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Physics Gender Bias in Particle Physics?

  1. Sep 16, 2012 #1

    I'm not sure if there's a post for this already, but I'm in high school and I would like to go into the physics (or mathematics) field. I am especially interested in particle physics at the moment. My mother has her masters in math, and she's told me some tales about her experiences with the gender ratio in her classes (especially grad.). I've read about the fact (according to statistics) that women on average have to work nearly 2.5 times harder for the same opportunities as men and find it a bit intimidating.

    I was wondering if anyone could tell me whether these statistics are true?
    Also, what are your experiences with the gender ratio?
    What can I expect when I eventually take more advanced math or physics classes in regards to this?

    I am female and although this isn't one of the deciding factors for my future I would like to be more aware of the reality.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 16, 2012 #2
    There are some posts about this already. I can't be bothered to do the search for you though...

    My answer is yes and no. Yes, I was often the only female, or one of just a few, in some of my science and engineering classes. No, that didn't lead to it being "2.5 times harder" that it would be. I got the same grading as everyone else...

    Beyond undergrad, there is still sometimes an imbalance of gender. But if you have confidence, you will not be treated any differently that your male counterparts by 99% of the scientists out there.

    I am skeptical of that statistic. What does it even mean? But, it probably is meant to include things like childbirth (if a woman takes a few years off her career to raise a kid, she may get behind career-wise). And in fact, when applying for things like scholarships, women and minorities often have an (unfair) advantage, because committees like to avoid the appearance that they are giving all the awards to white males.
  4. Sep 16, 2012 #3
    Christina Hoff Sommers, a woman with some common sense, exposes such a study.
    In May 1997, the distinguished British jour¬nal Nature published a provocative article titled, “Nepotism and Sexism in Peer-Review.” The authors, Christine Wenneras and Agnes Wold, two Swedish scientists from the University of Goteborg, claimed to have found blatant gender bias in the peer-review system of the Swedish Medical Research Council. After reviewing the relevant data, they concluded that to win a postgraduate science fellowship, a female applicant had to be at least twice as good as a male applicant.
    The Wenneras-Wold article caused a sensa¬tion both in Europe and the United States and is now a staple in the gender-equity literature. A recent article in Scientific American referred to it as the one and only “thorough study of the real-world peer-review process” and judged its findings “shocking.” When the NSF polled 19 institutions that had received gen¬der-equity ADVANCE grants, it asked which materials “had proved the most effective in their institutional transformation projects?” The Wenneras-Wold study made it to the NSF short list of four must-read “top research arti¬cles.” The Shalala/NAS “Beyond Bias” report describes the piece as a “powerful” tool for edu-cating provosts, department chairs, and search committees about bias. The charter for the October 17 House subcommittee hearing gave particular prominence to the Swedish study.
    'At bias-awareness workshops, physicists and engineers watch skits where overbearing male faculty ride roughshod over hapless but intellectually superior female colleagues.
    But what does the article actually show? Wenneras and Wold investigated the peer-reviewing practices of the Medical Research Council in 1994 after they had both been denied postgraduate fellowships. When they sought to review the data on which the council’s decisions were based, the Council refused to grant them access, insisting the information was confiden¬tial. But the two researchers went to court and won the right to see the data.
    The Swedish study, unlike the MIT report, was actually published, and it presents data and describes its methodology. But there are serious grounds for skepticism: once again, it was a case of women investigating their own complaints; furthermore, what they concluded seemed a lit¬tle improbable. According to their calculations, to score as well as a man, a woman had to have the equivalent of three extra papers in world-class science journals such as Science or Nature or 20 extra papers in leading specialty journals such as Radiology or Neuroscience.
    I sent the Swedish study to two research psychologists, Jerre Levy (professor emerita, of Chicago) and James Steiger (pro¬fessor and director, Quantitative Methods and Evaluation, Department of Psychology and Human Development, Vanderbilt) for their review. They both immediately zeroed in on a troubling methodological anomaly: Wenneras and Wold had run separate regressions for only one productivity variable at a time. Since it is unlikely that any single variable adequately characterizes academic productivity, the obvi¬ous approach would have been to enter several of the productivity variables into a single regres¬sion equation. In any event, the dramatic results of the factor-by-factor approach that Wenneras and Wold used should have been tested against the more inclusive, realistic approach.
    Certainly, researchers lose data. But these were pretty special data: The researchers had invested the substantial time and expense of a lawsuit to obtain them, and they were the basis of a highly celebrated study with singu¬lar findings.
    But even assuming that the research held up, it is odd that a single study of postgraduate fellow-ships at a Swedish university should play such a prominent role in a campaign to eliminate “hid¬den bias” in American universities. Is it twice as hard for women to receive postgraduate fel¬lowships in the science departments of Berkeley or the University of Miami? If it is, would it not be straightforward to demonstrate the prob¬lem through at least one good study—one that followed customary statistical procedures and could stand up to peer review?

    the feminism movement goes far enough to grant quota's (which are simply unfair: one shouldn't choose anyone for a certain job, just 'because there should be at least 40% women' - unfair both if there are more male applicants, and unfair that one chooses just for the sake of gender).
    It even goes as far as the following:

    In today’s Science Times, Gina Kolata explores the fascinating public reaction to the case of Amy Bishop, the university neuroscientist accused of going on a shooting rampage after failing to win tenure.
    Internet postings have offered some surprising conclusions about the reasons behind the shooting and whether Ms. Bishop has more to offer to science. Ms. Kolata writes:
    Many posted comments like this: “I do not approve of what Dr. Bishop did, but I understand her frustration.” Being denied tenure “in spite of her contributions past and future,” the writer added, “is sufficient to provoke a murderous rage against the chairman and the university.”
    Another popular sentiment: “I can’t help but observe that this was a woman in a male-dominated institution in a male-dominated field in a conservative part of the country.”
    And on a forum devoted to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or A.L.S., commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a person wrote: “I hope they turn her loose again. Sounds like she knew what she was doing in A.L.S. That’s more than we have now.”
    To learn more about the unusual debate surrounding Ms. Bishop, read the full story, “Debating an Accused Professor’s Worth to Science,” and then please join the discussion below.
    Murderers cannot be excused, in any case. Furthermore, Gina Kolata points out her research did not even qualify for tenure.
    In fact, scientists who have looked at Dr. Bishop’s résumé said they saw no evidence of genius, no evidence of a cure for diseases like A.L.S., no evidence that she even could have gotten tenure at a major university.
    Most of her work was on nitric oxide, a gas that can transmit signals between nerves. High levels of nitric oxide, she proposed, might set off degenerative diseases like A.L.S., and cells treated with low levels of the gas might build resistance. But that is far from proven, scientists said, and the idea was not original with Dr. Bishop.
    R. Douglas Fields, chief of the nervous system development and plasticity section at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, said of Dr. Bishop’s work, “I don’t think it was groundbreaking — quite the opposite.”
    She had nothing published in 2007 and 2008, and during her six years at the university in Huntsville she published three papers that appeared to be original research articles, none of them in major journals — often a requirement for tenure.
  5. Sep 16, 2012 #4


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    This was fifteen years ago. I'm not saying that problems have been eliminated now, but things have surely changed at least a little bit since then.
  6. Sep 16, 2012 #5
    The gender disparity IS very large. In my graduate school department, across both high energy theory and experiment there were two women out of about 25 students. I don't think this required me to work 2.5 times as hard to get the phd.

    However, sexism is still alive and well- I was told on a postdoc interview by the person doing the hiring that if I planned to have a kid in the next 3 years I was wasting both of our time. And I know a woman who was fired for her pregnancy. In these cases it doesn't matter how hard you work- if you are unlucky enough to be in the wrong postdoc and decide to have a kid before 35, your career is simply over.
  7. Sep 16, 2012 #6
    Okay, thanks for the added insight. All I knew for certain was that there was sure to be less women in more advanced math classes than men, not necessarily that they weren't treated as well. I'm a bit curious as to why this is? Anyway, I've not actually met much opposition from guys my own age nor my women math teachers (especially not them) or men teachers for that matter. I have just been hearing things from the news and magazines and thought I should ask people with more experience.

    Is the media just trying to blow this into something bigger that it truly is?

    Is the gender ratio similar in the higher math classes as it is in the higher physics classes? (I mean in PDEs and Topology in comparison to QM/CM/EM)
  8. Sep 16, 2012 #7
    the thing is, there is a much lower stream of girls in these fields. if no girl is able to apply for a PhD, it is easy to say that discrimination is taking place - while in fact the probability that a girl would be able to apply would be very small compared to that of boys, who form the majority.
    Of course, if you let your postdocs know that you will be having a child, which means you will be less able to work hard for a few years, there are gonna be some 'negative' side-effects - at least on the academic side of the equation. well, it depends on the situation. I would expect maternity leave for up to 12 weeks. additionally, being pregnant in the early phases might be confusing and such, and having too much stress will be bad for the baby- I'm guessing that being Phd or professor qualifies for stress in some cases. taking care of the child may usurp some time and may keep you awake having restless nights; but this would be the case for fathers as well (however, females are usually the better caregiver). I suspect this is one of the reasons why females are seen less in the STEM fields and in the billionaire league: pregnancy makes it more difficult to keep up with highly competitive jobs, since (near) absense for only a year might be difficult to recover. perhaps employers, in some cases, may anticipate this.
    I'm not sure of any statistics on math vs physics. In my case, there are more females in the mathematics class than in the physics class; since there are much female teachers, it is not unreasonable to speculate that some of them will be math teachers (which are highly demanded these days).
    Last edited: Sep 16, 2012
  9. Sep 16, 2012 #8
    There certainly is a skewed gender ratio in the sciences. Why there is a skewed gender ratio is something that people can and do argue about, I'd put it down to partly because there is an extremely "macho" culture in the sciences. By this I mean that you have to be very aggressive and confrontational or else you get knocked down. If someone screams that "you are an idiot", it's much more socially accepted for males to "fight back" than it is for females. One way to see this is that there are some nasty terms for women that are extremely assertive (i.e. female dog), whereas I can't think of a nasty term for a male that does the same thing.

    The other issue is that there can be a lack of support structures. There is very much an "old boy's network" and in areas where women have done well, there happens to be an "old girl's network."

    But then you have to ask why the entry is low. Also this gets into the general problem with physics. With few jobs available, there isn't much pressure to make it easier for people that haven't been physicists in the past to become physicists.

    One other thing, issues of family don't impact just women. Men that care more about family than career also get hit by these sorts of issues.
  10. Sep 17, 2012 #9
    One thing to keep in mind is that gender attitudes also vary a lot from country to country and even between universities and departments, depending on attitudes of local prominent people. As an example, I can mention that at my old department (in sweden), not only is pregnancy during for example your PhD considered no problem, they also allow extra time to complete your PhD if you were home with your child for a time, so that you would have the same effective working time as otherwise.

    Also, I'm not sure if the statement "working 2.5 times as hard" makes much sense, considering that male scientist already work as much as is possible due to the competition. Before an actual science career however, when just taking courses for a masters or similar, I'm not sure if I see gender bias playing any role. I mean grades are usually set from test score results, something which is not biased.
  11. Sep 17, 2012 #10


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    Until she retired recently, last time I checked, Persis Drell was a woman, and she was the head of SLAC and a particle physicist.

    This discussion is going in many different directions. The OP asked for a very specific situation (particle physics/high energy physics track). Unfortunately, damabo, for some reason, decided not only to drag in ALL of the academic world, but also on this "peer-review system" in other parts of the world! I'm surprised we're also not tackling world hunger and the Mideast conflict on one shot! This dilutes the issue and also turns this into a meaningless rambling that will often go nowhere.

    I'd rather hear more what ParticleGrl and nuclear85 have to say.

  12. Sep 17, 2012 #11
    coming up next... world hunger.

    ok I'll shut my mouth
  13. Sep 17, 2012 #12

    Vanadium 50

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    And the spokesperson of ATLAS is Fabiola Gianotti.
  14. Sep 17, 2012 #13


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    ParticleGrl, I find it frankly shocking the a woman could be fired for her pregnancy, especially given the potential this could set up for lawsuits. Here in Canada where I live, women are guaranteed 1 year of maternity leave (there is also an equivalent paternity leave for fathers) and those taking the leave are guaranteed by law to be able to return to their position or some equivalent position. Universities are not exempt from this, including for postdoc positions, and my understanding is that any such violations can result in pretty stiff penalties on the employers involved.
    Last edited: Sep 17, 2012
  15. Sep 17, 2012 #14
    StatGuy2000- in the US there is no mandated maternity leave (or vacation time, etc). Now- firing someone because they are pregnant (even if they haven't requested leave) is probably against policies at lots of places, and might be illegal (I don't know) but it still happens. Asking someone if they plan on having a kid in an interview is also probably illegal, but also still happens.

    A quick google search turned up this:


    The issue I'm thinking of happened in a university in the north east, so she wasn't covered by a union. Maybe the postdoc union is improving things (although my suspicion is that the woman who got the union involved had trouble continuing in academia because I doubt her letter was very good).
  16. Sep 17, 2012 #15


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    Yes, I am well aware that in the US there is no mandated maternity leave or vacation time, at least at the federal level, although I had heard somewhere that certain individual states do have such mandates.

    That being said, I would think that firing someone because they are pregnant is definitely illegal (just like you can't fire someone by their racial or ethnic origins -- it most certainly is illegal in Canada). Of course, just because something is illegal doesn't mean it can't happen -- the question would be how frequently these events occur (was the incident you had quoted an isolated incident, or is widespread).

    The other question I have is whether the gender gap and sexism is worse in physics than in the other sciences.
  17. Sep 17, 2012 #16
    http://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/pregnancy.cfm says that firing due to pregnancy is definitely illegal in the US.

    The difficulty is that only a complete idiot would come out and say "We're firing you because you are pregnant." I'm sure that women are fired because they are pregnant, but I'd wager that the official cause is always given as something else. As a result, any lawsuit would have to prove that the employer is lying about the true cause.
  18. Sep 17, 2012 #17
    Thats hard to answer. I only know the experiences I have had, or others I've known. I think events as ridiculous as this are probably (hopefully) rare, but little events (asked if you are planning to have a kid in an interview, not invited out-with-the-guys,etc) happen all the time.

    The gender gap is worse in physics than in biology. I don't know about sexism because the only science I've ever worked in is particle physics.

    I can say that sexism is much worse in particle physics than it is in data-mining/insurance.
  19. Sep 17, 2012 #18


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    I would probably agree that not being invited out-with-the-guys probably happens if not all the time, but enough that it is not too unusual. I have never heard of any female applicant, either in private industry or in academia, being asked if she was planning on starting a family in an interview, however (perhaps a difference between Canada and the US?)

    With respect to the gender gap, I would have figured that the situation is worse in physics than in biology (for various reasons, women were well-represented in biology for years). I was wondering how physics would compare to say, computer science, math, or the various engineering subdisciplines (fields that are cognate to physics in certain respects) in terms of the gender gap.

    I would think that the gender gap is worse in computer science than in particle physics (I have seen a number of statistics in the past indicating that women are highly under-represented in computer science). I'm also curious as to whether there are differences in the gender gap between the different sub-specialties of physics (say, between particle physics vs condensed matter physics, optics, or complex systems).
  20. Sep 17, 2012 #19
    This has only happened to me within academia, and it has happened with a few people I know. None of the private sector interviews have asked.

    Honestly, my experience at my current job has been a breath of fresh air in this regard- I would suggest that private sector insurance jobs are far easier to navigate as a woman than academic particle physics.

    I don't think I have any good way to assess these sorts of questions. There were so few women in physics at my university that very few subfields had two or more women. Because I only attended conferences in my subfield, I really only have a large personal sample of particle physicists so its hard for me to make cross-comparisons. The only one thats really easy to make is biology, because the difference is so striking.

    The SWE chapter at my university was dominated by people from CS, but thats most likely because they had a much larger department.
  21. Sep 17, 2012 #20
    This is, of course, also illegal to ask.

    I would guess that what this really means is that the private sector does a better job of familiarizing interviewers with the law than academia.
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