This week the Women in Physics Canada conference has been jointly running at the Perimeter Institute and the Institute for Quantum Computing. It has been great to see so many young and enthusiastic physicists around. Only about 20% of physicists are female. Excluding the voices of so many potential physicists has impoverished our field. Left out are the many unique and varied perspectives and novel approaches to solving nature's riddles. (This problem of exclusion also extends beyond gender to the issue of wealth; Africa produces few physicists relative to its population. See this excellent Ted Talk by Neil Turok on attempts to build up a world class African physics community.)
Physics is a man's world, and for a woman to succeed she must play by a man's rules. The situation is similar in many ways to the glass ceiling women have been breaking through in corporate environments. A successful business woman I know once told me that in order to make it, she had to be a better man than her male colleagues. I think a culture shift needs to take place where women can be respected for thinking and acting like women instead of needing to conform (consciously or unconsciously) their behaviour and attitudes to be more male centric. I believe this is directly related to the lack of women role models in physics for both men and women. From my middle school days through to my PhD, the bulk of my science teachers were male. This creates an environment where the opinion and perspectives of men are more highly valued and respected than those of women. The more women that engage and participate in physics, the more these ingrained attitudes will change.
These male centric attitudes arise in different ways—some subtle and some blatant. The manner in which physicists sometimes debate and discuss problems can be brutal and cutting, a testosterone driven combativeness better suited to prize fighting. The long hours and the endless publish or perish treadmill are not conducive to having a family either. A female physicists friend told me that starting a family was nearly career suicide. Taking care of a baby, the lack of sleep, and the dramatic hormonal changes during her maternity leave made it difficult to keep up with the harsh research and publishing demands needed to secure a professorship. The bulk of established male physicists I know have families. Why should it be any different for for a woman?
While a typical physics lab is far from a stereotypical locker room, physicist could do a better job of being aware of how their actions can make others feel. Jennifer Ouellette has an excellent post on Cocktail Physics that outlines some of the challenges women face in the skeptics community. (Before reading any further, I strongly recommend you check out her original article.) Jennifer talks about the harassment and patronizing attitudes herself and others have encountered. What really shocks me is the outrageous and derogatory debate that erupted when people called out this kind of brutish behaviour in the skeptics community. I haven't seen anything nearly this acrimonious happen in physics, but I think many of the things Jennifer points out apply equally to the physics community.
Jennifer proposes a four point Manifesto for Change that I think we would do well to follow in order to shift attitudes. I have paraphrased (and adapted for a physics context) her original points below:
- Despite the obstacles and challenges, it is important that women keep participating in physics.
- Just because you may not have experienced bias, don't diminish the experience and emotions of others who have.
- Those in positions of power and authority need to start changing and shaping institutional culture.
- Follow the golden rule (treat others as you would want to be treated). Think about how your words and actions will affect others.
The more women that become physicists, the richer physics will become.
 This is true in other disciplines such as engineering, math, computer science, and IT. Feel free to replace the word "physics" or "physicists" with equivalent terms from these other fields. The issues women face are the same.