Being (a girl) in physics

Girl’s entrance of “école de Vielle-Adour” (Hautes-Pyrénées, France) Photo by Florent Pécassou (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

“It must be difficult”, one the professors told me sympathetically, “to be a girl in physics”.

A couple of years ago, freshly hired as a young postdoctoral researcher in a foreign country, I was sitting at diner with my – mostly male – colleagues. I am uncomfortable with casual conversations in professional diners, the insincerity and superficiality of which I find paralyzing.

Unable to come up with the required concise, thoughtful yet humorous answer, I mumbled something too long. ”The fact never escaped me”, I said, ”that there are very few girls in physics, yet I have never felt that being one ever put me at a disadvantage”. The conversation switched to another subject. It always seems to do so, in these circumstances, as soon as it could start to be interesting. As far as I am concerned, I would have liked to explain, the difficulty is not “being a girl”. It is “being in physics”.

Once, when he was a kid, my dad broke his nose in an attempt to get a glimpse of his sisters in the girl’s schoolyard on the other side of the wall. For in France, before May 1968, boys and girls went to sex segregated schools. Today, the walls separating the boys’ and the girls’ schoolyards have disappeared but some schools buildings have kept their ‘Boys’ entrance’ and ‘Girls’ entrance’ signs, as reminders.

I did go to mixed-sex schools. Then at age 18, I started studying physics at one of these numerous French universities in which the sciences and humanities campuses are located as far as possible from each other. Literally one on each ends of the city. Getting a glimpse of a philosopher, a historian or a sociologist was not just a matter of having a schoolmate giving you a leg up. It was a one hour bus ride. I had just stepped into the world of, let us call it so, academic segregation.

Over the years I have come to realize, rather painfully so, how utterly unfortunate this form of segregation is. And it now strikes me very clearly that a decade of my life – my twenties – has been stolen from me. I have spent these years learning to stop asking myself questions. Copying thousand of pages from the blackboard, when I could simply have read them in textbooks. Learning by heart the answers to exercises, repeating them at exams, getting fairly good grades and compliments for doing so.

Thinking about what physics is was simply not a part of the curriculum. However outrageous this gap is in itself, it could perhaps have been at least partially filled had science students been given the occasion to mix with humanists. But the fact is that being trapped with my fellow scientists on our designated campus had let me believe that what I spent these years doing was all academic studies were about, and that my hopes for years of intellectual blooming at university were nothing but a far-fetched dream.

It took me years of interrogations and happy encounters to clarify my thoughts. It took a revivifying online course in philosophy of science to finally be able to put words on this: I have been deceived. Yes, I was right to be dreaming of intellectual blooming. As I sat in the evenings, after a day’s work in the lab, reading philosophy with my heart bouncing with excitement, I finally got it. This is it, I realized, this was what I was deprived of! This is what studies should have been! How I have been mislead! How outrageous!

I am not naive as to believe that geographic proximity with humanists will, by itself, release science students from the narrow intellectual world they are confined into. I am in fact convinced that this problem – academic segregation – has much deeper roots. Yet I cannot help thinking that sharing the same campus is a necessary condition to tear down the boundaries. Not sufficient, but necessary. For it will likely take a while before – if ever – academic physicists perform the self criticism that is necessary to transform the physics curriculum. But in the meantime, physics students should be able to step into their humanist neighbors lecture halls, if they get to the point of wanting to.