Women and Physics by Laura McCullough

Women and Physics by Laura McCulloch is a concise addition to the IOP Science Concise Physics series.

McCullough is an award winning Professor of Physics at UW Stout, and served for several years as the chair of that university’s Chemistry and Physics Department. Her research focuses on physics education, and gender and science. By both chance and design, I know a lot of people in this area, and I’m pretty sure IOP Science could not have had a better choice in authors for this important book.

How do you make a physicist? Well, you start with a child, and poke at it for 25 year or so until it become something, and maybe it will become a physicist. Meanwhile, the growing and developing individual passes through several stages. If the child is a male, those stages are called opportunities. If the child is a female, they are called filters.

McCullough writes,

When I walked into my physics graduate school on day one and there were twenty-four men and me, I knew that we had a problem. A problem begging for a solution, and because I am a scientist and what I do is solve problems, that moment was the beginning of what has been twenty years of research on gender issues in science for me. I don’t know all the answers, and I doubt the problem will be solved in my lifetime, but I know more than I knew then, and sharing that is part of the solution. Hence this book.

McCullough surveys and describes the filters, and the stages. She looks at how women are challenged at every stage. She describes what the field of Physics has done so far to remove gender biased barriers to women’s progress, and what needs to be done in the future.

I should probably mention that the sciences in general, the physical sciences in particular, and super-duper-especially physics (in its various forms) have a) not allowed women to progress fairly at any stage, ever, and b) still manage to have been shaped and influenced by the important work of a number of women. I’m sure you already knew that, but just in case, there it is.

This isn’t just about institutions. It is also about how individuals interact, about social and cultural stereotypes and biases, and individual decisions.

Here is how McCullough underscores the filtering process:

A little girl waits patiently at a science exhibit for another child to finish. Her brother butts in when he comes over to see it and she never gets her turn.

A young woman in high school physics is always relegated to be the record keeper and never gets a chance to play with the equipment.

A woman walks into her first day of physics graduate school and sees twenty four men and no other women.

A physics professor is called ‘Mrs’ by her students instead of ‘Dr’.

An assistant professor is placed on every departmental committee in order to
have female representation.

A woman makes a suggestion at her weekly research group meeting. Her idea is ignored. Three minutes later, a man makes the same suggestion and is applauded.

How many physicists are women? What does the process of filtering, which in some ways applies to all would-be physicists of any gender, do differently with women? How are these trends changing?

Two of McCullough’s core chapters are titled “What helps, what hurts: family and education” and “What helps, what hurts: family and career.”

These social and professional spaces are where the rubber meets the road. This is where, to use a physics metaphor for a social problem affecting physics, kinetic energy (desire and motivation) and friction (the status quo, power structures, the patriarchy) come into play.

Is there a “masculinist” and a “feminist” nature of science? This is the sort of question that can cause spit to come flying out of the heads of the most mild mannered seemingly non-sexist male scientists, especially in physics (many biological scientists know there are gendered features of science, at multiple levels). I suspect that in physics, this is mostly surficial gendering, which has profound impacts on women’s careers. In other sciences, human genders interact with other human genders, and non-human genders, in all sorts of ways. My own biological science with respect to humans had to be fully gender bound, as my field studies could only be done with male subjects. My female colleagues could only work with female subjects. I’m not sure if physicists have the same issues. I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky (maybe) that in the naming of quantum-level aspects of matter-energy, male-female gender was never employed (as opposed to color, orientation, strength, etc.) Imagine what cold have been…

But I digress. McCullough writes about this aspect of gendering in the physical sciences as well, as ingress to the topic of covert discrimination.

I regard this book as something of a manual for women in physics, and for men who may be, should be, mentors. It is for teachers of physical science (or, really, all science) in high schools and colleges. These are all people who a) already feel they know what is going on with gender discrimination, but b) often mistakingly ignore that this is a separate subfield of study and no, they don’t. Parents of kids (boys and girls) who are leaning into the sciences would benefit too, but they are probably not that likely to read an academic book like this. Note to self: Suggest to Laura that she write a version of this for the families.

Women and Physics is available now, go read it.


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  2. #2 Tenney Naumer
    Fort Worth
    September 5, 2016

    This happens to women in virtually all fields:

    A woman makes a suggestion at her weekly research group meeting. Her idea is ignored. Three minutes later, a man makes the same suggestion and is applauded.