Letter to the editor: In response to ‘Physics department looks to add female faculty’

Lilly Canel | Class of 1992

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I spent two years taking undergraduate upper division classes, several more years studying for my Ph.D. and then almost three years as a post doc researcher in the Washington University physics department. It was a good place to be a woman. Of course, sometimes I was the only woman in the room—but “so what?” I asked lots of questions in class—and was appreciated for it. Later, when I had research results to present, I was sent to all-expenses-paid conferences in my field, and (again all expenses paid) to a supercomputer training course that still is relevant to me today.

At the time, we had a “woman-in-physics” weekly brown bag lunch. I never remember hearing a single complaint about any professor mistreating any participant. Uniformly, professors spent much time mentoring all their students: mentoring women in the same ways as they mentored men. Among the graduate students—male and female together—there was a camaraderie, which didn’t discriminate on the basis of sex—except that there were a few marriages between graduate students.

I’m frankly mystified at the latest brouhaha about the physics department. Is it really likely that over the last couple of decades a pleasant place has become a hotbed of sexism? The department has been trying to hire women, but the worst possible outcome for female physicists would be a woman hired because she is the “best woman” rather than the “best candidate.” That is a recipe for fostering real discrimination against women, not the sort of discrimination that is anonymous, and non-specific so that physics department members cannot defend themselves.

  • Anonymous

    Is the article author Lilly Canel-Katz, the wife of physics professor Jonathan Katz?

    • Anonymous

      If this is Jonathan Katz’s wife, then it’s an important reminder that this is the same professor who wrote the articles “In Defense of Homophobia” and “The Summers Affair.”

      Furthermore: it’s an unnerving contention to state that a) the author did not themselves observe or experience sexism, leading to the conclusion that sexism obviously did not happen (!), a notion further nested in the idea that sexism is just about face-to-face interactions and not an entire systemic issue that results in things like the author being the only woman in the room. It’s about access and the entire way that science is constructed as a masculine enterprise. And b) that the author is extrapolating from experiences from over a decade ago to make conclusions about the present state of the physics department, presuming that departmental culture has not at all changed over those years.

      • Markus Frisk

        It is shocking that you would consider a woman to be merely an accessory to her husband, as if every one of his positions immediately transfered to her. You are the sexist, not her.

        About “systemic issues” and what not, the answer is quite simple: no evidence, no case. Nobody’s going to waste time investigating issues that can only be detected by subtle nuances in feelings and sensations — if you want to convince anyone with half a brain, you need data. Hard, carefully examined, unambiguous data. Anything less and you might as well be preaching a religion.

        • Anonymous

          I think the significance of pointing out that that article’s author is Jonathan Katz’s wife is that she married a professor in the department. Her experience would have inherently been much different than that of the other female students.