Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Gender and Underrepresentation in Physics

Over at Cosmic Variance is a worthwhile discussion over diversity in physics, if you're interested in such. I usually tire of such discussions quickly, but I enjoyed the comments. I'll just point out a couple interesting items:

  • This person argues that "science is more or less a meritocracy." I'd love to know more about this person's experiences to know how they could emerge so non-jaded.
  • This person thinks that homosexuals are underrepresented. People quickly ask for evidence of such a dearth. It certainly made me wonder. I don't spend a lot of time trying to figure out who is gay and who isn't, but certainly there are a number of likely candidates. I can easily imagine that the representation is roughly equal to that of the general population.
  • I think the goal of "Boost[ing] the self-confidence of girls" is indeed worthwhile, and not some nebulous, liberal, hogwash.

Anyway, a worthwhile discussion whatever your experience.

Update: For a contrasting, eh...opinion, you might get some entertainment from reading Lubos' latest concerning this discussion. As is usually the case, I couldn't make it through more than the first couple of paragraphs.

I liked this from Sean:

The real problem, though, is that the faculty-hiring stage is far too late. The damage is done in high school and earlier, and that’s the obvious target for trying to improve things.

And finally, you might find this test a fun distraction (as linked by here).


Anonymous said...

People don't talk about the real discrimination in academia. More than half of the physicists I know have parents that were academics. If you grew up in a blue-collar family, you might as well not even apply.

Angry said...

I can easily imagine that a large percentage of physicists have academics as parents. But discrimination? I'm not sure an interested person from a blue collar family would get treated differently. Certainly, they might be much less prone to go into physics. And it's a shame when kids don't get exposed to all the world has to offer.

Anonymous said...

I think that the key problem is the method used to select those who will be chosen to become physicists. I would think that anyone who has been through the process of passing the preliminary exams at a good school will recognize that the tests are not well designed to choose those who would advance physics so much as those who are able to (1) parrot the current conventional wisdom on the theory and (2) make quick calculations using the conventional techniques. This is how you get conventional thinking. The same principle applies to getting tenure.

The system is very hard on those who are slow plodders, who like to understand someting deeply before going on to the next subject. The people who tend to do well are the rather shallow but speedy thinkers who can breeze into a new subject, learn a few principles that can be applied at very high levels of abstraction, and then reproduce calculations.

Those calculations were originally worked out by slow plodding individuals. The principles were thought over and fought over for years. The result of having shallow thinkers dominate the field is that physics becomes more and more like a form of engineering, with fewer and fewer people actually working on fundamentally new ideas.

So the problem is not so much that almost all new physicists are children of academics, but instead that almost all new physicists are minted as carbon copies of each other with little individuality. As in business, the result of hiring a bunch of people who think alike is that they tend to overlook the same things. Result: crisis in elementary particles.

And as far as two physicists having children, it seems to me to be somewhat unwise. I wonder what the rate of autism is among the children of such marriages.

Angry said...

I can't agree with you about qualifiers. My experience has been that unconventional thinking is quite well respected in graduate school, and often in physics at large. I can easily imagine some departments though being hesitant to grant tenure to an unconventional thinker, especially without a proven track record.

As for two physicists, I've certainly heard things like this. I have no idea whether the research backs this up though.

Anonymous said...

Old post, but thought I'd share a story.

I was a present (although not participating) in an NSF review session for a certain program that brought together physicists, various engineers, and biophysicists. They were trying to determine if the group should be funded for an additional 5 years.

One of the faculty members presented his work on the educational side of the project: Providing seminars for graduate students and other scholars so that they could learn new technologies (usually software) to help them with their research. He also ran a mentoring program for undergraduates.

One of the panelists asked him, "What are you doing to promote minorities and women in this area?"

He responded, "We're not concerned with that."

I'm sure he'll never forget the beating that ensued.

The thing is, I know the professor well enough. He's not a native English speaker. What he meant was, "It is not a problem - the group is fairly diverse (women may not be 50%, but not quite low either).

Needless to say, he was roundly lambasted. It got to the point where there was nothing he could possibly say that would make the situation worse.

However, I really think the views the panelists had on this are inappropriate. In a sense, the students who made use of this group's work were about as diverse as one can get. They were almost exclusively foreign students from all parts of the world. Somehow, though, that does not count - they are not "minorities" in the sense of the word that those people like to use. By criticizing the group for not including minorities, they made it appear as if most of the students were the usual white Caucasians, when in reality, *those* were in the minority!

And second, as you mentioned in your post, the problem does not lie at this end (grad school), but perhaps way down at the elementary or high school level. If the group did not have enough women, it's because the pool of people to choose from (i.e. graduate students in this discipline) had few women. You can't institute any program to attract women at this level and magically expect them to materialize. They're being "turned off" long before they arrive at graduate school.