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Tuesday, April 9th, 2013 11:23 am
I just received the American Physical Society's monthly newsletter, APS News. In the "Letters" section, they published a letter entitled "Nothing Wrong with Fewer Women Physicists" by someone names Jeffery Winkler from Hanford, CA. Winkler was evidently "shocked" by a February article about how encouraging women to pursue careers in physics is a priority for the APS.

I won't try to formally rebut his arguments, but it's like shooting fish in a barrel: this guy thinks he's boldly standing up for some moral principle, but his entire letter is a classic example of sexism and ignorance. He insists that targeting any particular male/female ratio is equally wrong, whether 50/50 or 100/0. He then says, and I'm not making this up, that nurses, elementary teachers, and secretaries are 90% women and "Nobody thinks that's a problem." So clearly, he says, it's just as unreasonable to push for greater equality among physicists.

I have no idea how this tripe got published in the newsletter; maybe they were low on content this month. (I've already written to ask.) Not that I'd object to having a serious discussion about how and why we should encourage women to study physics! But this clearly isn't an example of that. Instead, it's an example of how much sexism is still present in the physics community and of how that sexism gets reinforced. And that's deeply frustrating.
Tuesday, April 9th, 2013 04:17 pm (UTC)
("nobody thinks that's a problem" is factually wrong. says the former teacher. who knows a bunch of teachers.)

(also, frothy-mouthed rage.)
Tuesday, April 9th, 2013 04:36 pm (UTC)
Having talked with a variety of nurses in the past, I'm pretty sure he's factually wrong on that score, too. More generally, I'm pretty sure that one of the defining goals of feminism is to eliminate the social pressures that perpetuate all of these imbalances. Like I said, fish in a barrel.
Tuesday, April 9th, 2013 05:13 pm (UTC)
The one nurse J responded well to during his 5-day hospital stay two years ago was the male nursing student who was brought in so he could get experience with "a noncompliant patient." I don't know whether the better response was because of the male-ness or because of the man's willingness to be taught, but the entire episode was one of the highlights of our hospital stay. I'd love to see more male nurses - both from the mother-of-male-patient perspective and from the sociological perspective that it's a rather family-friendly profession (which is why several of my female friends have pursued nursing) and I'd like to see more acceptance of men choosing their professions on that basis.

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013 08:44 pm (UTC)
One thing I've noticed with Danger Lad! is that he does find male teachers, nurses, etc., pretty exciting - probably because he sees them so seldom. It's a slightly weird thing that at the age when children are becoming most aware of gender differences, we send them off into a world in which over 90% of the adults they encounter are female. It's as though the only adult male role is Dad. A better gender balance there would really help.
Tuesday, April 9th, 2013 04:39 pm (UTC)
I suspect you are mistaken in a key point: I very much doubt this the person who wrote this letter is "part of the physics community," in any meaningful sense. (I'd advise you to break that Lyceum link, btw, in case of trackbacks.) His views do not necessarily represent the views of anyone in physics.

I wish I could promise you that the letter absolutely didn't represent the views of anyone in physics, but the plain fact is that there are cranks in every field of human endeavor. The fact that this guy is a crank but not a physicist does not mean that there are no cranks who ARE physicists. Somewhere in the mail and editorial offices of the APS, an error was made here, but it was (probably) an error made with good intent. "Is there anything we can do to make people read the editorial page?" In defense of the mail-opening staff, the distinction between real and crank mail can be quite subtle, and if the piles of mail are big enough, the only way to get through it in the time alotted is to fall back on a broader system of pattern recognition.

You can see conversations resulting from this decision play out any old week in the pages of the Boston Metro (who I don't spot points for intentions), or find a brief fictional treatment in Dorothy Sayers Gaudy Night (look for references to "Undergraduettes Rag"). You probably don't want to go there, especially not with the ad hominem you're currently carrying. It's a tempting ad hominem, but that's still what it is. You have plenty of platforms you can stand on to say what you think is important, and on most of them, you will not wind up being treated as a cheese course, bridging the gap between articles on the profession and advertisements for research fellowships.
Tuesday, April 9th, 2013 05:13 pm (UTC)
Link(s) broken, and what a good idea that was.

And yeah, I know it's an ad hominem, and that it's not relevant to the argument at hand. Probably I shouldn't even mention it (and I certainly wouldn't have mentioned it if I'd tried to write any sort of formal response)... ugh. It just seemed to fit so snugly with the attitude in his letter, the temptation was acute: "You people who don't want more women in physics, here's who your allies are!" But upon reflection, those last comments did absolutely nothing to contribute to my point here, so (edit 2) I've cut them completely.

I still can't be happy about the fact that the APS chose to publish his letter, though. I'd be surprised if there weren't a fair number of physicists out there today reading it and nodding their heads in agreement (hopefully older ones, on average, but this guy is only a few years older than us). On some level, arguing whether he's a crank or a "real" physicist is just an ad hominem as well. The main issue is that the APS decided that comments like this were a good thing to share.

I'll just fall back on my primary reaction to all this once again: ugh.

(Oh, and if it's not already implicit in what I wrote, thanks for the good advice. Evidently I needed it.)
Edited 2013-04-09 05:15 pm (UTC)
Tuesday, April 9th, 2013 09:21 pm (UTC)
I'm wondering how your class went today, and if you have a few fewer ignorant physicists? Sometimes people just don't know how to do it.

I was pleased to read the letter a year or so back from Mudd about the steps they've taken to encourage women to study computer science, and just how effective that has been -- without watering down the curriculum at all.

A response more along the lines of "Here's how we do it at Alma, and our enrollment of women physics majors has become x% up from <x%, and our total department enrollment has increased by y%" would be more helpful I think, than attacking his arguments directly. Sometimes people just don't know how to accomplish a goal, so they attack the goal itself. --Beth --Beth
Wednesday, April 10th, 2013 01:38 pm (UTC)
The approach Mudd took encourages not only women to study computer science, but also the economically disadvantaged, who didn't have access to computers to fart around with when they were 7, and/or people to encourage them to fart around with computers, and/or people who knew how to fart around with computers.

It wouldn't be watering down a curriculum to include *actual* introductory courses that don't assume the students already have a decade of programming experience.