There's been a marked difference of opinion between two of my fellow ScienceBloggers about what ought to be done about the "pipeline problem" in physics.
Chad suggests that there may be a substantial problem with high school level physics instruction, given that "[e]ven if high school classes are 50/50 [female to male], the first college physics class is already 25/75".
I take it that the worry about what's happening in the high school physics classroom isn't going to spark much controversy in these parts. (However, I do recall hearing, when I was still in high school, that at some colleges the probability of becoming a physics major was much higher among those who didn't take high school physics -- whether because the ripple-tank experiment was really that traumatic or because physics taught without calculus makes no bloody sense, I do not know.) Rather, here's the part of Chad's post that sparked the heated exchange:
Everybody seems to have an anecdote about a creepy physics professor, or an unpleasant graduate student, or a sexist post-doc.
This bugs me for a couple of reasons. The obvious one being that I'm a college physics professor, and I'm not that guy. I'm not fool enough to try to deny that unreconstructed sexist pigs exist in the profession, but I'm not one of them, and neither are my immediate colleagues, and sweeping statements that lump us in with the pigs of the world bother me.
To this, Zuska responded:
There are a million things that should be going on at the college level that have nothing to do with young girls themselves, but have everything to do with the behavior of college professors. And here I am talking about three kinds of behavior.
- The absence of harassing or discriminatory behavior - behaving like a decent human being.
- The awareness of how unconscious bias operates in situations where evaluation or decision-making takes place - behaving proactively to counteract it.
- The promotion of a positive climate for young girls and women in science - participation in outreach programs, lobbying for institutional transformation initiatives, being an advocate for women's issues in the profession at large.
If you are not doing ANY of these things, if you are just sitting back in your office, doing your research, teaching your one little intro class and congratulating yourself because you didn't drive all the women students away, then get out of my face and stop wasting your breath and internet electrons telling people they shouldn't complain about professors.
Some commenters opined that, even if Zuska had a reasonable point here, the way she expressed it may have done more to alienate Chad than to bring him around. Zuska responded to this with a post about how "keeping things civil" has turned out to be a pretty good strategy to keep things just the way they are.
So, what the hell am I doing here? Zuska and Chad are both grown-ups, perfectly capable of working through their own disagreements -- and although I have met neither in real life, I should state for the record that I am quite fond of them both (and, for that matter, of some of the commenters involved in the fracas).
But, I think their diverging viewpoints here illustrate some features of the world of academic science that the scientific community would do well to attend to sooner, rather than later. And, the war of words brought back an incident from my own experience that I had nearly forgotten, and I'm trying to work out why precisely that memory tumbled forth.