Op-ed submission: Women in physics department

Jonathan Katz | Professor of Physics

One of the things one learns as a scientist is that there are some phenomena one does not understand and does not succeed in understanding, no matter how hard one tries. Another is that one’s first and obvious explanation may be wrong. The real world is more complicated than a textbook may lead one to believe.

There are now no tenured nor tenure-track women on the physics faculty. Some people hypothesize that the department discriminates against women in hiring. This is not correct. Since 1981, I have been in the department meetings that have voted on appointments. There has been no discrimination against women, and in fact—based on comments made—discrimination (probably illegal) in their favor. A number of offers to women have been made and turned down. I don’t know why these offers were rejected but suggest the hypothesis that, with no other major research university in town, it has not been possible for their husbands (most of whom are also research scientists, very often in physics) to find suitable employment. This is a less acute problem in major metropolitan areas with multiple suitable academic, governmental or private research employers.

About 20 percent of physics majors and minors are women. Some people hypothesize that the department discourages women majors or creates a hostile environment for them with discouraging effect. My wife spent about 10 years as a Washington University physics undergraduate, graduate student and postdoctoral researcher. She saw no such attitude, nor did any other female department members tell her of seeing that (she described this in a Student Life op-ed Jan. 31, 2016).

These are phenomena that we should admit we do not understand, and we should not jump to conclusions that are unprovable. Suppose, for example, that women are, on average, less interested in or less talented in physics than men. That is another unprovable hypothesis. We should not waste our time trying to explain sociological phenomena that have defied understanding for generations, nor try to mold people to what we might wish them to be, nor claim injustices where there are none.

  • Sterling Rollins

    How is this guy in a teaching position? This is not a man who is any way fit to create a safe environment for all students… His homophobia and misogyny may not discount him as a physicist, but certainly does as a steward for young impressionably minds.

  • Moses

    Classic case of “I haven’t seen or experienced discrimination so it doesn’t exist.” Let’s just hope you don’t apply this reasoning to your physics research.

  • tryingtobeobjective

    How do you even know these female candidates were married? Many universities have the practice of also hiring the spouse if they are qualified, in soft money research or lecture position, as incentive for the top candidate to take the offer. Has that ever been considered as a strategy? Have the female candidates ever been asked why they rejected the offer? Maybe they simply got a better offer elsewhere? Your explanation is very short on data. It’s also unclear why you were compelled to write this editorial.

  • Fish Fast

    Ah, yes, the sage of the Wash U citadel, author of the “Defense of Homophobia,” once again bravely rises to the occasion of telling all us idiots how it is.


  • Erik Strobl
    • Erik Strobl

      “A number of offers to women have been made and turned down. I don’t know why these offers were rejected but suggest the hypothesis that”

      …we’ve gained a self-reinforcing national reputation for being unfriendly to female physicists since we don’t have any on our faculty? I mean, if all the illegal discrimination in women’s favor can’t bring a single one here, maybe we can look at the unwelcoming, condescending department culture.

      • Erik Strobl

        it’s not as if we have a billion-dollar university a mile away in SLU or a private employer who’d care about physicists, like Boeing. In fact, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that the presence of Jonathan Katz on an appointment committee is a good enough reason for a female physicist to avoid this department like the plague.

  • Paul Felder

    Thank you for writing this professor Katz. We need more professors with opinions that might not be politically correct to speak up and create a diversity of thought. You’re making it possible for more students to share ideas and speak freely.

    • Fish Fast

      He’s also written quite a bit about how gays are an abomination against nature. Perhaps you’d appreciate that “diversity of thought” as well.


      • Paul Felder

        I didn’t know about his really dumb comments about gays and blood donation, so thanks for sharing those. Even though I disagree with him, I will still defend having an open forum for all opinions on campus, even stupid and hateful ones. The best way to combat bad ideas is with good ideas, not censorship.

        • Fish Fast

          Sure, no problem. I mean, he’s still working here and the student paper still publishes his op-eds, so the system seems to be sticking up for him just fine. I’d take his judgment on whether or not there’s sexism in the sciences with a grain of salt, though.

    • Wash. U. Physics Students

      Paul, political correctness and “diversity of thought” do not even come into play in this op-ed. Professor Katz is selectively ignoring harassment/bias allegations by many female department members and instead choosing to discuss the experiences of his wife (who probably had a very different experience in the department, being the wife of a professor) over 25 years ago.

      See, for example: http://wupeopleshistory.weebly.com/physics–females.html

      It should also be noted that most other major research universities, including many in areas with fewer opportunities than St. Louis, have tenure-track women professors. Over 90% of PhD-granting institutions have women professors – http://www.aip.org/sites/default/files/statistics/faculty/womenfac-pa-10.pdf .

      • Val Ryland

        “Professor Katz is selectively ignoring harassment/bias allegations ”

        I was raped by members of the staff of Wash. U. Physics Students. What are you going to do about that allegation?

    • Fish Fast

      Oh, and this one’s fun too! In this one, he actually says that women are inherently worse at Physics than men, and that’s why there’s less of them in the field. No sexism here, though–nope. Keep telling it how it is!


    • CB Smith

      A diversity of extremely poorly-reasoned arguments is not an improvement.

    • n’importe qui

      Let me ask you, Paul, do you think that climate change deniers should have a place at the table for the sake of “diversity of thought?”

  • Chris Reisenbichler

    “I have not personally observed this phenomena so it must not exist!”
    April Fool’s science joke?

  • CB Smith

    “We should not waste our time trying to explain sociological phenomena that have defied understanding for generations”

    Uhhhhh…that’s exactly what scientists have done and continue to do. Replace “sociological” with “physical” and you’ve talked yourself out of a job. What’s the difference?

    • rslowe

      Correction: Physicists should not waste our time trying to explain sociological phenomena that have been exhaustively explained by actual sociologists.

      • Val Ryland

        Sociology has left the realm of science with the death of Marx. All that is left is ideology. No “explanations” worth their expense in bandwidth.

  • Stella Kamm

    Let me just lay out all of the assumptions made by this article 1) Women in physics are married 2) Women in physics are heterosexual 3) Women in physics only marry other prestigious scientists 4) Women in physics give up job prospects for their husbands 5) Women may be less talented than men in physics 6) Women may be less interested in physics then men 6) Women in physics can only prosper in large metropolitan areas 7) If someone was being discriminated against in the physics department they would report it anecdotally to someone who was in a romantic relationship with one of the senior members of the physics department otherwise it cannot possibly be happening 8) Favoring diversity in hiring is illegal (which is factually untrue by the way). My point in laying the assumptions out is to say that the argument being made in this Op-Ed submission appears to an outsider like me (ie. a Wash U alumna of the English & Psychology Department and the School of Law) to only address half the issue. The condescending tone in this article coupled with the assumptions made therein speaks volumes. I certainly would not want to work somewhere where one of my colleagues would even in jest or to make a point suggest that my entire gender is inherently less capable of doing the work than he is. I do not know anything about the physics department from personal experience, but what I do know is that this Op-Ed conveys the message that women are not being discriminated against poorly and does the exact opposite of what the writer intended by showing the implicit biases that may make a woman unwilling working in the Wash U physics department.