Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science? [NY Times Magazine]

6 Oct

Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science? [NY Times Magazine]

I probably don’t know enough to say whether there’s much here that’s new, in the big picture. But as with the Harvard Business School piece from a little while back, it’s nice to get an extended, thoroughly reported (over the course of two years) piece of storytelling on the matter, this time centered on physics at Yale, by one of the first two women to earn a B.S. in that department. She’s now a creative writing professor at the University of Michigan.

Two excerpts after the jump:

When I told Meg Urry that Howe and several other of my professors said they don’t encourage anyone to go on in physics or math because it’s such a hard life, she blew raspberries. “Oh, come on,” she said. “They’re their own bosses. They’re well paid. They love what they do. Why not encourage other people to go on in what you love?” She gives many alumni talks, “and there’s always a woman who comes up to me and says the same thing you said, I wanted to become a physicist, but no one encouraged me. If even one person had said, ‘You can do this.’ ” She laughed. “Women need more positive reinforcement, and men need more negative reinforcement. Men wildly overestimate their learning abilities, their earning abilities. Women say, ‘Oh, I’m not good, I won’t earn much, whatever you want to give me is O.K.’ ”

One student told Urry she doubted that she was good enough for grad school, and Urry asked why — the student had earned nearly all A’s at Yale, which has one of the most rigorous physics programs in the country. “A woman like that didn’t think she was qualified, whereas I’ve written lots of letters for men with B averages.” She won’t say that getting a Ph.D. is easy. “It is a grind. When a young woman says, ‘How is this going to be for me?’ I have to say that yes, there are easier things to do. But that doesn’t mean I need to discourage her from trying. You don’t need to be a genius to do what I do. When I told my adviser what I wanted to do, he said, ‘Oh, Meg, you have to be a genius to be an astrophysicist.’ I was the best physics major they had. What he was really saying was that I wasn’t a genius, wasn’t good enough. What, all those theoreticians out there are all Feynman or Einstein? I don’t think so.”


Urry, who stepped down as chairwoman of Yale’s physics department this summer but will soon be president of the American Astronomical Society, wonders if her department’s commitment to gender equality will continue or stall. One fall Friday, she invited me to attend a picnic the physics and astronomy departments were throwing to welcome back its graduate students and faculty. The professors were sipping wine from plastic cups and chatting with colleagues they hadn’t seen all summer. Hungry graduate students surveyed tables crowded with bowls of salad, barbecue fixings, pies, cakes and a plate of brownies that Urry’s husband baked that morning when he realized she had overslept. Four young women — one black, two white, one Asian by way of Australia — explained to me how they had made it so far when so many other women had given up.

“Oh, that’s easy,” one of them said. “We’re the women who don’t give a crap.”

Don’t give a crap about — ?

“What people expect us to do.”

“Or not do.”

“Or about men not taking you seriously because you dress like a girl. I figure if you’re not going to take my science seriously because of how I look, that’s your problem.”

“Face it,” one of the women said, “grad school is a hazing for anyone, male or female. But if there are enough women in your class, you can help each other get through.”

The young black woman told me she did her undergraduate work at a historically black college, then entered a master’s program designed to help minority students develop the research skills and one-on-one mentoring relationships that would help them make the transition to a Ph.D. program. Her first year at Yale was rough, but her mentors helped her through. “As my mother always taught me,” she said, “success is the best revenge.”


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