Life as a female physicist

My mother says that she let me drop toys from the pram so that I could learn the basic laws of physics. Therein lies the root of my vocation, I suspect. An unexpected side effect of being a physicist, however, are the reactions I get when I answer the “And what is it you do?” question.

Many people are genuinely interested, which is very nice. Some are genuinely uninterested – fair enough. Then there is the horrified silence, of course, as well as a variety of other responses. The following are all real-life quotes, dear reader, and if you are planning to study physics, you had better get used to them, especially if you also happen to be female:

“Surely physics is boring? Don’t you have to memorise all these formulas?” What is taught instead of physics in primary and high schools is often boring. This is because it has as little to do with physics as a list of dates of first editions has with literature. Physics makes sense! You do not memorise formulae, you learn to derive them. You can learn to see beauty in nature and beauty in mathematical formulae in the same way you can learn to see beauty in music.

“I do not have the brain to do physics.” You probably do have. The problem is that many people, including teachers, do not know that mathematics, logic, and physics (or grammar, for that matter) can be taught and consequently do not even attempt to teach it. (This is a topic for a long rant – eh, blog entry. I will link to it here when I write it.)

“Isn’t it unusual for a woman to do physics?” (a pause) “You must have a very good brain!” Better than you have, moron, at any rate. May the ghost of Emmeline Pankhurst haunt you, may you suffer from ingrown toenails, may all your teeth turn black and fall out! Notice what the response means: first there is the shock that a woman might be more clever than the (male) speaker. Then comes an attempt to explain away the anomaly: this is only a freak exception and therefore nothing to make him change his worldview or candidly reassess his intelligence.

“I wish I was clever enough to do physics.” A variant of the above, but usually said by a female. It is a direct and dire consequence of the misconception that “Girls do not do maths.”, shared by said girls, boys, their parents, and, yes many teachers. Teach your pupils to think and they will turn to science.

“But she is such a nice girl!” This from a female medical doctor of all people. It reminds me of a former female head of an Academy of Science of a certain small nation, who, in response to being elected, said “I will have to get some new suits now, I only have one old one.” Great heavens, there are enough jokes about unfashionable female geeks (I admit I tell them myself on occasion) without a lead scientist making one of herself!

It is sad but true that the assumption, often unconscious, that women are not expected to do as well as men in physics, is not limited to the “real world”, but exists in the academia as well, although it is usually less overt. Usually. Once, in a quantum mechanics class where I was the only female student, the professor remarked, by way of compliment on my exam result: “You understood it better than many of the boys.” (He had written a number of crime novels which are hilariously funny, but where all female characters are either thoroughly unpleasant or stupid or both, so there might be a deeper issue there.) Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink comes to mind here. Dear future female physicist, do read Blink as soon as possible and learn to derive amusement from such comments. They are funny, once you learn not to take them personally.

“Our university encourages women participation in natural sciences.” Words. If it were true, there would be more women participating in natural sciences.

Is it all worth it? Well, yes. Read the next installment “On physics, beauty and stupid questions”, coming soon!

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~ by veronikab on 1 August, 2008.

3 Responses to “Life as a female physicist”

  1. “But she is such a nice girl!” — this is my favorite 🙂
    Writing about a female and computer science would be pretty much similar — the only thing I need is to replace physics with computer science.

    My grandmother was quite unhappy about that. When I was at university, her friends kept asking her what field I study. And when she told them the true, they said that it is for boys and thought that she is too old to remember what I really study.

  2. That must have been really awful for your grandmother too. How dare people assume that being old means being forgetful or even senile?

    I remembered another variant on “Isn’t it unusual…”. This one is “What an intellectual job!” 🙄

  3. I work in aviation maintenance, a field in which I suspect the ratio of F / M is even smaller than in the natural sciences. I became inured to the surprised gasps of people who never met a woman wrench-turner before, but never to the assumption of what I must have done with the boss in order to be put in a position of authority at the hanger. I eventually lost that job, ironically, to a man whose best qualification for the job was as a sycophant.

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