Encouraging Women in Physics is Based on Rudimentary Sense of Fairness

By Gary White

Ed. Note: The following Viewpoint is a rebuttal of a letter in the April APS News. For those who missed the letter when it first appeared, it is available on the web

I read Andrew Warden’s letter and laughed out loud, but then felt a little guilty about it. I like off-color humor as much as the next guy, and appropriately, it was April Fool’s Day, but still, it seemed ungallant not to refute his ridicule of the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics (CSWP).

Warden’s letter seemed carefully crafted not only to entertain, but also to disguise the hopelessly weak logic underpinning the stated case, so I felt compelled to write.

With tongue-sort-of-in-cheek, Warden advocated establishing a committee parallel to CSWP, a ‘CSRP,’ devoted to luring Republicans into physics, seeing as how they are so woefully underrepresented in the physics community. Lurking among some amusing physics/political humor about conservative forces and parity violation, and some entertaining stereotypes of Democrats and Republicans, is the subversive crux of his message. In explaining why APS should initiate a Republican recruitment committee, he trots out his main argument–physics best not deprive itself of half the pool of potential colleagues just because of their political leanings if it wants to survive–the expand-the-pool-or-die argument. The fallacious next step that the silver-tongued Warden would lure you to make is clear–if you don’t buy this argument for Republicans, then you shouldn’t buy it for woman and minorities.

Just because the expand-the-pool-or-die argument is occasionally used to make the case for the existence of CSWP, it does not mean that, in physics, the distinction between Republicans and Democrats is parallel to the distinction between female and male. The expand-the-pool-or-die argument has its place, especially when talking to those who are not swayed by issues of fairness. It is certainly not the only argument for CSWP, though, nor is it the most compelling in my mind.

I would say that the chief argument for the existence of CSWP and for the analogous Committee on Minorities, COM, is based on a rudimentary sense of fairness, and it goes like this:

There have been hundreds of years of worldwide discrimination–legalized, establishment-approved, and even physicist-sanctioned discrimination–against females and ethnic/racial minorities entering most any scholarly endeavor…arguably more than a thousand years of affirmative action for white males, to loosely quote Debra Rolison’s remarks from her recent invited talk at the April APS meeting. This situation has begun to change only recently, say in the past few decades, and only in some parts of the world. And unlike being Republican or Democrat, one does not generally get to choose one’s gender or race or ethnicity, nor can one hide any of these traits very easily.

"But wait," some argue, "by establishing CSWP, one is committing the same kind of violation, discriminating against men instead of women. Isn’t this an example of the pendulum swinging too far in the opposite direction?"


The pendulum has perhaps slowed down, but it has not even changed direction, much less come anywhere close to returning to equilibrium. In today’s society, conclusive evidence of continued bias against women and racial/ethnic minorities is easy to obtain. As an illustration, unintentional and unrecognized bias is prevalent, even among groups of women and racial/ethnic minorities themselves and even among groups that consider themselves immune to bias (see the work by Greenwald, et al, on the Implicit Association Test, for example). As another example, see the 1999 commentary by Nancy Hopkins on the admission by MIT administration of gender bias in the MIT School of Science–http://chronicle.com/colloquy/99/genderbias/background.htm, as well as the subsequent posts.

In conclusion, gender/racial inequities in physics are not remotely analogous to those that might be related to political beliefs; in fact, in this context, the Republican/Democrat divide, should it actually exist, is more like the great boxers/briefs schism of 1994.

Gary White is Director, Society of Physics Students, Sigma Pi Sigma Director, and Assistant Director of Education at the American Institute of Physics

Andrew Warden replies: Gary White states that "…unlike being Republican or Democrat, one does not generally get to choose one’s gender…", and therefore it is wrong to discriminate against women. This implies, however, that it is all right to discriminate against Republicans, because they could have chosen to be Democrats. I’m afraid that, in the case of politics if not of gender, Dr. White has allowed his biases to overwhelm his rudimentary sense of fairness

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff

July 2005 (Volume 14, Number 7)

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Articles in this Issue
New APS Open-Access Online Journal Features Physics Education Research
APS Report Tackles Proliferation Resistance and Nuclear Power
PhysicsQuest Winners Collect Grand Prize at Institute in Princeton
High School Students Measure New Value for Earth’s Radius to Celebrate World Physics Year
On the Firing Line
Job Satisfaction High Among Recent Physics PhD’s
2005 US Physics Olympiad Team Honored
Atom Chips, Attosecond Lasers Featured
Northwest Section Holds Spring Meeting
APS Joins Other Organizations in Calling for Visa Reforms
Inside the Beltway: Washington Analysis and Opinion
The Back Page
Members in the Media
This Month in Physics History
Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science
Ask the Ethicist