Progress is slow

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.


  1. says

    Just today, I had my teacher in a class I’m taking for a professional certification drop some casual sexism on me. He wanted me to take the reins for some field work we’ll be doing tomorrow “so we can see how smart women really are.”

    “I’m not ‘women.'”

    “Right, well, woman.”

    “I’m as smart as I am.”

    “I know, I’m just teasing you. I want to make sure you can handle this.”

    “You think I haven’t dealt with this sort of thing during my whole career? But I get it, you’re ragging on me because of the whole sexism thing.”

    “I just want you to be as good as anybody else out there in the field.”

    That last really is his true motivation. He is trying to help. But the whole exchange just stressed me out. I would want to be as good as anybody in the field ANYWAY. And yeah, sometimes I’m going to meet people who are going to judge me as less competent because tits. But my teacher, bless his heart, doesn’t actually KNOW how best to deal with that sort of bullshit, and his ignorant attempts to help me just ended up increasing my exposure to it.


  2. says

    I studied electrical engineering as an undergraduate in the mid 1980’s. In our classes of 40-50 students, there was exactly one woman student, and one woman professor in the EE department. My peers in undergraduate Computer Science reported the same thing in their classes. I graduated in 1988 and worked for eleven years before returning for graduate school in Computer Science, and found the EE program to be largely the same (a few more women professors, though), and the philosophy/math/physics programs to still be distinctly male.

    However, the graduate Computer Science program in 1999 had changed: it was now about 1/4 women as students, and the faculty makeup had changed as well. I don’t know for sure what happened to bring this about in that one department at that school in those eleven years, but I strongly suspect it had to do with the faculty changes. My own research advisor was a woman and she was always welcoming to anyone who wanted her advice, male or female. She went on to become department chair during my last semester. Role models, natch.

  3. says

    I work in construction: I’m getting my certification to be a residential energy auditor. I am the only woman in my class. There is one other woman who works at the company currently, and she’s a scheduler/receptionist. There’s also the boss’ wife, she does payroll. I asked; my teacher said that about 80% of the classes he teaches are all men. Ridiculous.

    Recently a woman applied to be an installer with the company. I don’t know if they hired her. I hope so.

  4. Ysanne says

    I know that feeling of being the only girl in AP Physics, I was that too (in the German equivalent). We started off by some of the guys declaring that girls can’t do physics (the ones I knew beforehand knew better than to chime in, but didn’t speak up).
    We ended up with me scoring best on every single test in those 2 years. Most guys realised within the first two weeks that they’d been operating on a “girl cooties” mindset, and were openly grateful to getting that changed. Two exceptions: One concluded “she’s not a girl” after the first term, not in the awkward-but-good-intentions way, and the other just dove head-first into cognitive dissonance and claimed right until the end that girls are biologically unfit to do maths/physics while getting his ass handed to him 3 times a week. He managed to keep this up at the reunion, on hearing that I’d finished my maths PhD.

    Guess which of these people went into a scientific/technical career where they could actually encounter other women doing science, and which took the business studies route and are now in management/hiring positions for tech-related companies. Yep, just the wrong way round.

  5. quixote says

    And then there’s Ruth Britto-Pacumio. Up there in the stratosphere of her class at MIT. Came up with what sounds to me as a rank amateur like a new geometry to understand space and time, a way that may open the door for the next stage in physics. She sounds a bit like an Einstein of our time.

    And after she got her degree, it’s like she fell off the planet. According to Wikipedia, she hasn’t died. But no publications, no meetings, no nothing. Gone.

    Senator Klobuchar’s office estimates the cost of turnover due to discrimation at $64 billion per year(pdf). They’re not even scratching the surface of what women and everyone are losing.

  6. rnilsson says

    Hey quixote, that sounds most intriguing — but your first link is bruschetta. Come again, please?

  7. Bjarte Foshaug says

    Well, yeah, but apart from the lack of encouragement, the isolation of being the only woman in class, the stereotype threat, the constant interruptions, the micro-aggressions, the sexual harassment, being told that women are unfit for a career in STEM fields, being told that they only get good results by sleeping with the teacher/boss, having men take credit for their ideas, the constant emphasis on their gender, always being judged – first and foremost – by their level of attractiveness or “fuckability” rather than their achievements, and the all too familiar backlash if they make even the mildest suggestion that “guys don’t do that” , why aren’t there more women in STEM fields?!!

  8. Amy Clare says

    Music is similarly male dominated, especially music tech and production, so I’ve experienced a lot of similar attitudes. One thing that gets me the most angry is the surprise shown often by certain men when you say what your interests and abilities are: ‘Oh I don’t know any girls who…’ ‘Oh I’ve never heard a girl say…’ ‘You’re the first girl I’ve met who knows what a [insert technical term here] is.’ Etc. Always it’s ‘girl’ and never ‘woman’ and always the surprise and, oddly, suspicion – as though maybe you’re a man in a cunning disguise?

    I’ve been wondering what annoys me so much about it, because they’re not explicitly saying ‘women can’t do this’, but then I realised it’s because they actually have assumed just that, so I seem like a weird anomaly. When it happens time after time, it really makes you crazy and you just wish they would shut up and get over it.

    The bit in the OP about boys working in teams was really interesting as well. It’s an important part of learning, to pick things up from others and bounce ideas off each other, so she really lost out there. I felt sad reading that her brain put men off dating her too, because I’ve had the exact same thing.

  9. Minow says

    The slight mystery, though, is why these obstacles have not prevented women advancing in other STEM fields. In medicine, for example, female undergrads are the majority, and I believe that is true of most biology and even chemistry degrees too. Women did ‘tough it out’ in those fields, why is maths and physics so different? Certainly in a class of pharmacologists I led recently only 2 out of 14 were boys. So what gives?

  10. Dan L. says


    Quite possibly network effects. Once you get to a certain percentage of women in the field it might get easier for other women to succeed as well.

    However, I also suspect that:
    1) men still outnumber women in the faculty for those fields at most colleges and universities
    2) men still outnumber women in the graduate programs for those fields
    3) women still identify sexism as a major obstacle and source of discouragement in those fields.

  11. Minow says


    It is hard to find the data with fine enough grain to be sure about, say chemistry courses, but in the UK women predominate at undergraduate level in:

    – medicine and dentistry
    – subjects allied to medicine (which I assume includes fields like pharmacology)
    – biological sciences
    – veterinary sciences

    They are behind men in:

    – agriculture and related subjects
    – physical sciences
    – mathematical sciences
    – computer science
    – engineering and technology
    – architecutre, building and planning

    In all science subjects, women undergraduates dominate slightly, 79,655 to 78,925. Of course over all degree subjects women are in a substantially greater majority.

    I think those figs complicate the picture, it isn’t at all clear why women were able to overcome the massive and aggressive male domination of prestige subjects like medicine but were unable to do the same in other subjects. Its interesting, though, that maths is not at all the worst disparity, 3,215 to 4,230 undergraduates on the latest count, so 43% of mathematics undergrads are women.

    Women also dominate in non-science prestige vocational subjects like law and business, by the way. Given all that, it is not obvious that women are victims of discrimination or discriminatory practices in our higher education system.

  12. karmacat says

    I graduated from high school in 1985 and did not see any obvious sexism in my classes. It was certainly natural to see both girls and boys in higher level science and math classes. I grew up in the suburbs of Washington DC so my experience may have been atypical. I point out my experience just to give people hope that there can be progress.

  13. karmacat says

    To Minnow:

    You are comparing 2 fields of study that have a lot of differences. Medicine has been around for a long time. Engineering is a field taht has been around for 100 years or less and computers for less time than that. It took women about 150 years to get this point in the medical field. In addition, there are a lot of specialties that are likely not welcoming to women, such as surgery.

    When I was about 8 years old, some boy told me that girls couldn’t be doctors. My parents reassured me that this boy was wrong. When my nephew was 3 years old (about 14 years ago), he said he wanted to be a brain doctor(neurologist) like his daddy but not a microscope doctor (pathologist) like his mommy. Because, according to my nephew boys are brain doctors and girls are microscope doctors. His statement was based on what he saw in his family and around the neighborhood at that time. So basically, it took another generation for it to be natural to expect girls could be doctors.

  14. Dan L. says


    It is hard to find the data with fine enough grain to be sure about, say chemistry courses, but in the UK women predominate at undergraduate level in:

    Please re-read my post. I don’t really care what the undergraduate numbers are because when we talk about undergraduates we’re not really talking about professionals in the field. Thus, statistics about numbers of undergraduates are not terribly informative about the actual distribution and experiences of women in the field.

    I think those figs complicate the picture, it isn’t at all clear why women were able to overcome the massive and aggressive male domination of prestige subjects like medicine but were unable to do the same in other subjects. Its interesting, though, that maths is not at all the worst disparity, 3,215 to 4,230 undergraduates on the latest count, so 43% of mathematics undergrads are women.

    Those figures do not present much evidence at all that women were able to overcome “the massive and aggressive blah blah blah” because again it’s numbers of undergraduates which tells us essentially nothing about the status and presence of women in the actual fields. Undergraduates are simply not members of the field which they are studying.

    Women also dominate in non-science prestige vocational subjects like law and business, by the way. Given all that, it is not obvious that women are victims of discrimination or discriminatory practices in our higher education system.

    ?? Do they dominate in undergraduate studies of those fields? Because I can assure you that women do not “dominate” in the actual practice of law or business as would be really fucking obvious if you looked at statistics about women in law and business rather than undergraduate studies. What your figures show is that there is relatively little discrimination against women applying to undergraduate programs. What they do not show is how much discrimination they experience within and following those undergraduate studies — a question that is much more relevant to the discussion under way.

    But even ignoring the fact that the evidence you’re presenting doesn’t actually do anything to support your thesis it’s kind of a silly question. Take a simple logical view without even discussing any evidence. Women could either “overcome discrimination” in academic fields simultaneously in all fields or one field at a time. Which is more probable? Obviously that due to simple historical chance they would overcome discrimination in one field at a time. It’s simply incredibly improbable that the gains made by women would occur to the same extent in all fields whatsoever simultaneously. And since it’s only been on the order of decades since the process started there is nothing the least bit surprising, improbable, or unbelievable that women have made progress in some fields more than others. It would be surprising were it otherwise.

  15. Minow says

    Dan, if we agree that women are not discriminated against as students in STEM subjects, that is enough to agree on for now.

    And women may not dominate the legal profession now, but given the large disparity of male to female undergraduates, it is, as in medicine, just a matter of time. Surely that is obvious too.

  16. Dan L. says

    Dan, if we agree that women are not discriminated against as students in STEM subjects, that is enough to agree on for now.

    Well, no. You claimed that women have overcome discrimination in STEM fields but you cite numbers of undergraduate students. Furthermore, your evidence doesn’t actually have any bearing on discrimination encountered during undergraduate studies but only discrimination faced during undergraduate admissions which is quite a different thing. In short, your evidence doesn’t do anything to support your thesis and so I’m not obligated to agree with you on anything.

    As far as admissions go, I’d guess your statistics reflect more women applying rather than fewer women being rejected. Only the latter would support your thesis but you haven’t provided any evidence for it.

    And women may not dominate the legal profession now, but given the large disparity of male to female undergraduates, it is, as in medicine, just a matter of time. Surely that is obvious too.

    Not only is it not obvious — it’s not even true. Let’s talk about medicine. As I’ve already argued, evidence that women “dominate” in undergraduate study of medicine has little to no bearing on the question of whether women “dominate” in the field of medicine. Which they don’t. Look at statistics on women in med school faculties, men vs. women proportionalities in medical research, proportionality of women vs. men practicing as MDs, and relative income of men vs. women MDs. Those are the statistics that would determine whether men or women dominate in the field of medicine.

    If women do not “dominate” in the field of medicine despite “dominating” undergraduate study of medicine then it is rather clear that “dominating” undergraduate study of something does not imply inevitably “dominating” the field itself. That’s simply an assumption that is convenient for your argument but it depends on the implicit premise that people emerging from an undergraduate program necessarily get a job in their field and not only that but that they get an influential job in their field. If you were to look at the differences between undergraduate studies and graduate studies in these fields in which women “dominate” undergraduate studies I think you would find a rather surprising amount of attrition for women going into and graduating from the graduate fields.

    I’d say this is “obvious” but you clearly have a very strange conception of what “obvious” means.

  17. Dan L. says

    To clarify a little, the evidence you’ve offered suggests only that larger numbers of women enter the training pipeline for these fields. You’ve provided no evidence whatsoever about the number of women leaving the training pipeline for these fields.

    If we were to find that the proportion of women leaving the pipeline to women entering the pipeline is smaller than the equivalent ratio for men then what we would have is actually evidence for discrimination against women within those training pipelines — not against it.

    And that really should be obvious.

  18. says

    Not to mention his systematic failure to reply to other people’s points accurately – changing “undergraduates” to “students” and then declaring agreement. Oy.

  19. Dan L. says


    I think even more egregious is the faulty logic involved in concluding that because there are more women admitted into undergraduate programs than men that therefore women do not face any discrimination within those programs. (Completely ignoring that a lot of school do blind undergrad admissions in the first place.)

    It’s just a complete non sequitir.

    Minow’s reasoning very much shows the signs of grasping at arguments to support pre-existing biases. Why else cite data about undergraduates rather than data about professionals in the field?

  20. says

    Bleh, that’s not very nice. I take that back. Maybe he’s trying to figure out where things go wrong, and/or why in some fields more than others, and just isn’t getting it that proportions of undergraduates are somewhat beside the point. But why he just isn’t getting it, when you’ve spelled it out, I don’t understand.

  21. says

    It’s that pattern detection thing again, Ophelia. I don’t have specific links in mind, but this is a well-worn path for Minow. At a certain point, after repeated explanations are ignored, one has to conclude that it’s not simple ignorance animating his ill-considered arguments.

  22. Dan L. says

    n all science subjects, women undergraduates dominate slightly,

    “Dominate slightly”? Does anyone else find this construction “somewhat bizarre”?

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