I don’t know if it was intended for me, but somebody printed out and stacked with my airline reservations a scan of a letter by Smith & Smith (from Arlington, Virginia), from the 2006 issue of Physics Today (letters to the editor). The scan also included a number of penned comments written by a highly cynical and annoyed person commenting on the letter.
The letter is objecting to an earlier article about the “pipeline problem” in physics, where at higher and higher levels, women represent a smaller and smaller fraction of physicists. The conclusion of their letter reads:
Once society has fixed its problems, the optimal solution will percolate throughout the physics community so long as we maintain our unbiased meritocracy.
Whoever annotated the letter underlined “maintain our unbiased meritocracy” and wrote “Ha Ha Ha!” in thick black Sharpee letters right next to it. I tend to agree with the sentiments of the annotator, and here’s why.
Very, very frequently we hear people assert that we’ve got a meritocracy in academia, and especially in science, and especially in physics. (Physicists assume that their field is the pinnacle of intellectual and moral achievement. Of course, most people assume that about their own fields, so physicists aren’t particularly special, but we physicists seem to think that we’ve proven our superiority as a law of nature and as such don’t hesitate to share our views on it.) We certainly have all of the trappings of a meritocracy, and we tell ourselves we’ve got a meritocracy. As such, it becomes a very pat answer whenever anybody complains about some injustice in hiring and promotion in physics that, hey, it’s a meritocracy; maybe there are some individual exceptions and bad cases, but overall, the best are floating to the top.
The problem is, it’s all hogwash. Alas, the myth of the meritocracy is so compelling many truly believe in it. Most of the rest of us, like me, recognize that it is a myth, but still often act as if it were true.
First of all, there’s the whole issue of the statistical evidence. Smith & Smith point out various statistics quoted by those who say there is a pipeline problem, and point out assumptions behind the interpretations of the statistics. They are, of course, right, to some degree. This is why I do physics, and not sociology. In physics, understanding your systematic errors and correlated errors well enough to properly interpret your statistical data is already monstrously difficult, and in sociology it’s only that much more difficult. So, nearly 50% of high school girls take physics, but only 25% of college women take physics. Is it a pipeline problem, or is it that girls who intrinsically hate physics for some genetic reason only take it in high school because they have to? Directly from the statistical data, it’s very difficult to say.
So let me set that aside for the time being.
There is one simple truth, one simple fact, denied by many, but out there and obvious for many to find. Many, perhaps even most, women in physics experience questions and assaults on their character, on their self esteem, and on their worthiness simply because they are women. Going through grad school and academia, all of us in physics experience a lot of these assaults for a wide variety of reasons. The point is, though, that many or most (or all?) women experience additional challenges that men do not. You could argue, I suppose, that these challenges are insignificant in the face of the assault upon one’s sense of well-being represented by (for instance) Jackson’s E&M book, but I think you’d be wrong. Talk to some women. Some will tell you that, yeah, they get the assumption they’re dumb from other physicists because they’re women, but they also get it because they’re astronomers. Most women, though, will have hair-raising stories. Either stories of unwanted attention that go beyond the “nerd looking too much,” or stories of receiving blatantly differential treatment which is openly as a result of their gender.
How can it be a meritocracy if the playing field is not level? If in addition to the slings and arrows of outrageous oral exams, women have to put up with professors who assume that they aren’t as smart or, perhaps, not as interested, and with colleagues who view them as sex objects first and as scientists second?
Even if the standards by which everybody is judged are perfectly gender-neutral, (an assertion not supported by research, incidentally), the fact that women have to put up with more crap than do men de-levels the playing field. Sure, we’re judged by the same criteria. But it would be the equivalent of two people running a footrace, one in shorts and tennis shoes, the other barefoot and carrying a 40lb backpack. Even though there’s absolutely no bias whatsoever in judging who crosses the finish line first, this is clearly not a fair race. And the analogy is bad, because there’s ample evidence that the judgment process is not nearly as gender neutral as well like to tell ourselves that it is.
So, when we look at the gender imbalance, and conclude that it means that perhaps women aren’t as interested in physics as men, that’s a bad conclusion. It may be right– but you have no way of knowing if it’s there because of any intrinsic, genetic difference, or simply because the additional level of crap that women have to put up with kills their interest.
Of course, the myth of the meritocracy goes beyond gender issues. There’s also the fact that the figure of merit isn’t obvious. “The best physicists” are supposed to rise to the top… but how do you really measure that? Whenever somebody tries to assert that there are differences between men and women in terms of average suitability for physics, they always talk about mathematical ability and ability to deal with abstract problems. However, it is extremely naive to believe that this is the only, or even the primary, predictor for how well you will do in physics. There may be a very small number of Ed Witten types out there who have gotten far in physics simply because they were brilliant. I would hypothesize, however, that mathematical/scientific ability (whatever that is) is something you must have a certain level of to even play in the game… and that after that the primary predictor for how successful you will be is the same predictor as in any other field: how aggressive you are, how good you are at marketing and selling yourself.
In a sense, that’s a meritocracy, but we aren’t rewarding the merit that we think we’re rewarding, and that we should be rewarding.
There is a lot more I could ramble on about this, but I will stop for now. I will just say that it’s sad to see so many physicists claiming to be so smart and all-knowledgeable who are able to maintain the delusion that we’ve really got a functioning meritocracy. The level of denial about the true nature of the problems is huge. And while, yes, I share their suspicion about replacing a meritocracy with “social engineering,” their resistance to the social engineering that is suggested is based on a belief in a meritocracy that only barely exists.