Sunday, May 15, 2005

Women in Science

The lack of women in science was an extremely important issue to me back when I was a physics student. Then I graduated and didn’t really care anymore. I don’t understand why anyone else would care unless they were a male science major who wanted to occasionally catch a glimpse of a woman without doing something as drastic as taking a psychology class.

Here’s a true story I was asked to repeat so many times that it attained an almost mythic status. Early one evening I was finishing up some work in the basement labs of the physics building – a location where we rarely saw anyone who wasn’t a physics major. I went out in the hallway for a break, and noticed a very attractive brunet at the far end of the hallway walking in my direction. I think, “wow, I’ve never seen her before, but she must be a physics major or she wouldn’t be down here.” She walked right up to me and asked “Can you tell me how to get out of this building.”

I suppose the politically correct thing to do would have been to lecture her on the lack of women in science and strongly suggest she step into the lab and learn about field effect transistors. But no, I gave her directions out of the building – and most certainly not because I didn’t want a good looking women sitting next to me in class.

There are two prerequisites for being a successful science student:
1. You have to have a talent for it.
2. You have to like doing it.
There are a very small handful of people who are so talented that they don’t really have to work hard at it. For the vast majority, a lot of hard, tedious, frustrating work is required – work that is not going to get completed unless you truly love discovering how the physical world works.

The question is whether the lack of women in science is more attributable to number one or number two. Based on the success of women in High School math and science classes, I doubt the reason is number 1. For a brief time, I was something of a physics evangelist. I would encourage non-technical friends to take at least an introductory course as part of a well rounded education. All most all of the women reacted as if I’d suggested they attend a Star Trek convention.

Why are women, on average, less interested in the sciences than men? I have no idea. One of my professors suggested that it was difficult for women in science because there were so few other women and the men were by and large geeks.

No, there must be some more logical reason.


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