Editorial — Improving the image of physics

By . Published on 26 March 2014 in:
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Ask any child to draw a picture of a scientist and you will receive, from that proud, smiling child, a picture of an elderly male with mad hair and a white lab coat. You, too, will smile, as you will be mildly amused by how even the youngest child absorbs our society’s stereotypes so readily. You may then become slightly annoyed by the stereotypical image, but may reassure yourself that this young person will soon learn how much more diverse scientists are in the real world.

But how to excuse Google the same mistake? A search will provide a collection of images which are at least as stereotyped as this young child’s. Simply removing those that are white and male leaves gaping holes in the collection, exposing clearly that our young artist was simply replicating what the real world has taught her.

Google results to physicist excluding old white men
Google Image search on “physicist” but removing all the old white men.
Adapted from Jamie Gallagher, TEDx at University of Glasgow (15 March 2014)

However perhaps Google and the girl are right? In the UK, of the 745 people with Professorial Status working in physics departments only 50 (7%) are female compared with an average across all SET subjects of 16.5%, while of the 3460 academic physics staff at lower levels (lecturer/senior lecturer/reader) 680 (19.6%) are female compared with 43.4% across all SET department. The figure of 19.6% may seem pitiful but, in fact, in electrical, electronic and computer engineering the 530 females constitute only 15% of lower level academic staff while in mechanical and aeronautical engineering female professors constitute only 5% of the total of 460.

Clearly there is a problem somewhere in the system. Is it that women are less intelligent or less able in these subjects? I’m sure you have shouted out in disbelief that I could even consider suggesting such a ridiculous idea. And you are right – it is completely ridiculous to suggest that men are more intelligent than women.

So what is going on? Perhaps the answer lies in some recent research from the USA where a CV was created and given to large numbers of academic staff. In half of the cases the CV carried a male name and in the other half it carried a female name. The “male” applicant was almost unanimously judged as more able and more hireable for a technical role while the “female” was judged to be nicer and, if hired, was always offered a lower salary, even though “her” CV was identical to the male’s . This judgement behaviour was seen in both male and female academic staff.

It’s not just a problem of assessing a CV. In auditions for a major orchestra, males were far more likely to be hired than females – until the auditions took place behind a curtain so that the gender of the individual was no longer apparent. The hiring rate is now equalised to 50% female.

This phenomenon is known as unconscious bias, where an individual’s judgements are influenced by their unconscious thinking or “gut reaction” which leads them to prefer applicants who are “as expected”. Our unconscious bias is based upon patterning or grouping and is learnt from a very early age. It comes from our ancient need to recognise danger, or friends and foes, instantly in order to remain safe.

In the modern world this patterning continues in our unconscious and we still judge everyone according to gender, age, ethnic grouping, sexuality, disability, height, accent, style of dress, tattoos, piercing and many more. We then allocate them to a group without even realising. A woman being judged for a technical role would not really “fit” into our unconscious grouping and so we are more likely to consider her as unsuitable, regardless of her qualifications and skills. If we are aware of the power of our unconscious bias to impair our judgement, we can then override it and ensure our judgement is entirely based upon our conscious, logical “slow” thinking, If we don’t do that we fall into the trap of rejecting a person simply because they don’t look right… and we perpetuate Google’s image bank for another generation.

And for those of you who are adamant that you would never fall for a form of unconscious bias, I invite you to take The Harvard Implicit Association test.

And you might like to attend the Forum for Physics and Society on “Improving the Image of Physics” in Belgrade from 2-3 October 2014.

Averil McDonald,
Chair of the EPS Forum Physics and Society Committee

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