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Women in Physics and sexism

  1. Jun 14, 2012 #1
    What is the sexism in physics field like? I heard there's a lot of sexism in the field.
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  3. Jun 14, 2012 #2


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  4. Jun 14, 2012 #3
    As a short anecdote, most of the girls I've met who have complained about sexism have been the ones who went out of their way to make themselves look more provocative (and the ones that go overboard with the 'im one of the guys' carry on).
  5. Jun 14, 2012 #4
    Define provocative? It sounds like you are saying that the girls who dress like girls complain about sexism. But then, so do the ones who act like one-of-the-guys, who conceivably don't dress like girls? Doesn't that encompass a wide range of people?

    But anyway, in my opinion the sexism in physics exists, and it ranges from subtle to fairly ridiculous. Some of it is intentional, but quite a lot is the result of an institutional culture that developed largely in the absence of women (i.e. its very, very hard to have a kid at any point before tenure and stay in the field. I've had childless women professors tell me they wish they had frozen their eggs)

    The best advice I can give is to contact your local society of women engineers (or find a woman physicist) and meet some people who have been through it that you can meet face to face. In person advice from someone who is living he sort of career will be a lot more beneficial than internet message board advice.
  6. Jun 14, 2012 #5


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    They went out of their way to look more provocative - what do you mean by that?
  7. Jun 14, 2012 #6


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    I agree with ParticleGirl - the sexism I've encountered has been mostly unintentional on the part of the guy. That's not to say it's not there, just that they usually don't realize they're being sexist. For example, I was recently hired as a tenure-track physics faculty member at a university. When meeting an older, male member of the engineering faculty, he asked me what I was teaching. When I told him 'physics', he said 'Wow! Good for you!' He probably didn't realize it was pretty insulting. He certainly didn't react like that when he met the new male engineer I was walking around with. I'm sure he thought he was being the opposite of sexist.

    I've heard many women complain (quite legitimately) about sexist co-workers, and none of them dress 'provocatively'. Nor do I.
  8. Jun 14, 2012 #7


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    eri, I don't see it as being sexist, the fact is that women are a minority in Physical Sciences so when he heard this it surprised him.

    I guess that if more women will get interested in academic life in the sciences we'll see a different attitude, and it won't surprise anyone.
  9. Jun 15, 2012 #8

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    Of course, I hope you realize that the problem isn't that women aren't interested in getting into academic life, but that there's innate institutionalized sexism that should be actively fought against. A comment like "good for you!" that's motivated by the sex of who you're talking is offensive, period.

    I've heard a lot of complaints from women where I just graduated (undergrad) about communicating with professors/students and being ignored in a group conversation, and feeling helpless due to their sex. I personally found it to be a "boy's club" and really didn't enjoy some of the conversations my fellow male physicists had that I found really sexist. I've also heard women I know outside of physics tell me that they were discouraged from mathematical sciences in middle/high school by counselors/teachers from what they perceived to be a gender bias.

    With that said, I've found the bias to be less severe at the grad school/academia level compared to undergrad at a state school, but there's always progress to be made.
  10. Jun 15, 2012 #9
    Is that really sexism? o.o To tell you the truth I don't see sexism here.

    I graduated with BEng in Engineering Physics and I have never seen anything like this during my studies. However m/f ratio in physics is about 50:50 in my country.

    Again, it's a news to me.

    Now I'm in a field where m/f ratio is 9:1 and again - I haven't felt any sexism.

    Now when I think about it I just don't give a **** about my gender. I mean I like my gender but I don't think about it and I don't feel inferior because of it. I have never though "should I go into physics/engineering/any other "male" field because I'm a woman?". I do what I like to do and don't care if it's "for males/females".

    I think it's mutual - if you don't see a problem with your gender, others won't see it either.

    Or maybe sexism is more common in US than in Europe. After all in Europe during 60's women engineers were quite common while in US women were treated as nice looking maids.
  11. Jun 15, 2012 #10

    It could have also been a comment/compliment as to such a young person taking up the mantle to teach physics. The sexism I've seen (I'm a guy btw) has been more female on female. I don't understand the reason, but they seem to be harder on each other. For guys, I suspect some attraction issues are mistaken as sexism. Some of us guys can be down right stupid about how to approach a women, let alone one that may (often is) smarter than us :smile: Thank god I'm married now and don’t have to worry about it, and yes, she's a teacher that is smarter than me in several ways.
  12. Jun 15, 2012 #11


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    I found the 'good for you!' to be a pretty patronizing remark. But I think things are getting better. My high school physics teacher was the worst, actually - he handed around a sheet the first day of class and told us to put our names down if we wanted to study for the AP exam, since our school didn't have a separate 'AP physics' class. We never heard about it again, and assumed he decided not to hold the extra study sessions for it. Imagine our surprise when it turned out he only got back to the guys who put their names down, none of the women.
  13. Jun 15, 2012 #12
    I'm sure things are getting better, but that's cold comfort to women in science today.

    "Good for you!" sounds pretty patronizing to me too. And honestly, I think the fact that he meant it as a complement would have just annoyed me even more.

    Part of the problem with being a member of a Privileged class is that sometimes you don't even realize that you *are* privileged. I'm sure this professor would have never said that if he had stopped to think about how it sounded.
  14. Jun 15, 2012 #13


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    What I would be interested to know is (a) if the sexism that is experienced by women in physics is either worse or more pervasive than those experienced by women in other scientific or technical disciplines, especially those which are still male-dominated (e.g. mathematics), and (b) if the sexism is worse in academia as opposed to outside of academia.
  15. Jun 16, 2012 #14
    Why not stop going on and on and on and on about it and just study it? If it's sexism today, it will be long beards and body odour tomorrow, just get on with it.
  16. Jul 18, 2012 #15
    I'm currently a female physics grad student and I regularly experience sexism. I don't really care to get irritated right now--I took a break from studying for the Comps to check out physics forums---so I won't go into any details, but yeah, sexism still exists in physics. On average, I have about one overt sexist experience per week. Sometimes it's something subtle; other times it's downright obvious to anyone, male or female, in the vicinity.


    I'm married and have a kid. I did the stay-at-home mom thing for the first few years, putting off grad school until our child was ready for preschool. During a meeting with a female professor with whom I was beginning a research project, I commented that I was jealous that she was just a few years older than me, but was already a tenured professor, while I was just starting grad school.

    Her response?

    That she envied me, because not only do I get to have a family---a husband and a child---but I still have a shot of having a physics career, too. She, on the other hand, "put off" romantic relationships in the pursuit of research and becoming a professor; she's now nearing 40 with no boyfriend/husband and the chances of her having natural children are around 0%.
  17. Jul 18, 2012 #16
    OMG, this has happened sooo many times to me and other women I know...
  18. Jul 18, 2012 #17
    I found, in my experience, that a lot of women (early 20's age) working in the sciences are intimidated by their male counterparts, being that they are surrounded by them. As a result (again, in my opinion), these girls tend to be more defensive than necessary. In acting this way I think a lot of girls problems in the field of science are brought on more by their insecurities and lack of confidence in themselves.

    Sexism probably exists in the field; its a combination of the men's lack of perceptiveness (which I've also noticed among men in technical fields) of feelings, and the women's unnecessary defensive attitude.

    SIDE NOTE: I don't think this is confined to the sciences alone as recently one of my female friends and I were talking about working out at the gym and she mentioned that she is intimidated lifting weights because of being surrounded by men.
    Last edited: Jul 18, 2012
  19. Jul 18, 2012 #18
    I feel that most of any sexism present in the field isn't necessarily due to the field itself, but because of a societal issue. We can't forget that the women's rights movement (this is coming from a student in the United States, btw) didn't really begin all that long ago. So, coming from a world where the sciences (not just the sciences, but almost any field that required education, since society generally dictated women to be housewives and whatnot) were VERY male dominated so recently, it will obviously take time for the genders to even out as our society adjusts to the fact that women now do the exact same things that men do.

    Also, I'm pretty sure that I've heard that there has been a serious issue with young girls having strong role models in school that promote them to pursue their gifts in math and science. Which would be another societal issue, but also an issue with outreach. I do know that some women professors at my university actually just held a computer science camp for middle school girls. It's more things like that that we need, until the gender ratios even out.

    Let's not forget that Marie Curie was the very first person to win two Nobel prizes, and her first one was in 1903, so clearly the field itself can't be entirely to blame. I'm sure that it was mostly men behind making the decision to award them to her.
  20. Jul 23, 2012 #19
    I remember seeing a study about a general difference between men's and women's communicating styles a while back when I was reading teaching methods. It said that, in general, men like to communicate by disagreeing, i.e. trying to attack or poke holes in someone elses argument in order to understand it, while women communicate by agreeing, i.e. trying to put themselves in the shoes of the other and understand the argument by seeing it form the other persons perspective.

    Over the years I've definitely noticed the trend that women tend to be more intimidated by the aggressive type of argumentation that I normally use (as a male) and I can certainly see how women could find an environment dominated by male discussion styles difficult, even if there is no intention to make it so. Do you women here agree that there are these argumentation style differences?
  21. Jul 23, 2012 #20
    Hm... from your description it seems that my style is closer to that of man ^^" But this style is natural for me so....
  22. Jul 23, 2012 #21

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    I've met a lot of people who express this sentiment. Also, by some enormous coincidence, they all happen to be straight white upper middle class males. Isn't that funny?

    I noticed that you bolded the "good for you" quote without bolding my subsequent modifier "motivated by the sex of who you're talking to." Certainly this is the definition of sexism (eri mentioned that the speaker did not react with awe to the new male faculty member).
  23. Jul 29, 2012 #22
    Oh please. Sexism has a VERY negative connotation, let us not use in this situation. Almost anything can be labeled as sexism, but if the way the word is used is in any consideration-- it is BS in this scenario.

    To me, "good for you," is a statement out of respect. People respect those who prove to others that minority can beat the odds -- it is a sign of toughness whether for women or for african americans. If I was faced in the same situation, I would be inclined to give a statement of praise.

    Is it wrong to be proud of someone standing up and saying "women can do the same things that men do!" Women go through more difficulty than men to be in academia, due to societal pressure and cultural paradigms -- so it is all the more impressive.

    I dislike when people jump on the sexism bandwagon, it does not apply here. It is akin to other minorities who are led to believe that they are being discriminated against, only to lead to their own pitfall. It is a very negative paradigm to carry along, and if minorities are to succeed-- they are less to worry about discrimination and more to worry about succeeding in their goal. A good example of this is the other poster who complained that the other men do not pay attention to her in group discussions. The sexism bandwagon can hurt, because in this case it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. But someone who is more proactive would inspect the problem and look for a solution. (For example, is it the way I communicate?) You can blame it on sexism, or you can blame it on yourself. This could have also happened to a guy, blaming sexism is a cheap scapegoat.

    P.S. The use of sexism to imply discrimination of women only and not men, is sexism in itself!
    Last edited: Jul 29, 2012
  24. Jul 29, 2012 #23
    Somehow we can discover all these amazing things, yet don't know what to do when there is a woman in the labroom?
  25. Jul 31, 2012 #24

    king vitamin

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    Oh please, of course sexism against men is a terrible thing and is something that should be disparaged and actively fought against when present. But sexism against men in academic physics is not a major societal problem. If I do see men being sexually harassed or belittled the next time I'm on campus I'll speak up! For some reason, this has happened exactly zero times.

    I also think it's funny how you responded to Geezer's comment that she and many other women regularly get ignored in physics conversations by saying that they must all have some sort of personal problem (like bad communication) that they need to be proactive about. So, the fact that many women get ignored is that many women have a personality flaw? I understand that there are men and women who communicate badly, but denying that sexism exists where it does exacerbates the problem.

    Minorities will succeed if they ignore discrimination? Brilliant! The only way it could fail is if minority groups were in the minority.
  26. Jul 31, 2012 #25


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    Well, this is not as clear as it looks like.

    Situation: Two scientists did different, similar tasks with the same performance and report that in a meeting or whatever. Of course, the correct way of acknowledgment would be "same to both". But in reality, it can be a bit different, due to multiple reasons. As I did not specify the gender, the issue is clearly not gender-related at this point.

    Now imagine the scientists are a woman and a man, and the woman gets less acknowledgment. I am sure some will complain about sexism.
    Now imagine the scientists are a woman and a man, and the woman gets more acknowledgment. I am sure some will complain about sexism.

    Obviously, the setup is symmetric. If one of them is sexism against women (why?), the other one should be sexism agains men, right? Which one?
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