On the Road to Physics
As a little girl in Europe, she didnt have dolls but played instead with Erector sets and built model airplanes. She went on to become a pioneer for women in the competitive and fiercely male community of American scientists. Being a physicist is fun, she says, but its not an easy road, especially for a woman and especially at that time.
June Cleaver and Donna Reed were soon to become icons of womanhood for burgeoning American suburbia. It was a time when accepted opinion held that women did not possess the faculties or temperament to do science, or most other professional endeavors. Nor was there any proscription against giving voice to such conventional prejudices or to enacting policies in support of them.
To Ajzenberg-Selove, these were trifles. She had expected to be killed in her teens. With her family, she fled from Hitler, escaping just ahead of the Blitzkrieg. Relatives who remained behind perished in the Holocaust. Her father had distributed daggers to his children and showed them how to slit their wrists in case the Nazis captured them. Surviving that experience, she was undaunted by mere barriers of sexual discrimination. Im tougher than they are, she remarks of the obstacles and individuals that stood in the way of becoming a physicist.
Just out of graduate school, she received a summer appointment at the California Institute of Technology, aided by a researcher there whose work she admired. He forgot to tell the dean that I was a woman, she recalls, and so I integrated Caltech. Later, one of her research projects had to be carried out at night to slip by the department chair at Princeton, who would not allow women into the building that housed the universitys cyclotron. At Boston University, she accepted a position as an assistant professor. The contract came back with the deans signature and a 15 percent cut in the agreed-upon salary. Women require less money than men, the dean asserted, and presumably would settle for less too. He amended that point of view when Ajzenberg-Selove suggested where the revised document might be filed.
As a visiting fellow at MIT, shed heard it said that some physics faculty would admit women into the departments ranks only over their dead bodies. I thought it was a fine idea, she concurs. She would eventually file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission before obtaining a tenured position at Penn in 1973.
Not long after, a young woman about to receive her Ph.D. came into her office weeping. The graduate students advisor would not help her obtain a position until after she finished having children. Ajzenberg-Selove thought at first the professor was simply trying to get out of helping a mediocre student find a job. When she asked the advisor about it at a cocktail party, he told her the student was one of the best he ever had. At that instant, she declares, I became a feminist.
A Subtler Sexism
Ma concedes that things for women have improved considerably since her colleague started down the road to physics almost 40 years before she herself embarked. Ive been very lucky, she observes. I havent suffered any incidents as blatant as what Fay went through. . . . The scary part for me is that today most [gender] discrimination comes in a much subtler form.
As a scientist, she is trained to accept only what can be established objectively. Its just so hard to quantify it, she struggles. Its hard to convince yourself, and especially other people. The self-doubt, though, is continually vexed by a thousand little slights and condescensions. This is something you just feel right away, and it can accumulate to hold back a career. She likens her profession to Olympic competition among type triple-A personalities vying for a split-second advantage that will push them over the top. A fraction of a second matters, she says, it matters tremendously. Any advantage gives you an edge, and every disadvantage takes it away. It is because this almost constant form of discrimination is so hard to identify, she surmises, that most women suffer.
But Ma is not pining to be taken more seriously. I just cant let it bother me. As time goes on, I assume Ill do better and better work, and some of these people will turn around. She attributes her inordinate self-confidence to her mother, who is also a professor and has been a newspaper reporter and publisher as well as a senator in Taiwan. With an Outstanding Young Researcher Award, a Cottrell Scholars Award, and a Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching, among other prizes, Ma is already turning heads. A fast-rising star, she was granted tenure in the spring at the unlikely age of 34.
Not Enough Change
Thats very disconcerting, Ma laughs darkly. I thought that as I moved up, life would get easier and easier. The MIT report found just the opposite: The worst is yet to come.
At Penn, the Faculty Senate, together with the administration, have commissioned a similar study that will examine the status of women faculty across the whole University. The Gender Equity Committee is currently collecting and analyzing data for a report to be released in the fall. Phoebe Leboy, committee co-chair, is one of the prime movers behind the study. It became apparent, she says referring to information shed gathered and presented before the committee was commissioned, that at least in terms of the number of women [faculty], Penn is not much better off than MIT.
Leboy points out that the number of women on the faculty has increased six fold over the last 30 years, but that the natural sciences, which include physics, lag behind other disciplines. The committees work will help the University identify and respond to patterns of gender bias affecting current generations of women as well as girls dreaming of being the Madame Curies of the future.
I tell them how you have to be very tough, says Ajzenberg-Selove, who is a member of the Gender Equity Committee. When she was hired at Haverford College in the 60s, the physics department finally agreed to install a womens bathroom after she stated a willingness to share the mens facility.
Many things have changed for women since she entered upon the road to physics half a century ago. As to whether they have changed enough, she insists, I think not.