The Myth of the Meritocracy

I don't know if it was intended for me, but somebody printed out and stacked with my airline reservations a scan of a letter by Smith & Smith (from Arlington, Virginia), from the 2006 issue of Physics Today (letters to the editor). The scan also included a number of penned comments written by a highly cynical and annoyed person commenting on the letter.

The letter is objecting to an earlier article about the "pipeline problem" in physics, where at higher and higher levels, women represent a smaller and smaller fraction of physicists. The conclusion of their letter reads:

Once society has fixed its problems, the optimal solution will percolate throughout the physics community so long as we maintain our unbiased meritocracy.

Whoever annotated the letter underlined "maintain our unbiased meritocracy" and wrote "Ha Ha Ha!" in thick black Sharpee letters right next to it. I tend to agree with the sentiments of the annotator, and here's why.

Very, very frequently we hear people assert that we've got a meritocracy in academia, and especially in science, and especially in physics. (Physicists assume that their field is the pinnacle of intellectual and moral achievement. Of course, most people assume that about their own fields, so physicists aren't particularly special, but we physicists seem to think that we've proven our superiority as a law of nature and as such don't hesitate to share our views on it.) We certainly have all of the trappings of a meritocracy, and we tell ourselves we've got a meritocracy. As such, it becomes a very pat answer whenever anybody complains about some injustice in hiring and promotion in physics that, hey, it's a meritocracy; maybe there are some individual exceptions and bad cases, but overall, the best are floating to the top.

The problem is, it's all hogwash. Alas, the myth of the meritocracy is so compelling many truly believe in it. Most of the rest of us, like me, recognize that it is a myth, but still often act as if it were true.

First of all, there's the whole issue of the statistical evidence. Smith & Smith point out various statistics quoted by those who say there is a pipeline problem, and point out assumptions behind the interpretations of the statistics. They are, of course, right, to some degree. This is why I do physics, and not sociology. In physics, understanding your systematic errors and correlated errors well enough to properly interpret your statistical data is already monstrously difficult, and in sociology it's only that much more difficult. So, nearly 50% of high school girls take physics, but only 25% of college women take physics. Is it a pipeline problem, or is it that girls who intrinsically hate physics for some genetic reason only take it in high school because they have to? Directly from the statistical data, it's very difficult to say.

So let me set that aside for the time being.

There is one simple truth, one simple fact, denied by many, but out there and obvious for many to find. Many, perhaps even most, women in physics experience questions and assaults on their character, on their self esteem, and on their worthiness simply because they are women. Going through grad school and academia, all of us in physics experience a lot of these assaults for a wide variety of reasons. The point is, though, that many or most (or all?) women experience additional challenges that men do not. You could argue, I suppose, that these challenges are insignificant in the face of the assault upon one's sense of well-being represented by (for instance) Jackson's E&M book, but I think you'd be wrong. Talk to some women. Some will tell you that, yeah, they get the assumption they're dumb from other physicists because they're women, but they also get it because they're astronomers. Most women, though, will have hair-raising stories. Either stories of unwanted attention that go beyond the "nerd looking too much," or stories of receiving blatantly differential treatment which is openly as a result of their gender.

How can it be a meritocracy if the playing field is not level? If in addition to the slings and arrows of outrageous oral exams, women have to put up with professors who assume that they aren't as smart or, perhaps, not as interested, and with colleagues who view them as sex objects first and as scientists second?

Even if the standards by which everybody is judged are perfectly gender-neutral, (an assertion not supported by research, incidentally), the fact that women have to put up with more crap than do men de-levels the playing field. Sure, we're judged by the same criteria. But it would be the equivalent of two people running a footrace, one in shorts and tennis shoes, the other barefoot and carrying a 40lb backpack. Even though there's absolutely no bias whatsoever in judging who crosses the finish line first, this is clearly not a fair race. And the analogy is bad, because there's ample evidence that the judgment process is not nearly as gender neutral as well like to tell ourselves that it is.

So, when we look at the gender imbalance, and conclude that it means that perhaps women aren't as interested in physics as men, that's a bad conclusion. It may be right– but you have no way of knowing if it's there because of any intrinsic, genetic difference, or simply because the additional level of crap that women have to put up with kills their interest.

Of course, the myth of the meritocracy goes beyond gender issues. There's also the fact that the figure of merit isn't obvious. "The best physicists" are supposed to rise to the top... but how do you really measure that? Whenever somebody tries to assert that there are differences between men and women in terms of average suitability for physics, they always talk about mathematical ability and ability to deal with abstract problems. However, it is extremely naive to believe that this is the only, or even the primary, predictor for how well you will do in physics. There may be a very small number of Ed Witten types out there who have gotten far in physics simply because they were brilliant. I would hypothesize, however, that mathematical/scientific ability (whatever that is) is something you must have a certain level of to even play in the game... and that after that the primary predictor for how successful you will be is the same predictor as in any other field: how aggressive you are, how good you are at marketing and selling yourself.

In a sense, that's a meritocracy, but we aren't rewarding the merit that we think we're rewarding, and that we should be rewarding.

There is a lot more I could ramble on about this, but I will stop for now. I will just say that it's sad to see so many physicists claiming to be so smart and all-knowledgeable who are able to maintain the delusion that we've really got a functioning meritocracy. The level of denial about the true nature of the problems is huge. And while, yes, I share their suspicion about replacing a meritocracy with "social engineering," their resistance to the social engineering that is suggested is based on a belief in a meritocracy that only barely exists.

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This is an excellent metaphor,

"the equivalent of two people running a footrace, one in shorts and tennis shoes, the other barefoot and carrying a 40lb backpack"

I am going to start using it.

You raise a number of important points in this post. What I end up thinking though, is that this isn't a problem that is confined to physics, it's everywhere. People who are aggressive about selling themselves do better everywhere. Women face barriers everywhere. Is it harder in physics than elsewhere? Maybe harder than some places, but there are still many jobs where women are significanly underrepresented. And most women have a clue. The ones who persevere, in physics or wherever it is particularly hard, are the ones who really want to be there, who have the passion for it. I expect the rest realize their efforts are best spent elsewhere, because there is only so much energy and time to give to a career and also have a family and a life.

It is a strange curiosity that people, even very bright people, are overly influence by the advertising show, rather than looking closely at whatever product is being offered, whether it be a thing or a person with a skillset.

Is it harder in physics than elsewhere?

I think so. I don't really know, but the fact that women make up <=10% of the faculty and <30% of the graduate students means that women are a serious minority in Physics-- more so than just about any other academic field.

Rob -- the original work by Becky Stanek is here. It's been making the rounds on women scientists' blogs for a couple of months.

Cyperus-papyrus: It really is different for women. Really. For example, see:
here, and then spend a few hours reading the site. Keep in mind that this is all written by a woman who's actually made it by any criteria you'd want to use (such as these), and she's still dealing with shit that I'd pretty much guarantee doesn't happen to her male colleagues.

It's not what you do, it is who you know. That's the way life tends to work. I used to think that was very unfair. Then I realized one day that as a Christian, that's the way I believe the afterlife works too... and I was not in any hurry to be judged on my qualifications there. So now I have moderated my position and think that life is just regularly unfair.

I'll bring up two additional factors, with the qualification that IANAS*. First, don't men have a higher standard deviation of inteligence than women? So even if the average inteligence of men and women is the same, men would make up the majority of really, really dumb people and also the majority of really, really smart people. But, that does assume physics achievement is based on smarts...

Second, I believe** that men and women don't have the same basic intelligence. I think women are smarter; they can handle more variables in their heads at the same time, so to speak. That's why I think men sometimes dismiss women's more sophisticated analysis as "women's intuition;" it seems magical to us because we are not considering as many secondary and tertiary variables as the women are. So why have men historically dominated everything from politics to physics? The same reason we dominate serial killer statistics. I think it is because men are more naturally obsessive than women are. That means men are more likely to be a DaVinci, or a Newton, or an Edison, or a Jeffry Dahmer. Cyperus Papyrus's comment touches on this in terms of equality of happiness vs. job success. I think women have a greater ability to balance multiple competing demands, so that they want to do well at work but not too well if it means they'd have to sacrifice family or health or friends or religion/charity work, etc. Guys are more likely to invent some new branch of math and dominate their dept. and discredit their rivals and eventually be enshrined in the pantheon of great scientists... and not have many real friends, never go on vacation, and have failed marriages, and wonder why their children hate them, and maybe not even NOTICE the "assualts on their self esteem" that more socially observant and sensitive collegues would be troubled by***. That is not to say that women cannot be obsessive; I have known some of them. And vice-versa. I just think that these traits, which do lead to success even in a highly politicized field, are more prevalent among men.

* I am not a sociologist.
** A theory I 1st heard esposed by a female psychologist being interviewed on PBS, and if anyone has her name I'd like to know it.
***And if they did notice the slight, they might respond simply by undermining that person's research and students.

By Chris Taylor (not verified) on 26 Feb 2007 #permalink

Chris, if I understand what you're saying correctly, you're saying that men tend to be assholes more often than women :)


Chris: I believe the old "theory" that the "averages" for men and women are the same, but women just have smaller standard deviations, never really had any scientific basis ... a few people on scienceblogs implied it had been completely debunked recently by the study on chess masters (and why they tend to be male instead of more gender-equitable).

well, you want to know the name of that 40Lb backpack? it's exactly what cyperus said above: "there is only so much energy and time to give to a career and also have a family and a life." how many times have you heard a similar statement made about a man's career? likely, as infrequently as i have. women are *expected* to have those family obligations, to which everything else will come second. apparently men just assume someone else will hold that fort down? probably also explains why the phenomenon gets more prevalent in, say, physics, fields where the individual spends longer and longer hours focused at the bench instead of on those other 'worthy' pursuits. in addition to the crap you take from your colleagues as a female scientist, you also get to take crap over your family neglect from the world at large. fun times.

Rob, your interpretation only follows if you believe that being obssessive makes you an @$$hole. That CAN be true, but is it always? Maybe if you worked for Tycho Brahe and he insisted that y'all stay even later to redo your star and planet measurements for the evening because it wasn't good enough for him when you wanted to get back home to the Mrs and a nice warm supper and bed... well, then you'd probably say he was being an @$$. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think most astronomers are glad Tycho was so obsessive in getting his work right. And, from why I've heard he was a really fun guy to hang out with if you're the partying sort.

I'm sure Henry Ford and Thomas Edison missed a lot of quality time with their family while trying to make possible a world where farmers were not required to toil away behind a horse-driven plow or future children could be much better educated with moving pictures instead of static books. Were they @$$holes for going to the office instead of playing catch with young Edsel or Tom Jr. or great humanitarians and visionaries? Would they have been better men to say "Let humanity toil away and another generation of millions live dull, dirty, backbreaking lives... my own family should get more of my time."?

Is the better answer that such men should live a more "balanced" life? Or that more women should also lead "unbalanced" lives? Or are kids today spoiled with too much attention anyway? Of course, there are the lucky couples like the Lindbergs or the Curies who could both enjoy the soothing danger of mapping airline routes in BFE or a brisk afternoon sifting pitchblende for a few grams of some new isotope.

I would be remiss if I did not point out that one does not have to be obessive to be an @$$hole. From my observations of women in their natural habitats they seem to have no shortage of females capable of behaving in such a fashion, especially to each other. Perhaps they are just less likely to be obessive @$$holes, and instead gravitate towards other sub-categories.

By Chris Taylor (not verified) on 27 Feb 2007 #permalink

Mollishka, I will conceed that what you recall "a few people on scienceblogs implied" does indeed trump something that I heard a couple of people discuss on a talkshow. :) Boy, we're almost up to real social scientist standards of research. We should give up these hard fields of study and apply for a grant. Chris.

By Chris Taylor (not verified) on 27 Feb 2007 #permalink

I think Chris Taylor makes an interesting point about styles of thinking being different between men and women, and there being a gap between them in valuing those differences. Those differences become enshrined as a set of expectations in our culture, which makes them even more limiting to individuals, as fireweaver pointed out.

Something else has come to mind, reading over all the comments. Is there something about that style of "selling" oneself as perhaps being more expert than one really is something that men are just better at? Maybe it has to do with a style of male interaction? Which isn't to say that women don't have their own way of doing such things, but perhaps they don't work as well in these professional contexts.

What I'm thinking about is my experience both in physics and in software engineering. Both tend to have many fewer women than men. Both tend to have people claiming more *understanding* than the evidence indicates. I can't tell you how many software engineers I've come across who can code but generally are guided in their design by using the latest cool coding idea and have no idea how to tell if the finished system does what it's supposed to in any useful way.

Interesting ideas to think about. Rob, I always enjoy your posts on this subject.

It seems to me to be a feedback loop: Males are overrepresented in a field. Males understand or are more conversant with "male" ways of expression. Males tend to gravitate to other males who share their general view of a particular subject, as well as their way of expressing it. Females, however skilled in the subject being presented, will be at a disadvantage when it comes to the male attitude. This assumes a difference between the sexes that is still up for debate, but seems to be upheld by the well known existance of "good ole boy" networks in every aspect of poitical life. What you know is almost never as important as who you can influence.

I'm not a scientist myself, but I've been privileged to know a lot of scientists at the University where I work. I'd say that the gender imbalance issue is not at all limited to physics; in every field, it's the same.

I believe that part of it has to do with the fact that women do indeed face more expectations than men do; women are expected to shoulder not just the burden of a scientific career, but that of a family and home as well. Men are only expected to have a career.

But even beyond that, women do face judgments on their character and their competence just because they are women. The old canard that says that women have to work twice as hard to get the same amount of credit seems to be true. And expectations of gender appropriate behavior certainly is a factor as well; a man who pursues his agenda aggressively is simply being career-minded, but a woman who behaves the same way is, at best, hostile and evil.

Is it harder for women than men? How do you REALLY measure the difference in difficulty between 'unwanted attention' say (for women) and say pressure from your family to give up this silly esoteric nonsense and join the army or do some 'honest work?'

What about the expectation that men are the ones to provide the income? Even in dating, men traditionally have to pay thus the males must have more money to even date. So they must take extra measures to get that money? Where does that extra effort come from? Free energy?

Following that, what about a family's expectation that the male become self sufficient sooner? So the guy has to start work sooner? Or start a career sooner, and thus have less chance to pursue advanced degrees?

What about the finacial pressure of child support (and how often do you see women paying it to men? How often do men win custody when they want to?)?

What about the pressure of being that 'nerdy guy' instead of a 'real man' like the quarterback? Getting eyed by a geek in a lab coat may or may not be as traumatizing to a female as getting stuffed into a gym locker by said female's boyfriend later that day is to the male, and we've no way to tell (and yes, it still happens).

What about the pressures of being the 'physics geek' and not getting any of the attention at all (is too much better than none? Based on how I have seen people react, I'd be inclined to say so, generally speaking)

Yes, its true. No man knows what it's like to grow up being a woman. It is also equally true that no woman knows exactly what its like growing up as a man. Its two sides of the same coin. A woman (*cough* ex *cough*) might THINK she knows what its like, but she is only imagining it, the same as I can only imagine what her life is like.

There are plenty of difficulties for all people, and to say that your time was more challenging than mine without knowing (KNOWING) my experience is just a left handed way of denigrating my accomplishments, or its an excuse why you didn't get as far in yours.

Men and women ARE different (even though it is often not popular to point this out). There are physical differences, and any psychiatrist/psychologist will tell you tat physical differences can lead to different mentalities -- as long as you don't let them know that the next stop in the debate is gender differences.

If I were 7' tall and 300+ pounds, I would probably see the world differently than if I were 5' tall and 100 pounds.

Life is complicated Just how much difference these things make in a classroom seems impossible to measure.

Is it that women have a harder time? It it that, due to social pressures, men are less likely to complain?

Is it that men are better able to deal with certain social pressures? Is it that men are simply not perceptive enough to notice when someone is trying to do something subtle (unwanted attention, calling on them 15.2% less often for answers, etc).

Are social pressures greater on women, or are women more likely to succumb to them? How do you measure such things?

I really dont think there is a way to objectively put a number on how much pressure one person experiences as oposed to another. Even the same stimuli will generate a different response in different people. Something that drives you insane might not bother me at all, and only get on the nerves of a mutual friend after a period of time. How can you quantify that?

What about the perks for being one gender as opposed to another? If my car breaks down (and I can't fix it), I might as well start walking. The Mrs can barely call me for help for all the people stopping to offer her assistance. On the other hand, I can open all my own jars and see what's on top of the fridge without getting a step stool. How much does this factor into how hard my life is compared to hers?

I guess what I am trying to say is that there are advantages and drawbacks to any person's life. Each experience is unique, and I doubt anyone is qualified to say that their life is truly better or worse than the next person's. Even seemingly obvious cases aren't automatic (rich man, poor woman but bad home vs good home).

Something else has come to mind, reading over all the comments. Is there something about that style of "selling" oneself as perhaps being more expert than one really is something that men are just better at?

Intrinsically? No clue, and I'd challenge anybody who thinks that there is evidence that they are.

Sociologically, aggressive and self-aggrandizing behavior tends to be lauded in boys and discouraged in girls from a very young age, so it's not surprising in our society that men tend to be better at that sort of thing. (And, believe me, as a man who hates that sort of thing and hates it even more when he realizes he's been doing it, there are negative pressures all around.)

women are expected to shoulder not just the burden of a scientific career, but that of a family and home as well. Men are only expected to have a career.

I think this is slowly changing -- in the sense that everybody will soon be expected to do everything -- but not as fast as one might have expected looking at society in the late 1960's and early 1970's, and extrapolating the vector.

I suspect somebody could make analogy to the manned space program. (Lots of people expected us to have landed on Mars by now given the progress vector of the space program in the late 60's and early 70's.)

Is it that women have a harder time?

I can pretty definitively answer this question with a "yes" based on a lot of conversations with a lot of students, post-docs, faculty members, and other scientists over the years.

Your slew of rhetorical questions are raised by men all the time in an attempt to a priori discredit the whole idea as to whether or not women face unequal and unfair pressures in Physics and, frankly, they are the worst kind of bullshit. By worst kind, I mean that in fact there are valid questions, unknowns, and considerations in many of the questions you raise, but the context in which you raise them and the way in which you raise them completely undermines the valid interrogation, and replaces it with dismissal of real issues.

It is very similar to those who point to very valid and serious unknowns about how the global climate works, and then uses those questions (perhaps even just by asking them in a provocative rhetorical manner) to imply that there is any question about whether or not global warming is happening.

We go from "women have an unequal playing field in Physics" to "everybody has their own challenges and differences, and it's so complicated and so hard to quantify." Obviously, the latter is right, but you state it as if it invalidated the former conclusion-- but the former conclusion is so well established that I'm 100% comfortable stating that those who question it are either disingenuous, or ignorant. It's backward-thinking; not only does it undermine the very real and very serious plight of real people who are really suffering, it also cheapens the real questions you're misusing as tools in your rhetorical campaign.

I just wonder how much of this is generational. The grey hairs are wrong about all sorts of stuff, including gender related stuff. I am astounded by the close-mindedness and the pettiness of some old school astronomers. That is a broad and thus largely incorrect brush, but the grad students I know are far less likely to judge women more harshly than the old guard astronomers who are approaching retirement.

What is cultural and what is intrinsic is a hard nut to crack but one is certainly led to believe that young women, on average, are far less interested in math and physics than young men. Note that I said less interested and not less capable (just in case it appeared this paragraph was contradicting the previous!). In my math and physics classes the men outnumber the women at all times, generally by a factor of 5 to 10.


Michael -- some of it probably is generational, in the same sense that younger people tend to be more comfortable with computers than older people. We learn what we learn over our life, and as time goes on each new thing we learn is a smaller and smaller fraction of everything we've learned, and as such has a harder time making a big impact.

On the other hand-- certainly at Vanderbilt sexist, behavior on the part of male graduate students has been observed. Not necessarily outright harassment, but certainly in terms of whose word they will trust when working together on homework, whom they'll ask for help on things, etc. A number of students, men and women alike, have noticed it. I would be *very* surprised if this were unique to Vanderbilt...!

Re: difference in interest, there's a question that must be asked. Yes, women seem to be less interested in physics and math than men. But is that because there is something intrinsic in having two X chromosomes that makes you less likely to be interested in those topics... or is it that women have their interest killed more often by the extra shit that they have to put up with? I know myself that my motivation and interest in something can be completely destroyed when I have to put up with too much shit. To me, it's entirely plausible that the apparent difference in interest in physics shown by women and me come from the fact that women suffer even more soulkilling crap going through the system.

Your slew of rhetorical questions are raised by men all the time in an attempt to a priori discredit the whole idea as to whether or not women face unequal and unfair pressures in Physics and, frankly, they are the worst kind of bullshit. By worst kind, I mean that in fact there are valid questions, unknowns, and considerations in many of the questions you raise, but the context in which you raise them and the way in which you raise them completely undermines the valid interrogation, and replaces it with dismissal of real issues.


I'm a woman who has a PhD in physics. There is no question in my mind that the entire field of physics if full of political BS. I saw both men and women treated poorly by faculty members. Students are kept far longer working on their degrees than they should because faculty have no pressure on them to put together sensible programs for their students (and I'm not sure most of them know how, as many I encountered were lousy teachers and mentors). There's really no pressure on faculty to do anything they don't want to do, is there?

As a woman, physics is not the only sphere where I get treated poorly or am an outsider. I have always been an outsider in pursuing my scientific and technical interests. I'm also an outsider among many women because they don't understand and aren't interested on someone who is different from them.

My point is, physics isn't special. This sort of crap happens everywhere. Is it harder for women in physics? Honestly, I found it just as hard in industry. But that experience may vary from person to person. I didn't stay in physics because I didn't have a good mentor, so I didn't have the kind of record it would take to get a decent position, though I would have loved to have taught. But teaching isn't valued, and that really pisses me off. So I went into industry, made more money, put up with the same crap, but what else can I do? Women have a harder time getting mentors everywhere they are underrepresented. But I still have to live my life.

It's all rhetorical questions until the people with the power choose to change. What do you think I should say to them to persuade them to change? This stuff has been talked about for the last twenty years, it isn't changing.

At least if we talk about what might be happening, where the problems are and why they might be occurring, someone like me might have a better chance of saying the right thing at the right time and getting a little ahead for a change rather than a little behind every time.


I disagree with your comparison. I think it would be more fairly compared to you asking a number of people who have driven from your home to your work to estimate how long it took them. Then, you ask a separate group of people to estimate how long it took to get from my home to my work, and then concluding that you live further from your work than I do from mine based soley on the fact that the general time estimates were higher for you trip.

This complete ignores a whole slew of mitigating circumstances like speed limits, driving habits, traffic, and route chosen.

I have known several young women who talked plainly about 'wearing a short skirt' to a conference with a teacher when they wanted to push for a grade in some debatable fashion (in once case, to get an 87 rounded off to an A, successfully). They were pretty certain of their data, too.

I was once sitting a a table with nearly a dozen young women who had a lengthy discussion about dressing and looking in a certain way so that they could avoid being questioned in class (such as on homework that was not well executed). They were from different backgrounds, and not all in the same class or same instructor. They were dead certain of their data.

I was in line behind my wife at a toy store where she was purchasing two items. One was $39.99 the other was $17.99 and sales tax was 8.25%. Can you calculate the total? Did you get $28.50? If not, you're wrong (and while I don't know her sexual preference, that cashier was female and wearing an engagement ring).

How about 2 Brake rotors ($24.99 each), front and rear pads ($19.99 each), a special tool ($9.99 I think) and some other misc goop in that same 8.25% tax rate. Can you add that up? Do you get $17.43? No? Really? Well the auto parts store did (and we wonder why women have trouble with math).

Ever 'flirted your way out of a ticket?' I couldn't name all the people I've heard talk about this? I even used to work with a girl who got out of 80 in a 50 (mph not kph) by saying she had to go to the bathroom really bad. Pfft. Try that sometime.

Ever deliberately cry to get what you want?

I know or have know LOTS of women talking about situations like these. I do not know of one guy who does.

Now, the truth is, that becoming a PhD in physics takes place in the real world. You can't discount money, eating, and social pressure to look at the raw difficulty of things. The person has to wake up in the morning, get through life, possibly work, and socialize with friends (or brood over the lack of them I suppose).

Do the advantages balance out the drawbacks? Does the ability to influence people (because the advantages I mentioned specifically target that), make it easier for women to enter other fields and influence them toward that choice instead of something like physics. Is it that physics is harder for them, or that the ability to manipulate people makes other subjects easier for them, and they are attracted to the path of least resistance?

Everyone I have ever spoken to on the matter agrees that, generally speaking, women are better at manipulating people than men. There are exceptions, of course.

Did you ever, with the same driving record, pay the same for auto insurance as a female friend (or sit in a car with a female coworker and found out she totaled (at fault) 2 cars last year in addition to causing an accident (deliberate in a road rage incident separate from the 2 totals) and wonder why her full coverage insurance rates are LOWER than your clean driving record version with the same company)?

If I could type faster, I could fill a book with stories like these just from my own personal experience.

They questions don't undermine the argument. They are a part of it. If you want to measure the difficulty of accomplishing a task, you have to factor in all things needed to accomplish said task.

If you have a rule on 'tardies' in your class, and both I and Jane Doe have used ours up. We both have flat tires on the way to your class after using up all our 'freebies.' We both miss a quiz. Jane is able to cry/flirt/whatever her way into taking that quiz, and I have to eat a zero. Heck, I don't even TRY to change your mind because that just doesn't happen to me.

Who got off easier? Who had the advantage? And if I complain about unfair treatment, who is going to listen?

And yeah.....there's a bunch of jerks out there who treat women unfairly, too. I'm not arguing that. But, there are women out their who use every advantage they can to get what they want, too.

Then you could also ask if men's 'childish' interest in things like fast cars, for example, leads them to look into f=ma which leads them into physics? THe man has an easier time in physics because he in genuinely interested in making an 11 second mustang, while the woman, with her lower insurance rates (and why isn't that sexual discrimination, if men and women are the same?), sees just a word problem.

Now, in all those conversations you had, did any of the females complain about preferential treatment? Did any of the faculty talk about how well they were played/ manipulated into granting preferential treatment? Do you think they would be more or less likely to discuss these things than to say, complain about getting the short end of the stick based on gender (I seem to recall marketing research indicates people being 26 times more likely to complain about a problem than to tell others you did a 'good job.').

Do you think MOST PEOPLE (regardless of gender) are more likely to say in a public setting that it is their own fault for failing to accomplish something, or to look for a way to blame someone else?

Bah...I have wasted enough time and electrons on this, and probably haven't swayed you one bit. One day, hopefully, the world will get over discrimination by race, gender, sexual preference, and handedness, and be able to look at everything...even the differences... objectively. Its sad that we can't already.

I have to admit that v3rlon has a point. Or rather, danced around an important point but perhaps did not specifically say it.

If our data (as Rob admits his is) is based on self-reporting of unfair practices then we will have a problem if there is a significant difference between the self-reporting rates (i.e. complaining) about unfair conditions between the two genders. And maybe there is just such a thing.

For a very long time Western Culture has viewed women as the delicate gender that must be shielded from hardship. And a real man's job is to stand between adversity and the women and children. If that attitude has persisted (even unconciously) to today, then that would certainly affect the self-reporting rates of being a victim of some unfair incident. Men might consider unfairness to be "nothing new" and what's the point in complaining; a real man sucks it up and goes on with his life. Women (or the cultural attitudes amoung them) might not be used to how cruel the world is when men aren't taking extra care to protect their delicate sensitivities.

Now what is the likelihood that this attitude has persisted and gives us a systematic error in our view of how difficult life in physics (or anything) is for the different genders? Very high, I think. After all, we have acknowledged that the attitude towards women as being incapable of difficult work has persisted despite our best efforts. The attitude that men should stoicly bear the unfairness and hardship of life for their women is equally old and ingrained. If one has persisted then it would not be suprising to find that the other has too.

And, in fact, I will admit that when I read V3rlon's first post my knee-jerk reaction was disgust at his whining. Lots of kids get stuffed in lockers at school. What do you want everybody to feel sorry for you? Life is tough, you'd better get used to it. Ah... but after reading his second post I realize that my gut reaction IS THE POINT. I would not have found his complaints so unseemly if he had been a woman.

Rob said about the unfairness of things towards women: "I can pretty definitively answer this question with a 'yes' based on a lot of conversations with a lot of students, post-docs, faculty members, and other scientists over the years." And if the cultural norms of men being expected (and expecting for themself) that they should take the $#!? end of the stick so the womenfolk don't have to has not suddenly vanished in the last quarter century any more than the old-fashioned views of a woman's place... then all of those conversations have systemic bias that would have to be corrected for. And I don't know how to go about doing that. But it would be improper to be too cocky about our conclusions based on them until we have a better handle on that error rate.

I'll admit that v3rlon has another point. A lot of nerdy guys would gladly trade the "unwanted attention" from the opposite sex problem for the one that they have had their whole lives. Not me though... NOOOO... never had ANY problem in that area. ;)

Maybe a lot of men need to learn that women can do real work. Maybe a lot of women need to learn that the world is a $#!??& and unfair place. Especially when half the civilized world is not opening doors, holding umbrellas, helping you down from the horse, and catching arrows so that you will not have to do or even think about those things lest you get the vapors.

By Chris Taylor (not verified) on 28 Feb 2007 #permalink

I'm not even going to address your idea v3rlon, that women tend to avoid physics because they can't flirt their way through it, which is just ridiculously contemptous. I will however, respond to Chris' idea that somehow men are stoicly withstanding the cruelties of the world that women are complaining about. This might be a valid point to make, if men weren't the ones inflicting the cruelty. This is not men and women together, fighting nature and the world at large, but men and women competing, where the women are greatly outnumbered.

It is also very important to remember that a lot of discrimination is not conscious. It's when you assume the female you're talking to at some convention is there as a spouse. It's when you're surprised by how smart the girl you're talking to is. It's even when people who do not mean to be discriminatory favor identical resumes that have male names over female names. All of it builds up into a culture that is unwelcoming to one half of the population. When added to our culture itself is telling girls from a young age that they won't be as good at math and science as their boy peers, you need people with unnatural persistance and/or skills to make it through. They do exist, obviously, but we should still try to make the system better until we reach the point where it is at least closer to the meritocracy we wish it to be.

By CaptainBooshi (not verified) on 28 Feb 2007 #permalink

I was never suggesting that women are not sometimes misjudged or mistreated based on their gender, and I don't know how an honest reading of my post could come to that conclusion.

Are you seriously suggesting that women cannot be cruel? Are you saying that men cannot be cruel to each other? On a blog forum that is dominated by geeky, probably not above-averge looking men? Because the way you write about "the cruelty" that is what you seem to be saying.

In order to dismiss the difference in self-reporting of unfairness like that, you would have to either "deligitimize" all complaints by men... or you would have to assume that all women are perfectly able to tell that the unfairness that they run up against is either something that would not happen to a man or that no corresponding male unfairness exists; even though most women have never been men.

Again, I am not saying that there are no forms of bias or unfairness that affect women more than men. I'm saying that there are also general unfairnesses that can be miscategorized and men-specific unfairnesses as well. And if there is a gender dispairity between self-reporting (i.e. complaining and bitching) of these unfairnesses and that we rely primarily on self-reporting (which a lot of us do) of others to judge the level of how hard each gender's lot in life is... then it follows that our view of the relative difficulty men and women face will be biased. The squeeky wheel gets the grease; or in this case sympathy. And if there is a disparity in squeekiness, then why would we not expect a disparity in sympathy and therefore "corrective" action?

If your true goal is to get as close to the meritocracy "we wish to be" then you're going to need some better way of determining when you reach there other than some "minimum complaining state". Therefore relying on conversations and listening to people complain about how they are sure the other gender would never have been treated so badly is an inadequate basis for social engineering. Or we're going to wind up with a society of competative complaining (i.e. squeeking) skills. And isn't that just a variation on the competative marketing skills that Rob was lamenting took the place of meritocracy now? If we don't come up with something objective then it's always just going to be a form of marketing. And, in an imperfect world, the best we may be able to do is decide what type of marketing and politicing we want and control the level of it.

By Chris Taylor (not verified) on 01 Mar 2007 #permalink

I was not suggesting that women cannot be cruel, or that men cannot be cruel to each other. I was talking specifically about the cruelty of discrimination, which is one that men in physics do not have to worry about at this point. It should also be noted that you are incorrect in several of your assumptions.

The less important, and more subjective one, is that you think that men do not apparently complain about the injustices they face. Remember, this article all started with a letter to Physics Today with a man complaining that it is society overall's fault, and not that of physics. Not only that, consider V3rnon's post, which is also complaining of a perceived injustice. Men, in my experience, simply are not the stoic bearers you seem to portray them to be.

Second, and more importantly, self-reporting is not the only metric that we can judge this by. I believe I said in my last post, but should repeat again, that there have been studies done to see if an inherent sexism in the system, and it does exist. The most recent one I saw sent identical resumes out for jobs, one in the name of a female, and one in the name of a male, and without fail, the male resume got significantly more responses. This is not the only case, either. Self-reporting that is not backed up by facts would be suspect, but when you have other corroborative evidence, you should take it seriously.

By CaptainBooshi (not verified) on 01 Mar 2007 #permalink

Second, and more importantly, self-reporting is not the only metric that we can judge this by. I believe I said in my last post, but should repeat again, that there have been studies done to see if an inherent sexism in the system, and it does exist.

This is an important point. It's not just self-reporting.

But also the self-reporting isn't as biased as Chris paints it out to be. The cases of differential treatment that disfavor the women far outweigh the opposite, and this is as reported by both men and women. I'm not talking about motivation to complaint; I'm talking about behavior observed. Men and women both report that the same professor differentially treats men better than women, for instance.

Women have to put up with stuff that if I had to put up with, you'd better believe I'd be whining and bellyaching about. (It should be obvious by now that whining and bellyaching are two of my top skills.) However, I've never had to put up with that stuff, simply because I'm a man.

Yes, there is differential treatment of women in physics, and yes, women have it worse simply because of their gender, on the average. Self-report evidence and blind studies have show this to be true.

And, yes, it's true all over the place. The reason I harp on physics specifically so much is (a) it's my house, and thus the one I have the most responsibility for trying to help clean up, and (b) women are more underrepresented in physics than in almost any other area of acadaemia.


I realize that not all measurement of gender bias is based on self-reporting. The last time I remember us discussing this topic, it was about specific tests to measure biased responses to resumes. My concern above is that such objective tests are only used to confirm the impression that we get from "whinning and complaining" and anecdotal evidence, and then people say "Yep, I knew it all along" go right back to using their own subjective impressions based on what they hear around the water cooler to manage day-to-day decision making.

Can you imagine a chemist or industrial engineer managing some process like that? They get anecodotal evidence of a problem, then run some tests to verify that a problem exists. Do they then go back to relying on anecdotal evidence and impressions from talking with co-workers to modify the parameters of the process to eliminate the problem? Of course not. They figure out how to measure the factors objectively and base their decisions on that. If you want to eliminate something you must first figure out how to measure it properly.**

Now maybe I'm wrong. I'd love to hear that your deprtment has some systematic, qualitative method for determining how close you are to eliminating unfairness due to gender bias, and that it is regularly reviewed and used as a tool for eliminating favoritism in hiring and discipline and rewards. But I suspect that does not happen. I suspect that all these decisions are based on how people feel given the complaints and comments other people around them make. And those few objective tests are only used to verify that those impressions are based on something real, as if they were some weird kind of calibration data for your "gut feel" that only has to be done every few years. Then everyone goes right back to trying to build a "minimum complaint state", and people's ability to advance being based on their ability to manage others impressions of them, only now there is a new tool in the rhetorical arsenal of impression manipulation.

I have a two pronged suggestion. One is to forget about broad, generic corrections and focus instead on making each management decision based on the merits of the individual case. Worry about your "own house" as you called it. There are a lot more sources of bias than just gender. Judging individual cases fairly will cover not only gender bias but also ethnicity, or class, or ugliness, or shortness, or fashion sense, or regional accent that has a negative stereotype, or graduated from a University whose Astronomy dept. chair I am really %!$$#& off at, or any other bias too. Now presumably some of these biases get rated as "less important" because some of them (or at least the last example I would hope) are numerically less frequent, but to the unfortunate person whose hopes and ambition and work has been shattered because of them they would certainly not seem less important just because they are less frequent. A more meriocratic system will benifit all victims of bias, including gender. To achieve this, there may need to be special methodologies developed to address specific problems. For example: redacting names before distributing resumes, or asking people to recuse themselves from selection committies when they have a presonal relationship or rivalary involved. But the goal should be merit in individual cases and not for a general correction factor because of past bias.

The second is stranger and I don't really expect it to happen: Introduce more of the free market into astronomy. Find a way for astronomy departments that do not perform well to go bankrupt and those that do good astonomy to prosper. I think that will eventually result in a much closer approximation of a meritocracy than the politics/marketing-ocracy you complain about now. I'm not saying that because I belive that the profit motive will necessarily make most people try harder to be fair. (Though maybe the fear of poverty will help some.) I am saying that because the invisible hand of the market would provide an additional level of selection; not of the people but of the organizations. Organizations that are very clever about finding the best qualified people regardless of appearance or self-promotion would have a competative advantage and could prosper and spread. Organizations that pick candidates because "he went to a good school and reminds me of a younger vesion of myself" would be at a disadvantage competitively based on the lower quality of the personnel. The market could cull out departments that have hiring policies that are ineffective at developing good astronomers in a much colder and unsympathetic manner* than any human committee or chairperson could. It wouldn't matter who the dept. head had known or befriended, or how good a game the gender-equality officer talked, or even how genuine the faculty had been in their efforts. Astronomy depts. that are the best meritocracies would thrive and take over the community.

And I have absolutely no idea how to do that. I don't see any obvious way to apply a commodity market style system to university astronomy departments. There just isn't any standardized, or even specialized, product or a merit based marketplace to compete in. Unless you wanted to redefine the goals of the Astronomy dept. to be "get grants and donations for the university," and then it would cease to be an Astronomy dept! People would still be hired based on their ability to market and politic instead of their ability to look at the sky and draw correct conclusions, though at least such an "Astronomy Dept." would be more honest about it. Sooo. Sorry. As long as entry into university astronomy depts. requires convincing the people who have already become members of that esteemed fraterity to grant their personal approval to let you in... and the only quality controls on the approvers is itself subjective and based on internal politics... the struggle to approximate a meritocracy will be a case-by-case fight againt the tendencies of human nature.

I do see, however, how you could make a market based Astrology Dept. >;)

As a last point, if you think you have a pretty fair system, but women are still under-represented in Astronomy Depts., I would not take that as evidince there is necessarily a descrimination problem against women. Given the smartness and hard work that is required to be an Astronomer for the relatively small pay and negligible chance at fame (and of course the requirement that you have to spend a lot of your day around Astronomers), a lot of women may see worrying the problem of "how to get more women into Astronomy" about the same way they'd see worrying about "how to ge more women into leper colonies" or "how to get more women into cancer wards." Some outside astronomy might use the same data to make the case that there must be some bias against teaching boys how to properly calculate a financial rate of return. :) Or you could always make a habit of visiting all-girl middle schools and extoling the non-economic benifits of stargazing. I'd suggest that you leave out the parts about the clarvoiant dwarves and drunken moose though.

* Which is one reason why a lot of people would not want a market-based Astronomy department any more than I want to be judged on my sinful nature! Justice is not compassionate to the unworthy.
** Not absolutely true but sometimes a bird in the hand is not worth two in the bush, either.

By Chris Taylor (not verified) on 02 Mar 2007 #permalink

It sounds to me that you are worried about women being treated unfairly in a way that men would not because it is "discrimination," and you are not worried about men being treated unfairly in a way that women would not because it is not "discrimination." There is no point in me debating with you if you are just going to define words so that they can only mean things that help your argument.

You also do not discuss the issue that sometimes when women are treated differently than men (even by men) it is to their advantage, and not to their disadvantage. I could categorize the gender bias events into four groups: those that hurt a woman, those that help a woman, those that hurt a man, those that help a man. You seem to only be looking at the first and last types of events and using that to define the problem. That's just not right. You have to look at gender bias that helps women and that hurts men too, if you want a fair judgement of relative difficulty. V3rlon brought up some specific examples of the second and third cases, and if we have been honest obeservers of the world I think most of us have seen other examples too. Just changing the definition of descrimination so that it only happens when men hurt women is not an honest mehtod of inquiry.

If a male researcher got frustrated that he could not repair a manometer, how likely do you think it would be that his collegues would secretly fix it for him after he pouted and stormed out of the lab? I don't think it would be very likely. But I know of a female researcher that not only got her instrument fixed that way, she bragged about doing it on purpose!

Now I'm sure a lot of the women reading are furious at that female researcher for setting a bad example and making men think they are all like that.. or that they cannot even fix a #@*% manometer. And I assure you there is no need to apologize on your gender's behalf... I know that every individual is different and while a man would not have behaved that way and likely been rewarded, there are other improper behaviors that some men do which are rewarded and would not be available to their female collegues.

But basically you are just flat wrong if you think that men do not have to face discrimination. They just don't usually face discrimination for being women.

I am also not saying that men never complain. I am only saying that any desparity between complaint levels would skew data that is based on self-reporting of unfairness. By changing the requirement form "less likely to complain" to "never complain" you have again redefined the debate so that you cannot lose. I conclude from that that you are less interested in a discussion to find the truth than you are at winning some argument with rhetorical tricks.

Personally I am not interested in turning this into a discussion of "whose lot in life is worse" because I already realize that life is unfair and everyone faces unique individual challenges. But if we are going to have a discussion, then lets at least agree to call things what they are and not manipulate terms to "win".

By Chris Taylor (not verified) on 02 Mar 2007 #permalink

Rob: Bravo for speaking out. The thing is, "meritocracy" is a utopian ideal, essentially because it begs the question, "the best at what?". ;-)

For both "moral" and pragmatic reasons, physics most other fields of science have a strong interest in welcoming all comers. Part of that includes squelching abuse in general. Another part is reconsidering habits and assumptions that were based on "just us guys here".

As far as: "women need to realize that the world is often unfair", that sounds suspiciously like the classic bully's taunt of "life ain't fair, wimp".

By David Harmon (not verified) on 21 Mar 2007 #permalink

"Is there something about that style of "selling" oneself as perhaps being more expert than one really is something that men are just better at?"

I would say yes, absolutely. Specifically, men are better at "selling", and women are better at "buying". It is something that has been bred into humans for millions of years. How many young women have gotten pregnant because she believed the lies that he told her? A reproductive "feature" for both of them.

Much like the peacock's tail. Peacock's have a big tail because peahens like it. Women like a guy who can talk like a "player".

In any case, in no way is physics or any other field a "meritocracy". Read Thomas Kuhn's "the structure of scientific revolutions". The "big" advances came in spite of what the "peers" thought.