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Why so few women in science?
Try 'girls can't do physics'

Eileen Pollack ’78 graduated summa cum laude from Yale, a Phi Beta Kappa physics major who dreamed of a Princeton PhD but instead became a novelist and writing teacher.

Why? "Not a single professor—not even the adviser who supervised my senior thesis—encouraged me to go to graduate school," Pollack writes in the New York Times Magazine. "Certain this meant I wasn’t talented enough to succeed in physics, I left the rough draft of my senior thesis outside my adviser’s door and slunk away in shame."

OK, that was a long time ago. How much has changed?

Three decades later, Pollack—exploring the question that serves as her article's headline, "Why are there still so few women in science?"—visited a Yale where the physics department chair, astrophysicist Meg Urry, was not only a woman but an outspoken advocate for gender equity in science.

Urry predicted that contemporary female students "would recognize the struggles she and I had faced but that their support system protected them from the same kind of self-doubt," Pollack writes. But at a master's tea, 80 young women turned out to talk about science and gender:

The students clamored to share their stories. One young woman had been disconcerted to find herself one of only three girls in her AP physics course in high school, and even more so when the other two dropped out.

Another student was the only girl in her AP physics class from the start. Her classmates teased her mercilessly: “You’re a girl. Girls can’t do physics.” She expected the teacher to put an end to the teasing, but he didn’t.

Other women chimed in to say that their teachers were the ones who teased them the most. In one physics class, the teacher announced that the boys would be graded on the “boy curve,” while the one girl would be graded on the “girl curve”; when asked why, the teacher explained that he couldn’t reasonably expect a girl to compete in physics on equal terms with boys. . . .

After the tea, a dozen girls stayed to talk. “The boys in my group don’t take anything I say seriously,” one astrophysics major complained. “I hate to be aggressive. Is that what it takes? I wasn’t brought up that way. Will I have to be this aggressive in graduate school? For the rest of my life?” Another said she disliked when she and her sister went out to a club and her sister introduced her as an astrophysics major. “I kick her under the table. I hate when people in a bar or at a party find out I’m majoring in physics. The minute they find out, I can see the guys turn away.” Yet another went on about how even at Yale the men didn’t want to date a physics major, and how she was worried she’d go through four years there without a date.       

Pollack spotlights a study published last year by Yale biologist Jo Handelsman. Academic research scientists were asked to evaluate identical (fictional) job applicants—one named John and one named Jennifer. Male and female scientists alike were more likely to hire John, were more likely to mentor him, and were prepared to pay him $4,000 a year more than Jennifer. (This summer, President Barack Obama nominated Handelsman for a high-ranking science policy job in the White House. If confirmed by the Senate, Handelsman will take a leave from Yale.)

"Urry thinks Handelsman’s study might catalyze the changes she has been agitating to achieve for years," Pollack writes:

“I’ve thought for a long time that understanding this implicit bias exists is critical. If you believe the playing field is equal, then any action you take is privileging women. But if you know that women are being undervalued, then you must do something, because otherwise you will be losing people who are qualified.”

This Saturday, Yale hosts the school year's first Girls' Science Investigation—a free program for middle-school students. The location: the Sloane Physics Lab.

Filed under women in science, Eileen Pollack, Meg Urry, Jo Handelsman
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