Margaret Wertheim drawing hyperbolic diagrams for the Reefs, Rubbish and Reason exhibition at Art Center College of Design (Pasadena). Photo © Institute For Figuring (by Cameron Allan)


The sexism problem

Harassment drove me out of physics 30 years ago and little has changed. Why is scientific sexism so intractable?

by Margaret Wertheim + BIO

Margaret Wertheim drawing hyperbolic diagrams for the Reefs, Rubbish and Reason exhibition at Art Center College of Design (Pasadena). Photo © Institute For Figuring (by Cameron Allan)

In the final months of my physics degree, one of my professors asked me into his office – an exciting prospect, given that I assumed we’d be discussing subjects for my potential honours theses. He closed the door, invited me to sit, and declared he’d fallen in love. He wanted to have an affair, he said, and if I couldn’t share in that plan he couldn’t continue as my advisor – he’d find my presence ‘too distracting’. He was a senior academic, and married; but this was Australia in the late 1970s and the subject of sexual harassment wasn’t on any university radar. It seemed this was just one of life’s inequities, another hurdle facing being a woman in science. So I made the decision to leave physics – a subject I loved – and in the following academic year switched to computer science at a different university.

At the University of Queensland, I’d been the only woman in the physics department, aside from the secretaries. There were no women lecturers or professors, and for two years no other female students. Students and professors in science departments didn’t fraternise then; we were there to learn, they were there to impart wisdom, and the only interaction between us outside class were rare meetings with an advisor – short, sharp and strictly about science. Any type of sexual behaviour seemed at odds with the near-monastic atmosphere that prevailed in our faux-gothic physics building and, until I was propositioned, I’d felt as if I was participating in something akin to Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. I was involved, I’d thought, in a ‘higher’, ‘purer’ activity, a cosmic game of chess in which Truth and Beauty were the aims.

Part of the reason I’d gone into physics was to escape the messy world of human emotions. Like many men in this field, I loved the crystalline order that physics revealed, and the mathematical harmonies it uncovered in nature seemed a refuge from the chaos of my fellow human beings with their inscrutable urges and desires. The last thing I wanted was to blur the boundary between scholarship and sex.

In recent months, the world of academic science has been rocked by a number of high-profile scandals in which senior scientists at leading universities in the United States, including Caltech, the University of Chicago and the University of California, Berkeley, have been called out for sexually harassing female students and junior colleagues. The litany of cases involves graduate students who have been victims of groping, explicit emails, invitations to private dinners, and demanding, childish love letters. In one case, a professor of astronomy with a known track record of harassment moved universities. No one in administration passed on the information, and so the behaviour began afresh.

With every new report, a wave of weariness washes over me: ‘Really?’ ‘Still?’ my mind cries. When will we get over this? Anger used to be my pre-eminent response, but I’ve seen so much sexism in science over the past 30 years that nothing much surprises me any more. How retrograde and boring all this is. Then a little cheer arises: at least the guy is being sanctioned. At least in some cases. At last there are inklings of justice. While my professor got off scot-free, some professors are now being found guilty of sexual harassment and forced to attend training courses, or they’re suspended from teaching.

At the University of California, Berkeley, Geoffrey Marcy, a luminary astronomer (a leader in discovering exoplanets) and multiple harrasser, was forced to resign. Still, few elite scientists lose their jobs for what in other industries are sackable offences. In Marcy’s case, the university’s response was tepid; he had millions of dollars in research grants and had been mooted for a Nobel Prize. Only after an outcry from students and faculty, including a letter signed by dozens of his colleagues in the astronomy department, did he offer his resignation. Other offenders remain in their positions.

In theory, students can now lodge complaints, though it is far from clear how much support they can expect; graduate students are particularly vulnerable when, like mine, their harasser is an advisor. As in other fields, careers in science depend on alliances and references but, a good research record is also critical, and that is so often tied to the adviser’s research. PhD and post-doc students working in a senior scientist’s lab rely on his sign-off for what might be years of their own work, so they risk an enormous amount by going public and souring that relationship. The depth of the problem was highlighted last year when Science magazine’s ‘Ask Alice’ online careers column published advice to ‘Bothered’ – a female post-doc whose male advisor ‘won’t stop looking down my shirt’. The magazine recommended that, unless the behaviour escalated, Bothered learn to tolerate it with ‘good humour’. After a firestorm of criticism the post was removed and replaced with an apology. We’re not talking about some college newsletter here: Science (along with Nature) is the world’s leading science magazine.

In an opinion piece for The New York Times in March, the geobiologist Hope Jahren, author of the best-selling memoir Lab Girl (2016), discussed how frequently she finds herself counselling former female students who are on the receiving end of unwanted sexual advances. She quotes a case where a professor declared (in emails) a post-doc in his research group to be ‘incredibly attractive’, ‘adorably dorky’ and himself ‘utterly unable to get a grip’ when she is near. Jahren, like many of us, finds herself torn between outrage and fatigue. As she wryly notes, providing counselling for young colleagues is not something you can put on your CV, though it’s an indispensible service to the wider science community. In recent months, the internet has erupted with heated discussion as women in science share their stories and strategies, and offer one another moral support. What is so depressing is the sheer scope of the problem.

I know the price of unwelcome sexual desire doubly well, for in the final year of my computer science degree I went through the same experience. Again, the professor who would have been my honours advisor told me he’d fallen in love and wanted an affair, and if I couldn’t comply he’d stop advising me. This time I left academia as much in a state of despair as disgust. There seemed no point enrolling in a third field so I gave up science and went to work in the fledgling Australian film industry. But I missed the beauty of physics and within a year made a decision to become a science journalist, wanting to share with others the subject I loved – and only in retrospect realising how much I also needed to redeem science in my own eyes.

It has taken more than 30 years for me to feel I could discuss what happened to me publicly, particularly in the science world itself, where sexism remains for the most part unacknowledged, and where the mythology of an equal playing field stands so strong. This is the first time I’ve spoken about my experience outside a small group of family and friends.

When I was driven out of science, discussions of sexual harassment were non-existent in academia, and only beginning to gain traction in public discourse. My mother, Barbara Wertheim, was one of the pioneers helping to formulate legislation and policy in this field in Australia; through her, I knew that what happened to me was unjust, but the mechanisms for dealing with it were not yet in place in educational settings. I watched my mother fighting for the rights of secretaries and cleaners in state and federal government organisations not to be harassed, and it has always struck me as ironic that the intellectual world has been so slow to address these issues. As it turns out, academia in general, and academic science in particular, have a long, inglorious history of hostility toward women. Far from taking a lead in fighting for gender equality, academic science has often lagged behind the wider social curve.

Consider the case of Lise Meitner (1878-1968), who co-discovered nuclear fission. In Meitner’s day, women weren’t allowed to attend public institutions of higher learning in most European countries, yet through private tutoring, and with her enlightened parents’ support (her father was the first Jewish lawyer in Austria), she obtained a PhD in physics. Even with a doctorate, in 1905 she had to apply for permission to attend lectures by the quantum pioneer Max Planck, who until then hadn’t allowed women in his class. Later, working at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, she was made to conduct her research in the basement, the one floor containing a female lavatory, and was recognised only as an unpaid ‘guest’ of her co-researcher. When the Nobel Prize was awarded for the discovery of fission, Meitner wasn’t included. During her remarkable career she was nominated 10 times for a Nobel without success.

What priceless treasures of human potential are being lost to science because men in positions of power are unzippering their libidinal urges?

Then there is Emmy Noether (1882-1935), a leading mathematician of the early 20th century and an intellectual giant of modern physics. Noether was able to get her doctorate because she studied at the German university where her father was a maths professor. After working unpaid for years, pioneering in the field of abstract algebra, she was invited to join the mathematics department at the University of Göttingen, then the world’s premier centre for maths research. When the philosophy faculty objected to a woman in their ranks, the mathematician David Hilbert countered ‘after all, we’re a university not a bathhouse’. Noether got her post and went on to discover that mathematical symmetries are at the heart of all laws of physical conservation, now regarded as one of the single most important insights in physics: the search for a ‘final theory’ is, at root, a search for an ultimate law of symmetry.

Meitner and Noether were both contemporaries of Albert Einstein (Noether helped him develop the maths underlying general relativity). It is shocking to think that such brilliant women got to study science only because they had special support from their fathers or family members able to pull strings. That is part of a wide historical pattern in which pretty much all the women we know of in maths and physics had a male relative or family friend who put himself out to find ways around systemic sexist exclusions. Marie Curie, for example, had both an enlightened father and an unstintingly supportive husband (and fellow researcher, Pierre). Like Meitner and Noether, most women physicists prior to the mid-20th century had to contend with decades of indignities, work without pay, and humilities that are now humbling to reflect on. Whenever I personally encounter sexism in science, I take a moment to think about Noether: that she persisted in the face of such obstacles, that she didn’t give up and achieved such greatness in spite of the forces arrayed against her – that’s inspiring.

Then I think about all the young women now being forced out of science by harassment and ongoing inequities, and part of me begins to explode. Jahren ends her New York Times piece by telling us that ‘adorably dorky’ – the best student she’s ever had – is considering leaving the field. Two of the complainants against Marcy have left astronomy. What priceless treasures of human potential are being lost to science because men in positions of power are unzippering their libidinal urges? At the University of California, Berkeley, where the dean of the law school has also recently resigned because of a sexual harassment claim found against him, graduate students circulated a petition via Twitter demanding that the university take a stronger stance. The petition indicted an ‘academic hierarchy …[that] places workers, graduate students, post-docs, and non-ladder faculty in structurally vulnerable positions’.

Part of what women are up against in science is a continuing widespread attitude that, deep down, we’re not really up to it, which by extension implies that a high rate of attrition is no big loss. That view was startlingly articulated in 2005 by Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard, when in a conference he mused that if there weren’t more women in top science positions at elite universities it might be in part because women’s mental abilities are different. The ensuing furore led Summers to resign and precipitated a great deal of hand-wringing about academic sexism. Yet here we are, a decade later, with yet more academic sexism.

What surprised me about Summers was not what he thought – in my experience, it’s not an uncommon view among elite academic men – but that he thought he could say it out loud. He didn’t seem to understand the absurdity of stating, in an intellectual forum, that half the Harvard student body might be inherently unsuited for intellectual success. As one male physicist has reputedly put it, ‘only blunt bright bastards make it in the field’. Though that has never been wholly true (think of the gentle genius Michael Faraday), it sums up sentiments that run deep through the physical sciences community, creating psychological and sociological barriers not only for women but also for many men. Recently, the magazine Physics World devoted a special report to obstacles confronted by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and minority physicists in institutions such as the European particle accelerator CERN. Machismo stereotyping creates an environment that disenfranchises many potential scientists.

One is reminded here of that founding document of the scientific revolution, Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis (1624), which presents one of the first visions of what a science institution might be: in Bacon’s hugely influential book, scientific research is carried out by a priesthood, a group of 36 ‘fathers’ – pointedly, all men. Bacon was also the first to propose a scientific method, which was to be transacted on the body of a female Nature: ‘I am come in very truth to leading you to Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave.’ As Jahren notes: ‘the scientific method may be impartial, scientific culture is not’.

Old-boy mores and assumed entitlements have simply been transformed into the silicon and software sectors

Most depressing of all is how sexism keeps reinventing itself, morphing into new forms just when it seems we might be on the verge of overcoming the old ones. There are signs now that we have reached a plateau in terms of women’s representation in the ‘hard’ sciences, suggesting that underlying structural issues remain unresolved. According to the US National Science Foundation, only 20 per cent of physics PhDs in the States go to women, a figure that hasn’t shifted much in two decades. In computer science, it’s now 21 per cent: fewer than 20 years ago. When I was studying computer science, we assumed this new field would quickly become a domain of equality. Indeed, the tech world, epitomised by the ‘disruptors’ of Silicon Valley, is archetypally male and rife with old-school-style sexual aggression.

Just how inhospitable to women Silicon Valley can be was luridly displayed in the much-covered trial in 2015 brought by Ellen Pao, who worked for the leading tech venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, and sued her employer when she wasn’t made partner. Details emerged in the trial of widespread sexual predation in the industry (one of Pao’s colleagues knocked on her hotel door one night carrying a bottle of Champagne and wearing nothing but a bathrobe), and jaw-dropping sexism (women at venture capital firms often aren’t invited to dinner meetings with start-up entrepreneurs for fear they will spoil the vibe). Old-boy mores and assumed entitlements have simply been transposed into the silicon and software sectors.

When I decided to become a science writer, I made a commitment to find ways of making science appealing to women. For 10 years, I wrote regular columns about science and technology for women’s magazines, including Australian Vogue and Elle. This gets no kudos in the science world, or the world of science communication, yet it was one of the most challenging jobs I’ve had. Through the columns I reached a huge audience of women who would never subscribe to science magazines. If we’re serious about engaging more women in science, we have to stop asking that women always ‘come to science’ and start looking at how science can also come to women.

That doesn’t mean women aren’t or can’t be interested in canonical science formats – I read science magazines – but it acknowledges a reality that is too often elided over: most science forums were invented by men, are headed by men, and maintained by men to sustain the interests of overwhelmingly male audiences. It’s not just women who should be asked to change.

Writing for Vogue doesn’t directly help women in the professional science pipeline, even if it contributes to a wider cultural ethos that ultimately has concrete knock-on effects, by making some small dent in science’s tremendously masculine public face. So much of science is represented by things such as robots and space probes, which in themselves are not gendered yet hold little interest for many teenage girls (they certainly didn’t interest me when I was at school).

Science exists in vastly diverse domains of human activity, so why shouldn’t that diversity be contextualised within fashion magazines and other formats that large numbers of women and girls read and enjoy? My range for Vogue was wide: I wrote about big-bang cosmology, nuclear waste, bioremediation, and genetic engineering, never shying away from portraying actual science, yet always including a human dimension and, wherever possible, humour and playfulness. I can attest that it’s harder to write about science for Vogue than for The New York Times science section. Besides, I saw it as missionary work: like Jahren, I believe that our roles as supporters of women in science extend far beyond what might be applauded by tenure committees.

The bigger question is: what gets to qualify as ‘science’ in the public domain? And who gets to determine that?

On the whole, men do. Ten years ago, as part of my mission to communicate maths and science to women, I started a project that brings together mathematics and handicraft. Using a technique that models hyperbolic geometry using crochet, invented by Daina Taimina, a mathematician at Cornell University in New York, I have been working with communities of women all over the world to make crochet simulations of coral reefs. Living reefs (currently under threat from climate change), with their frilly crenellated surfaces, are biological manifestations of hyperbolic geometry. It’s hard for humans to model these structures, but you can do it with crochet.

The crochet reef has been seen by millions of women in the US, the UK, Australia and the UAE. Still, no science funder I’ve approached has seen fit to support it. As a male programme officer at a major US science foundation bluntly told me: ‘I find it hard to believe there’s any real science in a bunch of women knitting.’ If that attitude prevails at a foundation whose mission statement formally lists supporting ways to engage women in science as one of its goals, then is it any wonder that we women face headwinds from so many other directions?