Girls Cant Do Physics

Opinion: One father wonders whether universities are to blame for the lack of women in science and technology fields.

This story actually starts on a day when my older daughter and I walked across the sun-filled Lawn at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. There was a sense that the presence of learning walked with us as we enjoyed the glory of Thomas Jeffersons storied campus. After our walk, we visited the physics department so that my daughter, intent on becoming a physicist, could have a look around. An instructor there looked at me, then at my daughter, then dismissed us with, "Girls cant do physics."

That was 10 years ago, and, supposedly, a lot has changed. Indeed, the first day of the Emerging Technologies Conference at MIT on Sept. 24 was devoted to a workshop exploring the problem of getting more women into science and technology. The proportion of women entering the sciences is growing, we were told. The number of women in management positions at technology companies is rising, the speakers at the conference said.

And, to some extent, this is true. Dr. Sophie Vandebroek, chief technology officer of Xerox and president of the Xerox Innovation Group, said that 40 percent of the engineers her company hires are women. And, as she pointed out, thats twice the percentage of female engineers in the general population.

But, if you look at the population of scientists and engineers in companies today, especially at a senior level, most are men.


Read more here about MITs Emerging Technology Conference.

At the EmTech conference (as its affectionately known at MIT) in Cambridge, Mass., I saw far more men than women in the audience, and the speakers talked about the problems they had in finding enough qualified women to work for them. But isnt it possible that the reason there arent enough women in science and technology doesnt lie with the companies? Is it possible that its the fault of the universities where women get their training in the first place?

This past spring, I found myself escorting my younger daughter on a college search similar to her sisters. A decade had passed, so I was hopeful. Once again, we enjoyed a rare spring-like day in early April as we visited Charlottesville. We walked across Mr. Jeffersons Lawn and passed the little rooms where the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and Katie Couric once lived. Once again, we asked about physics for my daughter. "We dont have a lot of girls interested in physics," we were told.

We were more encouraged by other schools. MIT has a student body thats nearly half women, for example, but the proportion of young women entering science and technology fields is much smaller elsewhere. At CalTech its about 20 percent. Other schools we visited enrolled women in technical pursuits at levels somewhere in between.

When he opened the EmTech conference, Dr. Robert Birgeneau, chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, said he was the person at MIT who helped open the way for women. But when I asked him what schools could do to make women feel as if they were welcome in science and technology, he didnt say. And thats the problem.


To view an eWEEK slideshow about the 10 most powerful women in IT, click here.

If universities wont at least pretend to be interested in welcoming women into their science and technology departments, how can they expect those young women to be interested? If girls keep getting told that they cant do physics, or engineering, or computer science, or whatever, where will the supply of those new minds be found?

The September workshop on women in technology was an event worth doing. But theres a lot more that needs to be done. After all, theres only one MIT, and despite the schools noble effort, everywhere else seems to be behind.

I was lucky that my older daughter is so determined that she still managed to get her degree—in physics—even though she was the only woman at her school in the field. My younger daughter is the only woman in her first engineering class. How can this still be happening?

I realize that some of you will see this as just one fathers frustration over the lack of opportunity for his kids. But in reality, its everyones problem. Were missing half of our population in fields where we are desperately short. This can only hurt all of us.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...