An interesting little story from LiveScience caught my eye on Twitter this week, about what kinds of interventions actually succeed in keeping women in physics. As a woman formerly in physics, I’m always interested in hearing what people think convinces us to stay or go. This little piece, well-intended as it was, set off some burning hellfire rage.
In the study LiveScience is reporting on, a group at Clemson took a look at five different efforts (single-sex physics classes, female physics teachers, woman scientist guest speakers, discussions of woman scientists’ work, explicit discussions of underrepresentation) to see which worked best. Excerpted from LiveScience:
“There are lots of causes and hypothesized solutions for these causes that are prevalent in our mythology,” Hazari said. “Basically our mythology around what helps girls is not necessarily true, and we have to be a little bit smarter finding evidence. The one factor we did find was that explicitly discussing underrepresentation had a significant positive effect on females’ choice of a physical science career.”
Hazai said it wasn’t clear why that one strategy proved to be effective, but she guessed that it might be because such a conversation made the issue personal for girls.
“Showing them a picture of somebody doesn’t make them want to do it themselves,” Hazari said. “But this process of discussing underrepresentation may prompt female students to reassess their own biases, thereby influencing a change. It’s really about having more meaningful discussions with them about these issues.”
Unfortunately, the paper doesn’t seem to be anywhere online, and the LiveScience article is irritatingly vague as to what constitutes a “meaningful discussion about these issues” and how large the effect was. But that’s not why it makes me rage.
I deeply resent the idea of “making it personal” to keep women in physics (or science in general). When you make it personal, you’re assigning responsibility for solving a broad problem — one that’s not her fault — to an individual woman. This is not okay.
Why? To explain, I’m going to have to make it personal.
Almost exactly a year ago, I was finishing up and defending my master’s thesis, having chosen to leave my graduate physics program without a Ph.D. By then, I’d been living with my decision to leave for at least eight months, but it hadn’t gotten any easier than when I first realized that I needed to leave. And then I read this piece by Female Science Professor, which is really a very innocuous discussion of some reasons why women leave academia, but it set me off.
Here’s an excerpt from something I wrote at the time. Emphasis is added now, and it’s also edited for length, clarity, fury, and self-loathing. I was in a bad mental place right before my defense.
As a woman who is finishing/leaving/quitting with a master’s degree instead of a Ph.D., the whole viewpoint these discussions are framed from bothers me. Perhaps it’s just due to where I read these things — mostly on blogs published by Ph.D.-holding women with research careers — but the language choices and quiet bias always make me feel like a traitor to the cause.
Yes, I am leaving before I originally intended. Yes, I know it’s what’s best for me and will make me happiest, now and in the long run. Yes, I’m confident enough in my choices to recognize that these pieces aren’t about me personally and aren’t intended to make me feel like a traitor, and in fact, they’re often written to be as objective as possible and are quite careful about their language. The fact that lots of people want more women to stay in high-level research careers does not mean that I should stay if I don’t want to, and nobody is saying this. I know all of this. I know I know I know I KNOW …
From speaking with other women who’ve left (or thought about leaving) science, “feeling like a traitor to the cause” is not uncommon. Yes, the plural of anecdote is not data, but I don’t think this issue should be ignored. Having discussions about underrepresentation aimed at “making it personal” can only make these feelings worse. Continuing with the excerpts,
… But leaving isn’t easy. To come to this decision, I’ve had to fight the fact that I’d always seen myself as a professor or researcher. I’ve had to fight the camaraderie within my circle of friends and colleagues here (and graduate-student friends even at distant locations) and place myself outside of it. I’ve had to fight the PhD-or-die-trying mindset that helps push us all through graduate school. And, in the blogosphere, I’ve had to fight the perception that the only reasons women depart are because they got driven out, and that if we fixed some issues in the system, women wouldn’t choose to leave research. Maybe this is even true; who knows? My point is that it certainly doesn’t make it any easier for those of us who do choose to leave to feel good about that choice. It removes a lot of our own agency in the decision.
This is the crux of my burning hellfire rage. The discussion around all of this already removes a woman’s own power in her decision-making process, and now we want to make the underrepresentation problem personal?
How can women possibly succeed with a setup like that? A few years back, the message I would take from this is, “Hey ladies, underrepresentation is your own problem to fix, and if you weren’t so underrepresented in physics (science) things would be better and you’d never want to leave!” With this message, a woman who wants out is stuck. It’s her fault the system is failing; it’s her fault future women won’t have it better.
This is simply not true, and it’s not okay to create a situation where someone can absorb that message.