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On the Road to Physics
Women Scientists Reflect on Their Experience

Chung-Pei Ma, a young associate professor of physics and astronomy, notes that all her mentors at MIT, Caltech, and Penn have been “very supportive of women,” but adds that there are so few women in her field it’s almost impossible to find a female role model. Physics professor Fay Ajzenberg-Selove did not know any woman scientists when she was young. “I’d heard of Marie Curie,” she comments, “so I knew there was at least one woman who’d made it.” Phoebe Leboy, a biochemist in the dental school, tells people that Greer Garson, the actress who played Madame Curie in the 1943 movie, was her role model.

Breaking Barriers
“When I started [in 1952],” says nuclear physicist Ajzenberg-Selove, “only one in 40 American physicists was a woman. That’s about two-and-a-half percent. Today, the number is around 22 percent.”

As a little girl in Europe, she didn’t 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 it’s 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. “I’m 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 university’s cyclotron. At Boston University, she accepted a position as an assistant professor. The contract came back with the dean’s 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, she’d heard it said that some physics faculty would admit women into the department’s 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 student’s 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
Unlike Ajzenberg-Selove, who studies some of nature’s smallest bits of matter, Chung-Pei Ma is an astrophysicist and looks at the biggest structures comprising the cosmos. “Part of what I do,” she asserts immodestly, “is calculate just how much the universe weighs.” Before devoting herself completely to physics, she was a prize-winning violinist and studied at the New England Conservatory of Music while doing graduate work at MIT.

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. “I’ve been very lucky,” she observes. “I haven’t 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. “It’s just so hard to quantify it,” she struggles. “It’s 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 can’t let it bother me. As time goes on, I assume I’ll 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
In 1999 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology captured media attention with their widely admired “Study on the Status of Women in Science at MIT.” The report found that junior women faculty felt well supported and confident that their careers would not be affected by gender bias. As they attained tenure and progressed in their careers, optimism gave way to dissatisfaction and an increasing sense of exclusion from important roles in their departments. Data revealed disparities between senior male and female faculty in areas that include salary, awards, space, resources, and responses to outside offers.

“That’s 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 she’d 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 committee’s 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 women’s bathroom after she stated a willingness to share the men’s 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.”

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