In this week’s episode of Uncommon Creatures of the World we head to Academia to try to find one of the rarest of sights in our ivory towers: a woman in physics.
“Physics women” are scarce, wary, and prone to flight. They spend years slowly moving into the physics realm, and many never fully settle. Those who do remain have generally become nervous and excitable due to the arduous journey and trials encountered along the way. So we must be quiet and stealthy if we want to find one. A subtle approach works best — expressing too much enthusiasm about physics women may cause other inhabitants of the physics discipline to erect barriers against them.
We start by creating an observation zone to lure a physics woman. We’ll offer a few treats to attract her: a little research space, some travel funding, maybe a graduate student or two. We need to be careful not to put out the best perks, as that makes other physicists jealous and they may come in and steal them. So, just a basement office, maybe a conference trip or two, or a few students that no one else was using.
We’ll wait here patiently for the treats to pull her in and… ah, here we go! We spy our first evidence of a woman in physics: a pile of meeting agendas far bigger than those of the usual physicist; a lone woman’s shoe with a sensible heel; and… what’s this? A baby’s pacifier? Now that is a real treat! These are exceedingly rare in physics territory. What luck we are having!
So we know she is near, but can we get her to come closer? Look! She has accepted the office! We’ll continue to put out little treats for her. We want to keep her from starving, but we can’t give her too many advantages; disrupting natural behaviors is dangerous for everyone. The woman in physics is accustomed to foraging for everything and having to fight for every centimeter of space. If we provide too much for her, other physicists will claim she’s exploiting the system and that she isn’t a true physicist but merely a token.
How exciting! Now that we know we have a physics woman in our midst, we need to continue to be gentle. These women don’t want a lot of attention. In the past, physicists who have been overly friendly have caused them to flee. So we must take a “hands-off” approach. Even if other resident physicists, known as “men,” focus on her, we must let nature take its course.
Let’s hope that she doesn’t disappear suddenly. Sometimes a woman will disappear for a year, sometimes they disappear forever. A woman might leave because she never gets comfortable in the physics world, despite our best underfunded efforts to support her. Women are remarkably hard to sustain in any physics environment because they lack a natural support structure, or habitat.
Another reason a woman in physics might disappear is male physicists becoming loud and aggressive, scaring her off. Occasionally the woman will vanish because she is in her breeding cycle. Some physicists believe there is no point in trying to draw in women because they all just leave to breed anyway. But look at this rare and amazing creature! What persistence and stubbornness shown by surviving in such a hostile environment!
Oh no! It looks like one of the other denizens of the physics department has scared her off. We shall have to start over. Luckily, we can do exactly the same thing as before. All women in physics are interchangeable, and all respond to incentives in similar ways. Some physicists claim having one woman in your territory will attract others. It’s possible, but in practice, there are so few that we are unlikely to see another one and no one knows how they might interact with each other. But we won’t let that stop us!
You may have noticed that our woman didn’t look like the ones you may have seen in magazines or in other media. But we shouldn’t be dismayed. The women you see in ads and other visual venues have often been… digitally enhanced, shall we say? There are so few women in physics that many times the picture is merely a composite of the idea of a woman with some wishful thinking thrown in. In reality most women in physics aren’t as flashy or spectacular as the two or three showpiece examples that are always trotted out for discussions of diversity in this field.
With our original candidate gone, let’s try a fresh area to set out our next round of treats and… wait! What’s this? It’s a juvenile… a, a girl! A girl in physics? Clearly she is lost. I know we’re not supposed to interfere, but she looks so lost! Let’s help her find her way home. Girls usually are found in the social sciences or literature and we can easily direct her back that — oh dear, she’s getting flustered.
A reassuring tone of voice may help her realize we don’t mean her harm, that we just want to help her get back to her natural territory. We don’t want to encourage her to stick around in this dangerous place. Oh, good, she’s headed out; let’s follow her to make sure she gets home all right.
There! Which also brings us to the edge of the physics frontier. Off to the north we can see engineering, where there are even fewer women to be found. Can you believe it? A creature more rare than even the elusive woman in physics. Unfortunately, that’s all the time we have for this episode.
Join us next week for the next episode of Uncommon Creatures of the World where we look for a man among the newest cohort of nursing students.