The case of the missing women: A physics department mystery

Jen McLish | Staff Writer

Student Life readers may have recently come across an op-ed by physics professor Jonathan Katz conclusively stating that the lack of women in the physics department is a phenomenon so mysterious we might as well give up on trying to find a solution. I would like to thank Katz for settling this issue once and for all. Who knew that all it would take to solve physics’ diversity problem was a white, male, straight (and avowedly homophobic) professor explaining that actually, the problem never needed solving in the first place? Women just don’t want jobs in our physics department because that might be inconvenient for their husbands. Or maybe girls are just “less interested in or less talented in physics than men.” According to Professor Katz, we may never know why there are so few women in the physics department. It’s one of life’s great unanswerable questions, like “what is the meaning of life?” and “how does Professor Katz still have a job?”

Except that, as anyone in academia who is not a straight, white man knows, the homogeneity of the physics department is not actually a mystery at all. I have to thank Katz for his inspiring forays into sociology and gender studies but must humbly request that he stick to physics. Katz states that there is no discrimination against women in the physics department’s hiring decisions, and I believe him. However, his flat denial that it is possible to know why fewer women go into physics, and his subsequent refusal to consider ways to close this gap, indicates both a serious lack of understanding regarding women’s experiences in STEM and an even more disappointing lack of interest in attempting to understand them.

Katz seems happy to accept that his wife, Lilly Canel-Katz, speaks for all women when she says she never experienced a negative attitude towards her in the physics department. Although Canel-Katz’s experiences are over a decade too late to be an accurate representation of the department today, there may be women who make it through their entire academic career without encountering a hostile or misogynistic environment. However, just because Katz does not see women discouraged from pursuing careers in physics does not mean that this does not take place.

I entered Washington University as an engineering student. I personally did not leave the School of Engineering because of misogyny, but I have seen up close and personal the ways in which women are guided away from STEM fields. As a multitude of sociological and psychological studies have illustrated, the challenges facing women in science are both numerous and obvious, once you look for them. We are not usually told that we can’t study physics. Society just assumes that we don’t want to. And the less often STEM fields are presented to us as career paths, the less we want to study them. If we manage to make it into a STEM program despite receiving less support than male peers, we quickly realize how few of us there are. If you have ever been in a class where everyone except you, including the professor, looks the same, then you know the anxiety and isolation that accompanies this realization. Women have experienced a thousand nudges away from STEM by the time they reach college (not to mention overt sexism many women face), where they continue to hear the same silent message from every uniformly male class and department: You’re an anomaly. And in some cases, like Katz’s, the message that they are unwanted is louder.

If we want more women in STEM fields now, simply refraining from openly discouraging girls from pursuing math and science won’t be enough. Society already quietly discourages them from doing so. We have to actively encourage girls to go into STEM and give them the kind of support that their male peers receive every time they see an all-male engineering team or take a classes taught by only male professors. We need female professors because the reason there are few female physicists now is that there were fewer female physicists a generation ago. We also need to be mindful of the fact that tomen who experience the most discouragement from entering STEM fields are women of color, especially black women. Recent comments from the head of the physics department suggest the troubling view that diversity’s a checklist—first you hire a woman, then a person of color. Not only does this perspective overlook the existence of highly qualified women of color, it promotes the idea that diversity is a chore you can get out of the way and then move on from, instead of the genuine commitment to equality that is necessary for a truly exceptional university.

It benefits Katz to ignore anyone who would demystify the source of the gender gap in STEM. If he claims to not know why the gap exists, he doesn’t have to do the uncomfortable work of challenging his own beliefs. In a regular person, this unwillingness to accept evidence that does not fit his perspective would be annoying. In a scientist, it is horrifying—especially because Katz would like us to believe that he is the guardian of scientific excellence, which his critics are determined to corrupt through the evils of diversity.

This line of thought asserts that setting out to hire women is essentially ‘lowering standards’ for female professors. To them I can only say this. Women are half the population. Studies have disproven Katz’s “hypothesis” that men are naturally better than women at physics. If women are just as good at physics as men, and far fewer women are entering the field, then there are also far fewer great minds in the field than there should be. So when we talk about ‘lowered standards,’ why aren’t we talking about the average men filling positions that should belong to exceptional women?

  • oneleft1

    ” 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.”

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

    This man is in possession of a dizzying intellect.

  • Sarah Phps

    Brava! Keep up the good work, Jen.

  • chemaoxfz

    How do you distinguish a physics Dept that is doing the chore of checklist, versus one that is genuinely committed to equality? This is important for us to have an executable standard. Otherwise everything is just words.

  • Syrus J

    whoops, followed the link. Yeah, homophobia is accurate. Still, an ad hominem attack that is not necessarily relevant to the discussion topic.

  • Syrus J

    First of all, I agree with the main point of this op-ed. Women are unfairly represented in STEM fields. That’s an undeniable fact.

    What’s troubling is how Professor Katz is vilified for speaking his opinion. He’s mocked for being “white, straight, male” with allegations about homophobia. It’s an unnecessary addition to a discussion that was otherwise driving deeper into an important issue.

    The main point that is poorly addressed here is that setting out to hire women specifically does diverge from the standard of hiring purely on merit. It’s a fact that there are more men, and more male candidates, than women for physics positions. Proportionally, we would expect that more men are hired as a result. This is not saying that women are less intelligent or good at physics then men, but wouldn’t we statistically see that there are fewer women who put themselves up for consideration at this school? And even fewer will accept offers.

    That being said, gender imbalance is an important issue. But it’s doubtful that the department is structurally discriminating against women! More likely it’s the result of complex social and family structures that are in the midst of changing since older times.

    • CB Smith

      Uhh, your last paragraph is almost exactly what the author said

    • oneleft1

      “allegations about homophobia”

      Do you know what “allegations” means?

  • Stephen P

    YES!

  • Erik Strobl

    this is fantastic. I wanted to share with a quotation, but there are too many good lines to pick from.

    Thank you, Jen, for taking on so many of this university’s collective embarrassments at once.