Via Feminist Law Professors, Nature reports on a study by Sherry Towers, a former Fermilab physicist, showing a consistent pattern of discrimination against women postdocs at Fermilab from 1998-2006. (You can read the whole data-rich study here.) In sum: women worked harder but were consistently rewarded less than their male peers. Surprise! “Women did 40% more maintenance work than their male counterparts, and . . . female postdocs produced significantly more ‘internal papers’ per year. But based on that productivity they were only one-third as likely to be allocated conference talks as their male peers.” The article in Nature explains the importance of conference papers to building a strong resume:
Conference presentations are critical to a young particle physicist’s career. Papers from collaborations such as DZero have hundreds of authors in alphabetical order. Being given the chance to present results at a meeting is a major way for young researchers to stand out. “It’s important,” says Pauline Gagnon, a physicist with the ATLAS detector at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland. “Being able to give talks is a way of rewarding individuals for their work.”
Most particle detectors have internal committees that allocate conference presentations to researchers. These committees are frequently male-dominated, and Towers believes this lies behind the discrimination. “I don’t think for a second that there is a conscious bias going on,” she says. But the committees “are in danger of being prone to patronage and cronyism”. Male committee members are more likely to nominate male protégés to receive presentation time, she claims.
The study suggests (once again!) that informal networking is key. “Female physicists contacted by Nature said Towers’s data matched their personal experiences of institutional sexism in physics. ‘You often see a young guy with an older guy gossiping and having coffee, but never a woman,’ says Freya Blekman, a physicist on the CMS experiment at CERN.” If you check out the Nature article, be sure to read through some of the comments, particularly the first one (and the many replies it inspired), which is as sparkling an example of defensive asshattery as I’ve ever seen. Says Dr. Paul Kantorek:
My experience as a physicist working with the occasional female colleagues leads me to a subjective impression that women really think differently. Female thinking seems to be more lateral then vertical. By that I mean, women in physics are generally harder working than male colleagues and are great co-workers in terms of encouragement, diligence, and backup support. They do not, however, contribute a great deal of original ideas and rigorous logical analysis to the research. Female judgment seems to more emotionally biased.
Um, yeah. Inadvertently, he gives an excellent explanation for why women are so underrrepresented in physics: a**hole gatekeepers like himself. Paging Dr. Kantorek–the twenty-first century is calling! Just be glad that you’re not a student or faculty member at Ryerson University in Toronto, where the esteemed Dr. Kantorek teaches. (Unless you are–in which case, my condolences if you have to work with him.) Other reactions to Kantorek here, and here.
Fortunately, the other commenters (women and men alike) at Nature seem to have him in hand. As Tanja Schmidt suggests, “Imagine Kantorek would have said the same things about jews, gays, black, foreigners or other minorities.” Well–that’s the thing. We can’t imagine that he would have eagerly jumped to the head of the line to say the same thing about an entire ethnic group. (Not so sure she’s right about the gays, who are after all gender queer, just like women physicists!) He might think it–but he wouldn’t probably say it out loud or write it under his real name. As we have learned this year, it’s permissible to say absolutely anything about high-achieving women, even to engage in eliminationist fantasies and rhetoric. It’s all good, if you’re just putting teh bitchez in their place!
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