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An Unhelpful Study about Women in Physics

An article promoted by the American Physical Society (APS, the world’s largest organization of physicists) has claimed a recent study shows that “Yes, Sexual Harassment Still Drives Women Out of Physics.” Unfortunately, the study does not ascertain the severity of the harassment, who engages in harassment, and whether harassment gets more or less severe as people advance in the field. Moreover, the conclusion that harassment drives women from physics contradicts publicly available data on the progression of women in physics careers. Harassment is a matter that we should take seriously, but we should act thoughtfully, and the study at hand does not provide enough evidence to justify alarm.

The authors gauged the incidence of harassment by asking approximately 460 students to indicate “Never,” “Once,” “Twice,” or “More than twice” for the following survey items (text verbatim from the article, numbers added for convenience):

While in a context associated with physics, someone…

  1. …made sexual remarks or told inappropriate jokes or stories
  2. …made comments of a sexual nature or tone about your body, appearance, or clothing, or discussed your sexual activity
  3. …made sexist remarks (e.g., suggesting people of your sex or gender are not as good at physics or math)
  4. …treated you differently, ignored you, or put you down because of your sex or gender
  5. …repeatedly asked you out; messaged or contacted you after you said “no” or asked the person to stop
  6. …touched you without your permission making you uncomfortable

The good news is that for all items the most common response was “Never.” Also, “Never” and “Once” together constituted at least 60 percent of responses for every item, and for all items except 3 and 4, “Never” constituted a majority of responses. In addition, for items 5 and 6 (which arguably involve the most direct attempted engagement with a person) “More than twice” was the least common response (6 percent and 3 percent, respectively), while 81 percent and 85 percent of respondents respectively answered “Never.”

The bad news, of course, is that many students have experienced inappropriate treatment, and some people need to improve their behavior. Alas, this study won’t help us meaningfully address the problem, as it provides no information on who is responsible for the reported misconduct. If unwelcome behavior comes primarily from freshman classmates who improve as they progress in their studies, we should correct them, but also breathe a sigh of relief that the physics community is one in which most people improve. On the other hand, if misconduct comes primarily from senior people then we need systematic overhaul of a community in which the rot starts at the top and trickles down. The reality is almost certainly between those extremes, but the findings from this study do not tell us where to focus efforts most productively.

Likewise, each item can encompass a range of behaviors by a range of people in a range of “physics settings.” For instance, the authors do not indicate if persistent attempts to ask someone out are mere annoyances or rise to the level of stalking behavior requiring law enforcement responses. We also don’t know if the persistent requests come from classmates in introductory courses, where many students aren’t even majoring in physics, i.e. a situation that may be less about physics in particular than about universities in general. Conversely, if professors are asking students out on dates then human resources should promptly sack them for behavior that is completely unacceptable from people with authority over students.

Regarding item 3, what constitutes “suggesting people of your sex or gender are not as good at physics or math”? If people have literally said “Women can’t do physics” then they should apologize and change. On the other hand, suppose that a peer mentions arguments from James Damore’s controversial memo on gender gaps in STEM. Damore repeatedly rejected blanket statements about women, emphasizing the wide ranges of interests and abilities in both sexes (see, for instance, the figures at the top of page 4 of the memo). Nonetheless, reporters at leading newspapers have characterized him as arguing “that maybe women were not equally represented in tech because they were biologically less capable of engineering.” Since even journalists with professional obligations to check printed statements against original sources mischaracterize Damore’s detailed, footnoted memo in this way, it is quite possible that a student would similarly misinterpret offhand summaries of such arguments. Still, it would not follow that the physics community is a hotbed of sexism; it would simply mean that physicists should reflect on how to better approach difficult conversations.

Regarding item 4, how do people know that treatment is unequal and due to gender? Yes, sexist treatment does happen, and it is never acceptable. However, too many people have said “they’d never do this to a man” about things that routinely happen to men. For instance, a woman professor has lamented to me that a man delivered a soliloquy about how terrible his professors were when he took classes on her subject (at a different university), and suggested that everyone in her field should follow his suggestions for improvement. She took this to be a classic example of “mansplaining.” Alas, non-physicists—of both sexes!—routinely tell me (a cisgender male) what was wrong with their high school or college physics classes. What she regards as mansplaining, I experience as a daily occupational hazard.

Conversely, it’s entirely possible that the survey respondents have experienced unambiguously unequal treatment. Unfortunately, we don’t know what that mistreatment is or who perpetrates it. Do we need to admonish male students to let female peers participate as equals in study groups? Do we need to train laboratory instructors to give equal attention to men and women as they troubleshoot equipment? Or do we need to fire department heads who only bestow plum research opportunities upon men? We lack sufficient information to take targeted, relevant, and effective steps.

The authors also claim that their rather imprecise measures of harassment correlate with reductions in women students’ confidence and sense of belonging in the field. However, only some of the harassment items show statistically significant associations with students’ confidence and sense of belonging, and which harassment items show significant associations depends on what sorts of controls are included in the model. In one case, the sign of the effect even runs contrary to the hypothesis that harassment decreases confidence: Students who reported unwanted sexual attention are significantly more likely to believe that their success was due to ability rather than luck (though this effect disappears when more controls are included). Moreover, reported effects are weak, with the most severe reported harassment only shifting students’ reported attitudes by less than half a point on a 0–4 scale. These are all signs of a result that needs replication before we build policies around it.

Finally, regarding the authors’ concern that harassment may drive women out of physics, there’s surprisingly little evidence of attrition of women from physics. A study by the American Institute of Physics (of which the American Physical Society is a member organization) found that:

In conclusion, there is no evidence of attrition for women in physics and astronomy between undergraduate degree completion, graduate degree completion, and obtaining faculty positions. Furthermore, women are more represented in associate and assistant professor positions in physics than expected. Women may decrease their participation in physics between high school and completing their undergraduate degrees, but more data is needed to understand this transition.

In short, the proportion of women among physics professors in the US slightly exceeds the proportion of women among students completing PhDs in physics, which in turn matches the proportion of women among students entering graduate school and also among students completing undergraduate degrees in physics. The only unknown factor (which is admittedly relevant for studies of harassment in undergraduate physics programs) is the fraction of women beginning undergraduate studies in physics. This number is difficult to obtain, as many American colleges and universities do not require undergraduate students to formally declare majors until sometime in their second year of college; many students try a variety of subjects during their first and second undergraduate years.

What we do know is that undergraduate physics majors typically take the same calculus-based introductory physics courses as engineering students, and in many educational studies (even at institutions famous for developing progressive pedagogical techniques) the proportion of women in such courses ranges from 20 percent to 35 percent. This is comparable to the proportion of American women completing bachelor’s degrees in physics, which has been slightly over 20 percent for the past decade.

In short, we lack sufficient data to draw conclusions about attrition from physics (whether due to harassment or other factors) during undergraduate studies. Fortunately, though, whatever harassment might be happening during undergraduate years is not causing substantial attrition at subsequent stages of the academic path, suggesting that efforts to reduce attrition should be focused rather than broad in scope. We should still seek more information, but cautious optimism seems warranted.

Of course, attrition statistics are ultimately irrelevant to the ethical issue at hand: Harassment of women is unacceptable because women are people entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of whether or not they are under-represented in their field or harassment causes attrition from the field. At the same time, the importance of respecting and protecting human dignity underscores the need for actions guided by reliable data. Threat inflation will not help us focus resources appropriately, and may even backfire by scaring women away. If evidence shows that harassment is perpetrated by people in many settings and career stages, then we should respond broadly, but if harassment is mostly concentrated in certain settings and ranks, then we should focus proactive measures appropriately while remaining responsive to people who experience it in any situation.


The author is a tenured professor of physics. Sebastian Cesario is a pseudonym.