
- the idea that the affirmative action may have been relevant for a decision creates the feeling among many people that the particular women are worse at the end, even though it is often not the case.
- the propaganda that the girls must have the same good results in physics and maths at the basic schools and the high schools causes unnecessary frustration for many of the "ordinary" girls who are really not interested in math and physics - because this propaganda makes them think that it must be their personal problem if they're not as interested in math and physics as their male classmates which is often the case.
- the stereotypes about the "abusive emotional relationships" between "senior" male professors and "junior" female graduate students, which is the usual way how the "problem" is being presented, is potentially devastating for many relationships, and it does not reflect reality too well. In general, the assumption that an emotional relationship must be "abusive" by default is just a wrong and counterproductive assumption - an assumption that effectively contradicts the presumption of innocence.
I hope that it is not such a secret - and I can tell you that my diploma thesis advisor in Prague (please don't ask me about the name, to keep it partially confidential) - whom I consider my friend, and we wrote a textbook together - married my classmate. She simply fell in love with him during the first lecture, and finally it worked out, despite the 20+ years age difference.
I personally find it disturbing if someone has the courage to publicly question their relationship just because he was a teacher and she was his student. Such a questioning simply violates what I consider to be a respect to basic human freedoms, and a respect to important relationships between the people - it's a disrespect to love itself. But of course, the "mainstream" approach to such questions depends on the culture and traditions of each country (even though I believe that there is not too much difference between the USA and Czechia at the end).
Don't get me wrong: I can imagine that there are abusive relationships, and something should be done with many of them. But it's just wrong to assume that a relationship must be like that, and it also wrong to assume that the abusing person always has the same gender and job, which is a different gender and job from the abused person.
It's also very unbalanced to create a false stereotype in which the teachers are trying to date their students, and not the other way around. I know more examples of the second category that is claimed to be virtually absent in the USA. It's very hard to believe it. Also, it is not too natural to think that it is always the males who become the abusing ones.
The myths about discrimination as the universal explanation
Now, let me say that it does not sound realistic that the girls are currently discriminated at many places if they want to become physicists. Moreover, I claim that all of us who understand how the universities work must know that no visible discrimination exists. The average girls simply do not like physics as much as many boys do, even if they are supported. It's not something that is guaranteed to be the case forever, but today it is simply an observable fact, regardless of its explanation. Most of my female classmates at the basic school and the high school openly declared that they hated math and physics, despite the attempts of the teachers to make them like the subjects. Of course, such observations have their exceptions, but I've met a sufficient number of people to claim that my statistical ensemble is large enough to start to make realistic conclusions. I am sure that most people must agree that it is true - that the girls usually hate math and physics - and the people who claim that it is not the case had to be brought up in the vacuum.
Genders have played slightly different roles in the society for centuries and millenia - but even if they did not, there are just so many biological (and biochemical) differences that a different "typical" focus of the two genders just could not be surprising.
Another factor is - and this paragraph was added later - that the boys typically have higher fluctuations from the average which implies a higher concentration at both ends of the "linear spectrum of abilities", whatever this simplified construct exactly means. This fact that the males have larger fluctuations (in their aptitude etc.) has an evolutionary explanation - the number of children that a female has is more uniform which discourages Nature from making too many experiments with the females - while, on the other hand, males can have very many (or no) children which means that "better survivors" may be generated if Nature allows the men to fluctuate a little bit more.
The male and female brain work differently in details and hundreds of differences are known. The average male brane has 20 percent more neurons than the average female brain (23 vs. 19 billion of cells, according to a certain "normalization"). The latter has more connections between the neurons than the male brain, but I can't tell you any numbers. When thinking about language, one can show (by EEG) that both female hemispheres, but only one male hemisphere, is active. The hormones influence the brain in many different ways, and so forth.
Also, one of these two brains is dominated by gray matter while the other is predominantly run by white matter. This sentence was also added later.
The expansion of the cortex has been a critical stage in the evolution of the humans. No doubt, the human cortex is much more developed than the cortex of chimps and gorillas. A related fact is that the chimps and gorillas have less than 10 billion neurons; the rats only have 65 million neural cells or so. If we talk about biology of mammals, the size of the brain does matter, and only very silly (or strongly ideologically blinded) people may argue that the size is completely irrelevant for the functioning of all brains in general.
Various other differences (hundreds of differences) between the male and female brains are known (they are related to hormone, genes, anatomy, physiology, and the early evolution of the embryos), and it seems that ordinary people know them better than many of my colleagues scientists. See, for example, the following pages:
Let me point out that it may be a waste of time to talk to those people who simply believe that the sexual organs are "the only difference between the men and women" because these people have not fully adopted a scientific way of thinking. They obviously can't observe the world around, and they are unable to click at the five links above and learn the elementary stuff.
On the other hand, the number of neurons is certainly not the only factor that influences the way how a person (or an animal) thinks and how capable is she or he to perform different types of mental activity. Let me emphasize that the possible conclusions about the correlations between anatomy and mental abilities should not affect the decisions about any particular individual; we can learn much more about anyone if we talk to him or her than if we measure some physical parameters. On the other hand, these possible correlations are the necessary considerations that we must make when we try to explain some statistical data, which is necessary for rational policymaking.
Physical weakness as an explanation?
Concerning the female "weakness", I just don't buy it. The females can be equally or more powerful - sometimes even physically - as the males. I would guess that my colleague in the department who can be the toughest one in her criticism of string theorists, for example, is female. ;-) And there are other examples like that. Sometimes it is not the case, and a certain amount of aggressivity is a necessary assumption for many jobs (and unlike others, I don't think that physics is the totally best example). This will be discussed in the next section.
There may be parents who are discouraging their daughters from becoming physicists. At the end, I don't believe that most parents would become upset if their daughter is a successful physicist or engineer, for example. But even in those cases, the parents simply have the right to try to influence their daughters (and sons) within the mantinels defined by the law. Being a parent of someone is not something that you can just ignore. And the daughters and the sons have the opportunity to disagree and revolt. And many do.
Arrogance, aggressiveness, competitiveness
Some people try to argue that it is not a real discrimination but rather the atmosphere of competitiveness, arrogance, and aggressiveness that discourages young women from becoming physicists. Well, the following comments come to mind:
- physics is certainly not viewed as the most aggressive, arrogant, and competitive field by the general public. In fact, just the contrary is closer to the truth. The mathematicians (and physicists, for that matter) are viewed as "sissy". No doubt, politics, wrestling, and other sports are examples of human activities that are viewed as much more aggressive and competitive.
- there is no hard evidence that the women would be more discouraged by these three things than the men. Many women are attracted by aggressivity, and so forth.
- on the other hand, these three things, at least in some concentration, are often important for the development of the field, and it is certainly not only true about physics. One can eliminate competitiveness, for example, but this is more or less guaranteed to reduce the efficiency. Is the balanced percentage of different groups more important than whether we will be able to find the truth? I don't think so.
- physicists, especially the theoretical physicists, often use big words to explain the role of their field in the scheme of things. The main role of theoretical high-energy physics, for example, is to reveal the most fundamental rules that underlie all phenomena (or at least, as many as possible) in the Universe and their mathematical encapsulation - and this quest is obviously more intellectually demanding and important than feminist studies, for example. Alan Sokal has shown that whole fields in social science are pure rubbish, and a physicist who knows why he chose his or her field will agree.
- if someone does not like this description of hierarchy in science because it is "arrogant", he or she should not have chosen theoretical physics. If the understanding of the role of theoretical physics as above is how "arrogance" is defined, then "arrogance" is an important feature for a theoretical physicist, I think. We study the field because we think that it is important and it excites us, and if someone finds it unimportant, she or he should choose a different field. Why? It's not just because she or he can contribute more in the other field, but she or he will also feel more satisfied with her or his own work.
- yes, this feeling of the importance of our field and our work is analogous to other feelings in other fields (including wrestling, and the number of push-ups, and other examples by Sean), but this means no problem for the society that "smears out" these different viewpoints. Also, it is important that some people are able to argue and decide which activities are important - otherwise there would be no tools to decide how various fields should be funded, for example.
- I see the exactly opposite problem than the "problem" described by Sean, for example. Current string theorists and physicists in general are just too "nice", and this atmosphere is correlated with the reduced amount of progress that we're doing (whichever is the cause vs. the effect). I know that Nima Arkani-Hamed agrees with me, for example, and the people who say the opposite statement seem to be disconnected from reality.
The affirmative action - or the positive discrimination, as we call it in the EU - is not right. It does not really help, and it is not fair. Its goals are based on scientifically unjustified, arbitrary assumptions. It creates bad feelings, stereotypes, and havoc in many decisions. Women have had the same rights (in almost all aspects of life where it's possible) as men for quite some time. Talented female mathematicians and physicists, such as Emmy Noether, have already been able to succeed 100 years ago. In Noether's case, it is David Hilbert, not the feminist movement, who can be credited for making sure that all conceivable prejudices were irrelevant already in 1907.
There will always be some differences between the genders, I think and I hope, and it's time to stop inventing ghosts that are supposed to be hurting the women behind the scenes - because the real consequence are antighosts that are hurting the actual women in reality, and the only difference between a ghost and an antighost is the sign of the ghost number.Note added later: If you want to see a reaction of an actual self-identified feminist, click here. Obviously, there exist different opinions about this issue.
The author argued that Sean Carroll has beautifully explained that the physicists are - let me paraphrase it - arrogant white male assholes (congratulations, Sean!), and she calls for a cultural revolution in physics. Also, she effectively admires her feminist movement for having discovered the localized gravity and warped geometry.
Also, she argues that Lisa Randall is definitely too old and she definitely could not study at a good university. If she used the internet search engines, she could have found out the Lisa is not that old and that she received her PhD as well as BS from Harvard which is not such a bad school.