A lack of ability in the upper echelons

PZ has frequently written about how sexism affects the number of women taking degrees in certain fields, and the smaller percentage of degree takers who go on to the next level of academic activity (a higher degree, a research fellowship, a teaching position, etc.). While you inevitably have a large number of men insisting that meritocracy has everything to do with this, on the face of it such hypotheses are very hard to justify. After all, if women are graduating with the same degrees and the same grades, why shouldn’t the same percentage be welcomed into the next stage of professional development. One popular theory has been, and continues to be, the idea that men have more variability – the bell curve of merit is flatter for men than for women, with larger numbers of truly incompetent and large numbers of genius men compared to incompetent and genius women. PZ has been tackling this myth for a long time.

And yet, the disparity exists. So it’s worth taking the time to attack the problem when another report comes out to verify its persistence. That Pharyngula post I linked showed that the disparity in entering science professions is cultural rather than genetic (in large part by showing that the disparity is stable and reproducibly consistent over time, institution, and location within a country, but varies widely when crossing over a border into a different country). So cultural factors are driving this … but which cultural factors?

It can’t be said enough that you can’t predict the psychology or motivations or life circumstances of a single individual from aggregate data, but quantitative research can still be informative. With all that in mind, I bring up the most recent bit of research to tackle one aspect of the enduring myth that men deserve their science positions and women just … don’t. It comes from ScienceMag.org. Study investigator Lauren Aycock and her peers gave a questionaire about sexualization and sexual harassment in academic spaces to 455 undergraduate women physics students. 74.3% (338/455)
reported behaviors that form core aspects of sexual harassment. THREE IN FOUR.

Now, it must be said that for something to meet the definition and to have the effects we normally describe as sexual harassment the behavior must repeat. The authors do not gloss over this, but instead make a strong case that most if not quite all of these 338 respondents are experiencing sexual harassment as defined in the case law surrounding Title IX. Read the entire journal article yourself and you will understand just how serious and compelling this research is – far more serious and compelling, and far different qualitatively, than asking students if anyone has ever called them pretty. I bring this up because many sexist jerks use the fact that the full effects of sexual harassment cannot be understood without putting the rare assaults in the contest of quotidian sexualizing and sexist behaviors. When a single report addresses both, as they are justified in doing and likely to do, the defenders of the harassing status quo will strip individual sexualizing comments from the context of harassment and insist that they didn’t know it was wrong to compliment women on their appearances. The work from Aycock, et. al. is exactly of the kind and quality we need to keep up the pressure on institutions to create academic, research, and professional pipelines open to all qualified persons.

I am pleased to note that the publishers of the Aycock, et. al. paper (Physical Review: Physics Education Research) publish an editorial comment as well. That comment is written by a woman scientist at Michigan State University, Julie Libarkin. While I mention her name merely because she deserves credit for her writing and her advocacy, I mention her affiliation because MSU is where I majored in physics … for a year and a half. Although the reasons for leaving MSU were complicated and had a lot to do with my personal history that included abuse experienced years before college, it also had quite a lot to do with the atmosphere of sexism and general gender rigidity that made it difficult for me as a closeted trans* woman to find community or a sense of belonging. Aycock’s paper itself addresses sense of belonging and imposter syndrome as important factors in why people discontinue work – either in the middle of a degree, as I did, or when considering whether or not to take the next step after completing a degree or fellowship.

I’m glad to know that Libarkin is at MSU today and using her voice for the betterment of physics education, but the problem has persisted for too long already. Too many people that might once have chosen to be scientists made other choices because of changeable conditions of cultural climate.

And that’s why we have to ask if the people at the top of the science education pyramid, the tenured professors, the department chairs, the university presidents, actually have the ability to lead. When I reported harassment, lack of belonging, and imposter syndrome at MSU, I was sent to student counseling, as if my psychology was the only problem. And yes, while there I talked about other things, things that made me uniquely vulnerable. I was diagnosed with depression (not for the first time) and with PTSD (also not for the first time). But here’s the thing: the presence of those things made it less likely that I would be able to overcome the hostile cultural climate at MSU, but they did not render the cultural climate magically irrelevant. It’s possible that even a wounded child could, with the right support, start and finish university in one go. Sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, and ableism combined to make what I told the MSU physics department meaningless. As affected as I am and was and have been by mental illness, I’m not without insight into the human condition or the ability to express it.

And so I wonder, do the people we place in positions of academic power really have upper-echelon ability to lead an educational department? Let me answer that question with another question: Do we graduate fewer people and do more of the people we graduate avoid certain sciences, certain departments because of ongoing oppression? I think that answer is clearly yes. It was yes when I left MSU and Aycock, et. al. make a convincing case that the same is true today. I know MSU had this information in 1990 – I know because I told them. But it’s certain that they had this information decades before that. And if I didn’t personally inform professors or ombuds in other universities around the world, I don’t doubt that they, too, had the same information available on roughly the same timeframe. In fact, many disciplines have done a better job rooting out gender bias than physics and some other sciences have.

And so the truth is this: while we’ve disproved the idea that women are underrepresented in science faculties because women are simply underrepresented in the upper ranks of ability, I believe that the evidence is also sufficient to prove that women are underrepresented in physics programs and faculties in significant part because physics department chairs are underrepresented in the upper ranks of educational ability.

Someone needs to start kicking out the people who have been tolerating the harassment of 3/8ths of humanity in the hope that somehow we’ll get better science from 4/8ths.


  1. invivoMark says

    I’ve long been interested in the disparity in gender balance between physics and biology.

    It’s obviously not because women have genetically inferior brains, and biology is just easier than physics. Anybody who thinks that knows squat about biology.

    I doubt it’s because physics requires more math than biology. Bioinformatics and biostatistics are extremely math-heavy and are still more populated by women than physics. Chemistry probably requires less math than biology, but it sits somewhere between biology and physics in terms of gender bias.

    There is likely some cultural difference between biologists and physicists, but what is it? Scientists in both fields are overwhelmingly liberal/progressive and value skepticism.

    I agree with your thesis that academic leadership sucks. Those people aren’t selected for their ability to lead. Hell, professors aren’t selected for their ability to mentor students and post-docs, they’re selected for their ability to be post-docs, which is a totally different skill set.

    But is the leadership much different between physics and biology? I don’t know the answer to that. I’d love to know how to fix the balance.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    invivoMark @1: As an ex-physicist, I might have a partial answer. Physics* has long had a certain cachet in our society that perhaps biology doesn’t quite match. It’s certainly not deserved, because, as you point out, there’s nothing intrinsically more intellectually challenging about physics. But that cachet encourages (or at least doesn’t discourage) an attitude among some physicists that they are special; God’s Anointed. From my experience, it’s a small minority, but douchebags are somehow always more visible, and they make a disproportionate stink wherever they are.

    *Well, certain areas of physics, like quantum mechanics and relativity.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    … if women are graduation …; … tackling this my …; … because there women …

    Did you perhaps dictate this post to a voicebot?

  4. Jazzlet says

    Sorry you are in pain CD.

    I think from my experience in the early eighties that while universities knew about harrassment back then, because at least some of us who were harrassed told them, they didn’t do anything about any but the most extreme cases. So in my case the biophysics lecturer, who stroked his hand down over my breast, and who habitually put his hand on the bottom of any female student he stood next to, was considered essentially harmless by his peers, it was a quirk on a par with his fondness for trams. I discovered he had been reported before from the Student Union Equality Officer, and no doubt he was reported by later students, but no one in power felt any need to actually do anything, it wasn’t as if he was sleeping with any of us after all. Now there is more pressure to act on that kind of behaviour, not quickly enough but at least there is some action. Critically, I think, there is still not enough pressure about the kind of thing that sets the tone of a department as hostile, the kind of thing that is making the difference in the proportion of women who stay on in physics after graduation. We should not have to wait another forty years for that kind of behaviour to be dealt with.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    Crip Dyke @ # 4: … on serious pain drugs …

    Get well soon.

    Pretty damn good writing for a doped-up brain!

  6. says

    These stories got me thinking about my own experience as a student. I never experienced anything nasty from faculty members and professors. Things seemed fine in those two universities where I have studied.

    As far as professors are concerned, I have experienced only one odd case which was accidental and a bit awkward. I was taking a course in literature, and for my exam I had to pick one literary text that I would have to analyze. I chose The Torture Garden by Octave Mirbeau, and my professor asked me why I picked this book. An honest answer would have required me to explain some facts about my sex life, so I just lied and said, “The book was interesting.” Then my professor made a further remark about people perceiving abuse as interesting. At that point I felt a little awkward, because in my mind I was thinking about the actual reason for my interest in this book, and I just wished not to discuss this any further.

    However, there was one occasion that left me pretty uncomfortable and unsure about what to do. As I started typing about that one, the explanation turned out pretty long, so I published that in my own blog rather than in a comment here– https://andreasavester.com/how-each-one-of-us-can-help-reducing-sexual-harassment/

    Jazzlet @#5

    So in my case the biophysics lecturer, who stroked his hand down over my breast, and who habitually put his hand on the bottom of any female student he stood next to, was considered essentially harmless by his peers, it was a quirk on a par with his fondness for trams.

    Holy fucking crap! That’s ridiculous.

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