The New York Times magazine ran a long piece on the not enough women in STEM subjects question last month. It’s by Eileen Pollack, who herself stopped short of doing physics as a career. She started from way behind as an undergraduate because No Girls Allowed…
I attended a rural public school whose few accelerated courses in physics and calculus I wasn’t allowed to take because, as my principal put it, “girls never go on in science and math.” Angry and bored, I began reading about space and time and teaching myself calculus from a book. When I arrived at Yale, I was woefully unprepared.
But she caught up, dammit. But guess what – jumping over hurdles gets tiring after awhile.
In the end, I graduated summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, with honors in the major, having excelled in the department’s three-term sequence in quantum mechanics and a graduate course in gravitational physics, all while teaching myself to program Yale’s mainframe computer. But I didn’t go into physics as a career. At the end of four years, I was exhausted by all the lonely hours I spent catching up to my classmates, hiding my insecurities, struggling to do my problem sets while the boys worked in teams to finish theirs. I was tired of dressing one way to be taken seriously as a scientist while dressing another to feel feminine. And while some of the men I wanted to date weren’t put off by my major, many of them were.
Mostly, though, I didn’t go on in physics because not a single professor — not even the adviser who supervised my senior thesis — encouraged me to go to graduate school. Certain this meant I wasn’t talented enough to succeed in physics, I left the rough draft of my senior thesis outside my adviser’s door and slunk away in shame. Pained by the dream I had failed to achieve, I locked my textbooks, lab reports and problem sets in my father’s army footlocker and turned my back on physics and math forever.
That was 1978. Recently she decided to try to find out if things had changed.
When I first returned to Yale in the fall of 2010, everyone kept boasting that 30 to 40 percent of the undergraduates majoring in physics and physics-related fields were women. More remarkable, those young women studied in a department whose chairwoman was the formidable astrophysicist Meg Urry, who earned her Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins, completed a postdoctorate at M.I.T.’s center for space research and served on the faculty of the Hubble space telescope before Yale hired her as a full professor in 2001. (At the time, there wasn’t a single other female faculty member in the department.)
In recent years, Urry has become devoted to using hard data and anecdotes from her own experience to alter her colleagues’ perceptions as to why there are so few women in the sciences. In response to the Summers controversy, she published an essay in The Washington Post describing her gradual realization that women were leaving the profession not because they weren’t gifted but because of the “slow drumbeat of being underappreciated, feeling uncomfortable and encountering roadblocks along the path to success.”
But shouldn’t they just tough it out? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, after all. If that makes them give up then they must be weak and fragile – right?
No. Innate obstacles are one thing, and stupid ones created by people being jackasses are another.
Pollack arranged to meet with some interview female students interested in science and gender so that she could interview them; she was told that few would be interested enough to show up. Wrong.
The students clamored to share their stories. One young woman had been disconcerted to find herself one of only three girls in her AP physics course in high school, and even more so when the other two dropped out. Another student was the only girl in her AP physics class from the start. Her classmates teased her mercilessly: “You’re a girl. Girls can’t do physics.” She expected the teacher to put an end to the teasing, but he didn’t.
Other women chimed in to say that their teachers were the ones who teased them the most. In one physics class, the teacher announced that the boys would be graded on the “boy curve,” while the one girl would be graded on the “girl curve”; when asked why, the teacher explained that he couldn’t reasonably expect a girl to compete in physics on equal terms with boys.
Wouldn’t it be nice if people would stop doing that? But no, wait, that’s “politically correct” – and we can’t have that. It’s much better to remain free to pour scorn on people so that they will doubt themselves and stop trying.
In the two years that followed, I heard similar accounts echoed among young women in Michigan, upstate New York and Connecticut. I was dismayed to find that the cultural and psychological factors that I experienced in the ’70s not only persist but also seem all the more pernicious in a society in which women are told that nothing is preventing them from succeeding in any field. If anything, the pressures to be conventionally feminine seem even more intense now than when I was young.
It’s a long process. So long that nobody gets to see it happen, perhaps.