Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Gender Imbalance in Physics: Maybe Not the Result of Baby-Craziness?

Women continue to be severely underrepresented in physics and mathematics. As we all know, this is the fault of women; the main reason behind this trend being that women want to have babies and academia is ill-suited to this, just as the nationwide pay discrepancy is due to women's relative timidity in asking for raises.

Okay, I got the sarcasm out of my system. Women don't negotiate raises for a good fucking reason: they are penalized for doing so. And while academia is fairly hostile to child-rearing, a recent study shows that this may affect men as much as it does women:

We also show that the impact of science on family life is not just a woman's problem; the effect on life satisfaction of having fewer children than desired is more pronounced for male than female faculty, with life satisfaction strongly related to career satisfaction.

You read that right, folks; these researchers found that teh menz care more about having babies. So can we stop blithely assuming that women's biological clocks are the cause of the gender imbalance in physics?

Now, it is entirely possible to construct some argument to get around this one result. For instance, pregnancy and breast-feeding are burdens more often carried by women -- but I think parents will agree that these tasks do not comprise the majority of the time requirement of raising a kid. Then there's the possibility that women's partners are less likely to stay at home. Do these factors outweigh their apparently weaker drive to have kids? To answer this, we need more studies. Not glib answers based on "common sense."

In the meantime, I suggest we admit the possibility that there may be some sexism at work in the academic community. Yes, fellow scientists, I have just implied that you yourself might be somewhat sexist. Yes, that applies to me, too. (I'm talking about internalized misogyny, not sexism against men, in case you're unclear on that.) Let's stop freaking out at the implication that we might be sexist, and start working on how we can be less sexist.


  1. My husband and his fellow grad students were shocked to find out that the faculty did not offer a position to the candidate they recommended. The candidate in question, a female, had a two-year gap in her body of publications. During those two years she had two children. Another faculty member (also female) found this gap to be unacceptable, despite knowing the reason for it. She black-balled the candidate and a different person was hired. Everyone else was disgusted.

  2. Karen, that is outrageous. The petty tyrannies we act out when we can. And of course, the candidate is so rarely told why they are rejected. Publish or perish is one of the big problems with academia.