I hear that women are made of exotic matter

The Nobel in Physics has been awarded for research on exotic matter, but I think you’d be better off looking for a physicist to explain it. I’m sure it’s good work and that the three scientists are deserving, but I just have to leave this fact on the table.

No Nobel Prize has come close to being equitably distributed by gender, but physics has the worst record of them all. Zero women have won it in the past 50 years. Exactly two women have won it ever.

Again, this does not detract from the accomplishments of Thouless, Haldane, and Kosterlitz, but it does make one wonder how much further physics would have progressed if it didn’t have a culture that discouraged half of humanity from participating.


  1. numerobis says

    A good friend left the field in part over that, when it was clear to her that she wasn’t going to get equal opportunity. She’d have been brilliant. Instead she’s frittered away her life popping out … killer robots.

    Oh my god I just realized she’s a mad scientist!

  2. birgerjohansson says

    The obituaries in Science revealed that women scientists have achieved immortality -they never appear in the obituaries.

  3. robro says

    While I’m sure this has a lot to do with the old boy club in Physics, I’m guessing the old boy clubs that award the prizes is partly responsible. Per the Ppppfff, 822 men have won prizes, 48 women (and 26 organizations). That’s about 5% of the total. No sexist bias here…please keep moving.

    Note: No offense to the many well deserving women (and men and organizations) but one of those 48 is Anjezë Bojaxhiu (aka Mother Theresa) for Peace, which is enough to make you gag.

  4. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Partly why I bought Lisa Randall’s book Dark Matter and Dinosaurs, to support female physicists; especially in the rarefied realm particle-physics & cosmology.

  5. nathanieltagg says

    Physicist here. Lack of women in physics is a massive problem. It’s improving, but not quickly enough. Currently women are at about 20%. That’s not good enough, and many of us are doing everything we can to improve the situation.

    A few things in our defense though:
    – The Nobels typically award research that was performed 20-50 years ago. So you’re not really looking at women NOW, you’re looking at women THEN.

    – The retention rates of women in physics from the undergraduate level onward are approximately the same for men and women: we get about 20% women coming in looking for a physics degree and about 20% of PhDs are women. This implies that there ISN’T and old-boy’s network at play, and that women are treated fairly. This agrees with my own experience; I know many many physicists who are extra-supportive of women, and I know of few misogyinists.
    – A woman in physics with a PhD can get a job instantly, because so many institutions want to have AT LEAST ONE woman on their faculty. (In fact, statistical studies have been done to show the pattern is non-random: everyone is so desperate to have a diverse faculty that the women are spread more thinly than you would expect by chance. There are lots of institutions with 1 woman, but few with zero or two. That’s because we compete so heavily for them.) I’ve been turned down for at least 3 jobs because less-experienced women got the position ahead of me. And that’s OK with me! I think we SHOULD support women more than men right now!

    Why, then, aren’t there more women in physics? I think the answer is an implied cultural bias that is in place long before students hit college. The images of the different sciences are different, and something about our image makes women think it’s not for them. One effect in particular: many students come to college thinking they want to be pre-meds or pre-vet or other applied fields. Each of those have obvious transitions to biology and chemistry, but less so with physics.

    I wish I had a way of getting more women into my field. I look for ways every day.

  6. says

    That sounds like good news. At least there seems to be some progress.

    I dunno if the Nobel Committee discriminates against women, but considering the historic exclusion of women from science it’s no surprise few has been awarded a prize. The ones that persevere and do groundbreaking stuff is harder to ignore, but boys are still boys and tend to play among themselves.

  7. wcorvi says

    I think nathanieltagg has hit the nail on the head. But one thing to add – 99.99% of men avoid physics (it’s hard and unappealing to most), and about the same for women – and those large numbers are less affected by small-number statistics. People go into physics IN SPITE of its difficulties.

    One might ask why Penny rather than Sheldon wasn’t cast as the physicist – but we all know the answer. I got in trouble once for pointing out that Giordano Bruno was discouraged from going into science, that it isn’t just women.

  8. whywhywhy says


    There are lots of institutions with 1 woman, but few with zero or two.

    Would anyone want to be the first female faculty member in a Physics Department? I did my Physics grad work in a department with all male faculty. My graduate student class was about one third female and none of them wanted to become faculty at the school and have the extra burden of dealing with the ingrained sexism among portions of the faculty. Starting a tenure track job at a research university is tough enough for anyone let alone having to deal with institutionalized sexism. Thus I feel for the female faculty who are the only females in their departments. These are also situations that would raise alarms for myself since I do not enjoy male dominated sexist work environments. For example, as one of my Prof stated “I will have to clean up my language if we had women at the faculty meeting.”.

    The sexism that is endemic in the field of Physics has a huge impact on women in the field that makes academic life worse for all.

    How to fight it? Needs to start in elementary school with elimination of sexism and support of girls in science (Most folks who go into science make their decision by middle school). This support needs to continue all the way through all levels of advancement. Having even a handful of misogynistic professors or teachers is unacceptable and will be sufficient to destroy careers of our best and brightest.

  9. cartomancer says

    I have little experience of what it’s like in Physics, but in my own academic fields – History and Classics – the journey towards gender equality was marked by some surprising, though perhaps predictable, cultural shifts. History was once just as much an all-male preserve as the rest of academia (up to the beginning of the 20th century at the very earliest), but when women did start becoming academic historians they tended to specialise in social, cultural and family history, rather than the much more traditional ambits of male historians – political, military and economic history. The former areas were universally looked down upon at first.

    Thing is, as the 20th century wore on a funny thing happened. After the second world war the traditional staples of political, military and economic history began to look terribly stale and backward and old-fashioned. The up and coming radical reformist historians of the sixties and seventies saw these antiquated concerns and the methods and conventions they used as buttressing the Imperialistic cultures that the world was trying to move on from. Also, social and cultural history were where the big discoveries and advances in understanding were being made, and renewed interest in society and culture revitalised even the more traditional disciplines. Women’s participation in history-writing had become well established, and female historians’ work very much became mainstream.

  10. consciousness razor says


    A woman in physics with a PhD can get a job instantly, because so many institutions want to have AT LEAST ONE woman on their faculty.

    Given your estimate that women are roughly 20% of PhDs, is there an average of five physics faculty per institution, or is it more or less? I don’t know, and I’m not sure if you mean to limit this to certain types of colleges/universities (although presumably non-academic physics research positions should count too)*. In any case, if it’s larger than five, that implies getting a job would be harder for women, not that they can “get a job instantly.” (Of course, how instant it may or may not be is another question….)

    *I mean, Trump U. may have zero physics faculty or a thousand, for all I know, but either way it’s hardly relevant and shouldn’t skew the numbers here. On the other hand, if there are non-academic institutions/corporations which employ lots of people in legitimate physics research, which might even lead toward something like a Nobel prize occasionally, my assumption is that would lift the number above five. And there’s no reason not to count those in a discussion about job prospects, while we’re counting the lonely underpaid physics professor/lecturer/whatever at some tiny community college that doesn’t offer a physics degree (or do research for that matter).

  11. consciousness razor says

    my assumption is that would lift the number above five

    That is, it would lift the number. I’m assuming non-academic commercial/industrial types of institutions tend to hire a larger number of people (which drive the average up) than academic institutions that are typically smaller (thus driving it down). But I admit that whatever the result is, counting according to the number of institutions seems problematic for a bunch of reasons … so I guess the claim that they usually hire “at least one” doesn’t establish very much.

  12. sundiver says

    Re PZ’s last sentence: I wish it was only physics being held back. IMO, by excluding 50% of available talent, we’ve hamstrung ourselves in every subject. A Human Resources manager who arbitrarily rejected half of the applicants for a job would be joining the ranks of the unemployed in short order.

  13. Rich Woods says

    @nathanieltagg #5:

    Currently women are at about 20%.

    That was the percentage of women in computing thirty years ago. It’s still about that level.

    I know a lot of things have been tried in the UK, starting from the schools up, going back something over 20 years. I don’t have an answer to the problem.

  14. Kevin Henderson says

    In the last twenty years, I have seen growing opportunities for women in physics. I have not witnessed, however, the number of position growing with the same number of opportunities. The opportunities are there; why the positions that usually lead to high end research are not filling is complicated, but I do not think it has anything to do with some kind of disguised effort on the part of men to keep women out of physics.

  15. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    to distract:
    When I was undergrad at MIT in late ’70s, the ratio was approx 1:7 (female:male), today the ratio is closer to 1:1. hooray.
    Not trying to imply the struggle is accomplished, just noting that there exists a glimmer of progress.

  16. Rob Grigjanis says

    Some numbers here, up to 2010. Women in US physics/astronomy faculties. In 2010, they were 8% of full profs, and 14% overall.

  17. The Mellow Monkey says

    Kevin Henderson @ 14:

    The opportunities are there; why the positions that usually lead to high end research are not filling is complicated, but I do not think it has anything to do with some kind of disguised effort on the part of men to keep women out of physics.

    Implicit bias in reviewing applicants.

    Categorization is a cognitive process that occurs largely outside of conscious awareness and helps people to cope in a complex and demanding environment. The categorization process extends to categorizing people by groups.

    Stereotyping, the unconscious habits of thought that link personal attributes to group membership, is an inevitable result of categorization. Stereotype-based expectations give rise to biased attributions. (Reskin, 2000)

    A large body of research suggests each one of us holds implicit biases that impact our judgment. Implicit bias is, in essence, part of the human condition. As such, it inevitably impacts interactions with others and processes in which we engage, including the faculty search process. Research suggests that we all engage in unconsciously biased assessments and decision making processes. With this understanding, we can more swiftly move away from blame and embarrassment, and towards efforts to identify, understand and minimize negative impacts of unintended bias as we search for and hire outstanding faculty.

    As the link notes, implicit bias informs our cognition and behavior, regardless of our level of education or a desire for fairness. It never has to be an effort, not even a disguised one.

  18. consciousness razor says

    As the link notes, implicit bias informs our cognition and behavior, regardless of our level of education or a desire for fairness. It never has to be an effort, not even a disguised one.

    Right. If anything, it’s more like a lack of effort on the part of men, since it simply doesn’t happen automatically.

    In classical music, there has been a significant push to conduct blind auditions (which of course doesn’t only mitigate gender bias). It’s certainly not done universally for every ensemble out there, but gradually that norm has been established so now it’s more or less understood that you should expect it for a proper audition in a professional setting. The number of women who are actually recognized and respected and paid for their fantastic work has skyrocketed (still not a very level playing field, which says something about how awful it was). Of course, it’s not just because of one thing like audition procedures….

    Musicians obviously don’t appear out of the void and join professional groups. It can start very early in life, like math or science or any other education; and people need to be supported the entire way or they probably won’t make it very far. So, you need to build a culture which does that for students, as well as one that’s critically evaluating music history to shine a light on both the hardships and successes of women in the past. It’s not enough that there’s a blog post about it, a journal article about it, or a textbook chapter about it — you have to get everybody to change the ways they’re thinking and acting in all sorts of ways. It takes a lot of serious work and institutional support to get that kind of systematic change, not just the presence of some nebulous desire you think you have that you personally want to be fair when you hire somebody.

  19. says

    slithey tove #15: That’s how I see it as well. A 1:1-ratio is good, but that’s not the only metric. Salary, rights, responsibility (beyond getting coffee) are just as important. But the struggle seems to pay off, so at least we’re on the same track.

    Personally I don’t like all-male environments much more than an all-female one. The sweet spot seems to be 1:2 or better (either way).

  20. Rob Grigjanis says

    Erlend Meyer @19: On the rare occasions I’ve been the only man in a working group, I’ve found the experience more productive and efficient. Less ego, territorialism and related bullshit. Maybe that was just good fortune.

  21. Kevin Henderson says

    The Mellow Monkey @ 17:

    Interesting research. I’ve heard of these biases before, but it does not imply that I hold them. I am a male physicists and I do not believe I have ever been biased towards other female physicists (or scientists for that matter). But the research does suggest I am fooling myself. And, without effort, I hold biases not just against women but ‘others’.

    I do not have a winning solution for this. But I can say this, optimistically, where I work vocational opportunities for women physicists (scientists, and engineers) are pretty good (this is corroborated by facts). There are administrative and organizational controls that can help physicists and scientists select employees without bias. We should, as a society, endorse these controls so that they can help overcome personal biases.

  22. says

    My impression is that a female-dominated working environment can be as stereotypical as a male one (long term environment). Once you get a more balanced environment the atmosphere improves.
    Some male environments welcomes women, at least once someone breaks the barrier. I’ve worked in chemical plants, and the few women there were generally very well liked.

  23. Lachlan says

    I really hope the Nobel prize doesn’t become a farce to appease gender ideologues.

  24. colinday says

    I’ve read on the internet that Mileva Maric’s name was removed from the paper for which Einstein won a Nobel Prize (photoelectric effect). Her inclusion would at the time have doubled the number of women Nobel Laureates in physics (and now it would be 50% higher).

  25. Vivec says

    The Nobel prize is already a farce. Between giving peace prizes to warmongers and scientific awards to people who contributed little actual work or research, it’s about as valuable as an Academy Award (ie the “lets pat Tom Hanks and Disney on the back” award).

  26. Rob Grigjanis says

    colinday @24: Here‘s some more internet reading for you. The idea that Marić’s name was ever on the 1905 papers (not just the photoelectric paper) seems to be based entirely on what Abram Joffe wrote in 1955. Here’s the relevant bit (with “Marity” a Magyarization of “Marić”);

    In 1905, three articles appeared in the ‘Annalen der Physik’, which began three very important branches of 20th century physics. Those were the theory of Brownian motion, the photon theory of light, and the theory of relativity. The author of these articles – an unknown person at that time, was a bureaucrat at the Patent Office in Bern, Einstein-Marity (Marity the maiden name of his wife, which by Swiss custom is added to the husband’s family name)

    That’s it. The other “evidence” I’ve heard of is Einstein referring to “our work on relative motion” in a letter to Marić. The one use of “our” is highlighted, while ignoring all the “my ideas”, etc in the letters, and the use of first person singular in the papers themselves.

    To say that any of this points to Marić as a collaborator (or even someone Einstein stole ideas from) is clutching at very flimsy straws.

  27. wzrd1 says

    @garydargan #27, I doubt that. You might get an Ig Nobel prize, if you were to actually write a paper on it. ;)

    Interestingly and more on topic, I work for a large technology services firm. We have a partnership with LSU and both have plenty of slaves, erm, interns and entry level workers. Our percentage of male to female is much closer to 50% than in most other enterprises that I’ve been employed in. Indeed, our facility manager is a woman.
    Although, we do have one problem. The one who manages the coffee machine is a man and we’re always running out of things.*

    *That’s a running joke between he and I, as I’m midnight shift and if he doesn’t resupply something during the day, breaking from his regular job, nobody else bothers and we run out. That necessitates my run upstairs to resupply at midnight. The joke being, the sheer number of lazy SOB’s on this floor, who also could’ve gotten those supplies, rather than leave it for the disabled old guy.**

    **OK, older guy, who is now having to walk with a cane.
    Oh well, there is one thing worse than getting older. Not living to get older.
    And the cane works great as a door prop, where before, I’d have had to use either a foot or shoulder.

  28. says

    @Rob #29: That’s matches what I’ve read on the subject. I suspect it’s either of Serbian-nationalist or antisemitic origin.

    @wzrd1#30: Sounds like a great company.

    One thing I’ve noticed is that while sexual harassment is a huge problem for women, in a good environment they can be quite flirty. Not in a sexual way of course, just good-natured fun.

  29. John Morales says

    Erlend Meyer:

    One thing I’ve noticed is that while sexual harassment is a huge problem for women, in a good environment they can be quite flirty.

    Well, the alternative would be to think that women could not be quite flirty.

    (Such enlightenment!)

  30. rietpluim says

    Women being quite flirty imply that the environment they are in feels safe enough that they can be flirty. So I guess that’s good news.

  31. rq says

    A little bit of “flirting” can actually be very healthy in the work place.

    It’s been my experience that what men seem to perceive as “flirting” in a healthy/safe environment is simply a comfortable, friendly conversation with added humour. And not flirting at all. Unless telling each other jokes in the workplace automatically counts as flirting, in which case I flirt every day with all of my colleagues (women and men alike). Strange, because in fact all this time I thought I was having conversations that are unserious and fun.

  32. nathanieltagg says

    About the one woman per department: the paper with the data is here:

    Whywhywhy: (#8) I’m really sorry you had a rough time in grad school with sexism. I don’t think all places are like that.. but of course I’m a man so I wouldn’t know for sure.

    I’m SURE there are lots of little microaggressions a woman would have to deal with right now. (One habit I’ve seen in a lot of us is using the term ‘female’ to describe people instead of ‘woman’. I’ve slowly picked up on the idea that that isn’t really neutral. Stuff like that.)

    I totally agree though: what we need is to have some schools (k-12, undergrad, and grad) that have got strong cohorts of women as faculty and students, to start reinforcing a cultural change.

    One more useless data point:
    – I’ve been on many large scientific collaborations. The leaders (“spokespeople”) used to be all men. Now on 3 projects, three’s two with one man/one woman and one with two women. That’s progress, and GOOD progress. I’ve seen these women explicitly support people who needed support, and pay attention to (non-scientific) issues that were specific to our women colleagues.

    No, we’re not there yet. But there are pockets of progress.

  33. nathanieltagg says

    @ Kevin Henderson #21:
    One other thing that psych research shows is that many people believe they have no bias but still have it! (Much the same way as placebo effects work even if people are aware of the placebo effect, or how advertising works on people who don’t think advertising works on them.)

    Or like another thing I’ve encountered in my professional life: scientific bias due to unblind data. I’ve had good physicists tell me that ‘they aren’t biased’ and can look at data unblind.. despite the clear evidence in the scientific literature that it isn’t so!

    Better is to always say “I try not to be biased, but let me be skeptical of that statement and try to scour my behavior and thinking to find ways to improve”. That’s good science AND good human-being-ing.

  34. says

    @chigau #36:
    It’s hard to explain, it’s a kind of non-sexual playfulness that sounds a bit like flirting. Part joke, part teasing, part compliment kinda thing. After all, sex is a good thing that most engage in. So in a good, friendly environment it tends to surface ever so slightly.

    I worked full rotation with a girl for a few years, just the two of us on evenings, nights and weekends. After a while I noticed a kind of friendly bickering that felt more like something you have in a relationship. It was both nice and weird at the same time, definitely different from the report I had with male co-workers.

  35. chigau (違う) says

    Erlend Meyer #39
    It would be interesting to hear the girl’s side of the story.

  36. says

    Oh, she was aware of it as well. At one party she started teasing her husband about how I used to cook for her, something he apparently never did ;-)
    I probably spent more time with her than he did, that’s the price of working rotation. Half the time you either work or sleep while most people are home. And being the only two people at work (we got the occasional visitor from the plant, but most of the time it was just the two of us) you do get tighter than most colleagues.

  37. rq says

    it’s a kind of non-sexual playfulness that sounds a bit like flirting

    Oh, so being friendly and acting like friends do, even when working, when you make fun of each other and make jokes about each other’s character. Sometimes to the point where you feel comfortable enough to make vaguely sexual innuendo that has no actual flirty meaning behind it. Interesting, when I act like that around my woman colleagues, nobody really sees it as flirting. When I do it around my man colleagues, nobody really sees it as flirting, either – it’s just fun conversation. Why would you suddenly consider it ‘flirty’ when a woman acts comfortable and friendly and humourous with you?

  38. Vivec says

    Semantic quibble, but “Joking sexual innuendo” is more or less the definition of flirting, so doing it “without flirty meaning” is incoherent. Flirting implies a lack of genuine interest.

  39. Rob Grigjanis says

    rq @42:

    to make vaguely sexual innuendo

    If it’s understood as not to be taken seriously, that’s pretty much the definition of flirting. I’m not sure what you mean by it.

  40. rq says

    Hmm… Well, this one is going to be hard to explain. Liiike… exchanging suggestive commentary with someone (more like flirting) is different from making jokes about sex in general? Where you still need a certain level of comfort to joke about sex, but still another to engage in this in a flirtatious manner? It does make a difference whether there’s a group joke going around or whether you’re one-on-one with someone. Is kind of what I mean?
    The point being I see a difference there, I can see how other people won’t, and maybe that’s just a product of my own specific work environment. Anyway, that comment is not so relevant to the rest of the point I wanted to make, which should probably go more like “Please don’t call it “flirty” just because a woman is being friendly and making jokes with you because you’re developed a good working-friend relationship”.
    Sorry for intruding.

  41. Rob Grigjanis says

    rq @46: You weren’t intruding!

    OK, I see the distinction you’re making. Point taken, and agreed with.

  42. says

    Maybe something got lost in translation, but what I’m talking about is even more innocent than flirting. What I consider flirting isn’t really appropriate in the work place. And it’s not like everyone engages in it or welcomes it, far from it.