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.