ScientificBlogger Matthew Brown had the chance to sit down with Professor Meg Urry, the Israel Munson Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Yale University. She gives readers a special understanding of the issues affecting women in science; she offers her opinion on why so few women have gone into physics, and gives advice for aspiring women physicists. These views have been colored by her own personal experiences as a student, a mother, and as a physicist successful at the highest level:

Before coming to Yale in 2001, she held a tenured position on the senior scientific staff at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which runs the Hubble Space Telescope for NASA. In 2007, she was elected the first woman Chair of the Department of Physics at Yale.

Urry's scientific research focuses on active galaxies— galaxies with unusually luminous cores powered by super-massive black holes.

She has been the Principal investigator on over 60 approved proposals for space observations, and has authored over 140 publications in peer-reviewed journals. In addition to these writings, she has written extensively on the subject of gender equality in science, and has worked to promote diversity in the physical sciences.

Urry organized national meetings on women in astronomy in 1992 and 2003, and is now helping organize a third meeting scheduled for 2009. She led the U.S. delegation to the first international meeting on Women in Physics in Paris in 2002; chaired the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy for the American Astronomical Society; and served on the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics for the American Physical Society.

One of her opinion pieces, entitled “Diminished by Discrimination We Scarcely See” appeared in the Washington Post in 2005, and most recently she has authored a chapter called “Photons Have No Gender: A Woman’s View of Physics,” in the book “Gendered Innovations In Science and Engineering.” is pleased to present this interview as the first in a series of regular interviews and profiles of women in science.

Brown: In your 2002 editorial in SCIENCE entitled “Physics: For Women, the Last Frontier,” you say that “No matter how many women start out in physics, a common trend across countries is their attrition in going from undergraduate and graduate studies to permanent positions.” Can you explain to our readers what is happening, and if much has changed since you published this article 6 years ago?

Meg Urry: "For all sciences, the fraction of scientists who are women decreases as you go up in the hierarchy. So if you start in high school taking science, and then go on to college taking science, and then go onto graduate school, and then professors and so on, at every level the fraction of women in any one field is decreasing. It’s slightly different for different fields. For example, in physics, the big drop is really in college: in high school, the classes are almost fifty-fifty girls to boys. But when you get to college, only about 20 percent of the physics majors are women. In other fields of science, the big drop usually comes at a later point. And the overall dearth of women is especially bad in physics."

Brown: What’s happening specifically with physics?

Meg Urry: "We seem to be really turning people off of physics in college. Physics to me today looks like astronomy looked about 20 years ago--and in terms of improving the situation, there’s a lot of resistance. There’s lip service paid to “yes, we want more women and minorities,” but then something has to change. If you keep running your departments the same way, why would you expect that something has to change?

"People say things like “women aren’t interested in physics,” or “women want to help people so they go into the medical sciences.”

I think partly, people come up with hypotheses to explain this stuff. There’s a long history of every person—and Meg Urry could be another one—offering their ideas for why things are the way they are. My feeling about this is, first of all there’s no one answer. There are many different things happening.

"What’s really interesting is that sociologists and psychologists have actually done a lot of research in these areas, and what they find is contrary to what many scientists think. Scientists are really good at coming up with hypotheses. For example, people might say, “the reason there are no women in physics is because graduate school and assistant professorships happen during the years when you should be having a family, and women don’t think they can do both so they don’t go into physics. But the data show this doesn't keep women from other demanding professions, for example medicine."

Brown: Are you surprised that this is so prominent in a profession where objectivity is so important?

Meg Urry: "In the science profession, being objective is one of the most important qualities you can have. You have to be objective as a scientist. It’s a core value. And so most of us really don’t want to admit we’re not objective. It’s very difficult, and in fact many of my colleagues tell me that they are perfectly objective with respect to gender.

"But come on! We’re all biased. If you grew up in the US, you grew up in a society that is very gendered. When I was a kid there were no women on the Supreme Court. Now at least you’ve got one. I’ve grown up in a world where the leaders are men. We’ve never had a woman president. We absorb that. We internalize it. And if it didn’t have some effect on us, I’d be amazed.

"...most of us really don’t want to admit we’re not objective."

"But many scientists are reluctant to admit that because it’s unscientific.

"If we can admit that we’re biased, then we try very hard to compensate for that bias and we try to be objective and to use objective criteria. But if we’re quite convinced that we aren’t biased, then we think we don’t need to articulate why because we’re sure we’re unbiased and therefore it must be right."

Brown: What do you think about the reasons that people have given for why there are so few women physicists?

Meg Urry: "The thing about a hypothesis is that you can test it against the data. Look at the numbers of women in medical school. Medical school is quite grueling by all accounts, and yet they still have families. So that’s demonstrably not a good reason. There are plenty of professions that demand a lot of their practitioners, and women are numerous in those professions.

"The reason that “women want to help people” is also not a reason they shouldn’t go into physics--if anything, it's a great reason to go into physics.

"I had a new graduate student come in to talk to me after only a few weeks into the year. I asked her how things were going, and she said, ‘it’s going well, but I’m not sure I’m going to do this. I’m not sure I’m going to stick this out.’ She said she spent last summer working at an NGO in South America helping poverty stricken areas, and she thought that was really important. So she thought she should be doing that instead of doing physics.

"I told her that a lot of people could do what she did last summer, but it’s not easy for most people to become a physicist. And if you’re a physicist, think of all the things you can do to help areas like that and help people like that in ways that go well beyond handouts. It takes a very clever engineer or physicist to know how to do that and to think about it.

" turns out that these women are doing very well, that they’re highly respected. But the view that they have of themselves is quite low."

"Somehow we have created this myth that doing science and physics in American universities is an elite ivory tower profession where you’re pondering questions that don’t have any practical applications in the real world, and it’s all about just solving problems and being clever. And I think it’s the wrong image—as I tried to tell this young woman—I think you have to look at it as a tool, and I think a physics training is better than almost anything you can think of for helping other people. It’s in the same league as medicine. We should be telling our physics students about how powerful it is to understand physics, and the leverage you have to help the world.

"As for the myth of the ‘math gap,’ in high school, girls take as much math and physics as boys and they do just as well. Because similar skills are needed in other fields with plenty of women, and because the fraction of physicists who are women is different from country to country, the lack of women in physics has to be some kind of cultural phenomenon rather one that can be explained rationally.

"What I’ve observed in my 25 years in the field is that there are lots of young women who are really excited about physics—who just love it. They love working in the lab, they love doing physics homework, they love the whole thing—it’s something particularly noticeable among undergraduates and first year graduate students.

"But if you start talking to senior graduate students, you find a very different picture. You find people who have lost their confidence and have lost their interest. And they describe it in very personal terms, as if they are at fault. They’ll say things like, 'I made a mistake. I shouldn’t have gone into this field. I’m not good enough for it. I can’t do it. I don’t have any good ideas. I’m no good at it.'

"When you talk to the people who actually know them, it turns out that in fact these women are doing very well, that they’re highly respected. But the view that they have of themselves is quite low."

Brown: What are professors themselves doing to perpetuate this problem?

Meg Urry: "My personal interpretation of what happens is that we go out of our way to discourage people from pursuing physics. Even when people persist, we pretty much tell them they’re not smart enough. This is probably true in other fields too. There seems to be this ‘trial by fire’ phenomenon where you ‘haze’ students to discover who among them has the backbone and the strength to be a great scientist.

"Professors will tell you that you have to go do something else, that you’re not good enough The correct response is “yes I am. And I’m going to do it. And I’m going to succeed.” And, yet, the response for someone like me, and for many women I know would be, “Oh. You think I’m not good enough. I guess I’m not. Let me think about what else I’m going to do with my life."

Brown: Why do you think professors, of all people, do this?

Meg Urry: "My hypothesis—which is colored by my own perception—is that the more elitist the field, the fewer the women. Maybe this is why physics is particularly affected. In fields that talk about themselves in elitist terms, where the language is about how rare the best people are, there are fewer women in those fields. I think this ‘elitist’ talk acts very differently on men and on women: sociologists tell us that after a certain age, men, on average, tend to have over-inflated ideas of their abilities and their prospects, and women tend to have lower than average ideas of their abilities and their prospects. So you end up with a set of graduate students who are about to finish their theses, where the men think the world is their oyster, and that the piece of work they’ve done is brilliant and that they’re ready to hit the road, and the women think their work is substandard and that they’d better find another occupation.

"We’re fooling ourselves thinking we’re getting the cream of the crop. What we’re really doing is chasing away really bright people."

Brown: You’ve said before that “women need to better understand the mechanisms of hiring, funding, and promotions; that is, how to play the game.” How do you suggest that women do this? What other advice would you give young women who are aspiring scientists?

Meg Urry: "I think first of all they have to recognize that that’s the case…that there is a lot of information that they are not naturally going to get and they have to go out and seek it. And for many young men, maybe that isn’t necessary. Maybe they don’t have to seek it out.

"I think it’s easiest to talk to somebody—to relate to somebody—who’s like you. When student’s come to talk to me, if they are anything like me, it’s easy for me to think I know what they’re thinking. If I’m going to offer advice, it’s easier because I think I have a good shot at understanding what they’re thinking about their options. If the faculty are 95 percent male—which is true in physics—it’s not surprising that a faculty member will get some great rapport with some student, but it’s harder for young women to get that rapport. Of course there will always be people who break those generalities, but I think what happens for the guys is they just have a better conduit to how things work and how the game is played and so they pick it up faster—certainly though there are some women who are masterful at it.

"So the advice I give young women is find yourself a bunch of mentors; first of all, people at your level—peers who are postdocs or faculty or whatever you are.

"And also go to these older guys and more or less force them to mentor you! You don’t have to put it in those terms, but just ask them to have lunch with you to talk over what your prospects are or what your experiments have been like. Make that step to build bridges where it might be more natural or easy not to do it.

"There’s always something ahead, always something to reach for."

"If you are an outsider, the way science runs—in the US at least—you really can’t succeed. In order to do your work, you need support. You need to be supported by a university, you need to be supported by a federal funding agency, and many of those decisions are made by your colleagues on the hiring committee at a university, or a proposal review committee at the NIH or the NSF has to decide you are worthy, so you have to be networked in. If you aren’t, you can’t succeed.

"There are also organizations within institutions, within companies, within professions, that make this easier. Every scientific field has a professional society like the American Physical Society, or the American Chemical Society, or the American Astronomical Society. Every one of those societies has a committee on the status of women—I don’t think there is a single one that doesn’t.

"For women doubting themselves, we all have self doubt, and there’s always another hurdle; maybe it’s getting tenure, but then you want to get elected to fellowship in your professional society. Or maybe it’s getting elected to the national academy. There’s always something ahead, always something to reach for.

"Men may have many of the same self doubts and concerns about their future, they just don’t dare think about it. For most men, you don’t have that option to not work. It wouldn’t be acceptable, and I bet that's really scary.

"Women are just constantly wondering, 'am I good enough? Should I be doing this? Maybe I should be doing something else.'

"In terms of having a family and getting married, if you have the kind of relationship where one of you is more important than the other one, then no, I don’t think you can have a career and a family.

"I have been asked so many times by women, ‘can I do physics and have a family?’ I have never once been asked that by a young man. Ever. It’s just not a question for men."

What is a question for men, however, is how can men work to promote equality in science? To paraphrase one of Urry's colleagues, excellent men have nothing to fear from doing so.

Related: Even astrophysicists have self doubt; interview with NASA's Kathy Flanagan.

Audio version of this interview:


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