The New York Times has an interesting and thoughtful article asking why so few women do science, a topic somewhat related to questions sometimes asked on this blog about women and role-playing, and dear to my heart since I graduated in physics and now live in Asia, where science is cool. Why do the English-speaking countries have a problem with women doing science?

The article has attracted 671 comments, which shows that the topic is of interest to a lot of people, and the author herself gives a strong example of why any form of barriers to participation in science are wrong. She studied physics, so in preparing the article she returns to her old notebooks, and she writes

The deeper I now tunnel into my four-inch-thick freshman physics textbook, the more equations I find festooned with comet-like exclamation points and theorems whose beauty I noted with exploding novas of hot-pink asterisks. The markings in the book return me to a time when, sitting in my cramped dorm room, I suddenly grasped some principle that governs the way objects interact, whether here on earth or light years distant, and I marveled that such vastness and complexity could be reducible to the equation I had highlighted in my book. Could anything have been more thrilling than comprehending an entirely new way of seeing, a reality more real than the real itself?

As someone who didn’t have what it takes to continue in physics, but really enjoyed my third year of study and really loved the topic, I can only say that it’s wrong! wrong! wrong! to construct any barriers that would prevent someone capable of exploring that world from so doing. And the article identifies a huge range of barriers that still exist to women trying to enter science. Despite these barriers, the statistics that the author quotes are reassuring for those of us who graduated from physics in the ’90s:

Only one-fifth of physics Ph.D.’s in this country are awarded to women, and only about half of those women are American; of all the physics professors in the United States, only 14 percent are women. The numbers of black and Hispanic scientists are even lower; in a typical year, 13 African-Americans and 20 Latinos of either sex receive Ph.D.’s in physics.

I think I also read somewhere once that there is a Native American professor of physics (I could be wrong, this is a very vague memory). In comparison: when I was studying physics there were no women in my year, and none had preceded me. In the year after me was a single woman, and we young idiot men as we were had already decided to interpret her tiger-skin mini-skirts and low-cut blouses as proof that she was “taking the easy way” and trying to impress the profs with her body[1]. How much has the field improved in the intervening 20 years!

The author also points out that there is a basic problem in the interpretation of femininity and its acceptance in English-speaking academia. She cites a scientist who worked in Europe, who states that women from France and Italy

dress very well, what Americans would call revealing. You’ll see a Frenchwoman in a short skirt and fishnets; that’s normal for them. The men in those countries seem able to keep someone’s sexual identity separate from her scientific identity. American men can’t seem to appreciate a woman as a woman and as a scientist; it’s one or the other.

This is also my experience in Japan. In Japan it is acceptable for women to be professional or experienced and feminine; it is not a case of either/or, and people are simply impressed that a woman is feminine and skilled – or even they take it for granted that a woman with technical skills will also be well dressed, elegant, womanly, etc. There isn’t the same sense that being feminine is a sign that one is unserious. While in the west femininity is seen as a kind of performance that young women do to pull a mate, and therefore somehow false or deceptive (though expected), in Japan it is just seen as a part of being a woman, not an accoutrement of femininity so much as a part of its essence. There is no expectation that women will walk away from their femininity in order to be taken seriously as scientists. And women’s place in Japan is judged on the basis of their position more than their sex. The way I have come to think of this does not reflect positively on the west: Japan has sexism, but the west has misogyny. There is a deep-seated fear and hatred of women in western culture, while in the east there is a strict set of roles. And in amongst those roles, women are allowed to be scientists. Or at least, that is my impression. This western fear and hatred of women is declining, of course, as we grow up and reject a fundamentally misogynist religious history, but it is still there. The article describes a much more subtle and weaker form of sexism though, that pervades the sciences and makes the task of women just that little bit harder than that of men; and making science just a bit harder means making it inaccessible to mortals, because doing science is difficult at the best of times. You don’t need people denying you lab space, salary and funding, especially on top of the inevitable requirement that young scientists move through several countries as part of the process of building their career. But that is what happens: straight out old-fashioned discrimination.

There are also subtler cultural factors at work: lack of encouragement, and the continual claim that women are not as smart or as talented as men. The writer of the article experienced both of these directly and speaks to other women who had the same problems. It’s a fascinating insight into how a million tiny cuts can drive a person away from a goal, and how those million tiny cuts can be strongly gendered. You may think you’re the first person in history to make an unsavoury joke about women in your engineering course; but to the woman you are talking to, it’s just another day on the frontlines. This kind of stuff adds up, and then women get to the decision point where they are looking at years of hard work, low pay and really, really difficult problems, and with that background of discrimination and discouragement they just think, “fuck it!”

That’s why there aren’t many women in science. It’s a fascinating article, and well worth reading for people outside science too. It really describes openly the subtle ways in which gender bias works to alienate women from a field. And this is obviously relevant to role-playing – a hobby where in the west there are very few women, but in the east there are many more, and for many of the same underlying reasons.

And obviously, excluding women from role-playing is a vastly more important issue than exclusion from science. Read the whole thing!

1: incidentally, I dropped out of physics ’cause I didn’t have what it takes[2], but she stuck around for a PhD. Probably now she’s working in the City, snorting cocaine off the bottoms of Abercrombie & Fitch models, and here I am living in a 2-room apartment in Tokyo on a completely moderate wage. Who was the loser in that story?

2: My friend got a PhD in Canberra. He dropped out for IT. He told me: “I realized I don’t have what it takes to be a physicist when this Russian physicist visited to do a 3 month placement. He had no funding. He had no money. He slept on the floor in his office and ate rice for 3 months. I can’t do that for any reason. I will never compete with people like that. I’m outta here!”