Commentary | Fine men, sexist pigs

Calling out misogyny in Physics

You’re just being a catty girl,” Ben* tells me. He retreats to his room with the graphs and calculations that we’d been arguing about, and I’m left on our sofa, thinking that I can’t possibly win this one.

Ben and I are both in Physics – but to say that we are in it together would be a bit of a stretch.

Just over 20 per cent of the undergraduate physics department is female – roughly on par with other universities. In the McGill Physics Lounge, next to posters of galaxies, a foosball table, and a recently installed coffee station, you can hear comments that might make you wonder why the 20 per cent of us even bother to show up.

For example, a boy convincing another boy to attend a party argues, “Dude, just come, there will be so many sick bitches everywhere, out on a shelf like in Walmart.”

Last year, a member of McGill Society of Physics Students (MSPS) explained to me that it would be fun to rearrange their acronym to “PUSS,” as in ‘pussy.’

This degrading talk makes for a “chilly climate” – a term coined by feminist scholar Bernice R. Sandler. She explains in a report titled “The Chilly Classroom Climate” that these everyday remarks “ultimately undermine girls’ and women’s self confidence in their academic ability, lower their academic and occupational aspirations, inhibit their learning, and generally lower their self-esteem.” And the people perpetuating the chilly climate are not, necessarily, committed to the idea that women do not belong in physics – I am reminded, via email, that the pussy comment was meant “jokingly.”  This everyday sexism is more than, as one male peer suggested, a shut-and-closed case of ‘boorish-dorks-being-unclassy.’

A recent Yale study found that female applicants (for a fictional lab position) were consistently ranked lower in terms of competence and “hireability”; they were offered a lower starting salary, and scientists expressed less interest in mentoring the fictional female applicant.

I’ve supported and defended this sexist climate, somewhat explicitly, to an extent: I lived with guys – Ben and two others – because guys were just easier to get along with than “catty” girls. Evenings out ended with them verbally dissecting the lumps of human flesh visible through that one girl-at-the-party’s American Apparel dress. I told them I’d rather they didn’t filter out the sexist comments.  In order to fit in, I tried to make myself okay with their standards.

There is a name for the type of woman I was being: a loophole woman. She sees her presence in a male-dominated space as an exception. She knows that women aren’t inclined toward numbers-based subjects, but she is, and she’s proud of it.

It’s an understandable defense mechanism – survive, fit in, make yourself more masculine. But this method of declaring myself separate from other women – able to dish and take sexist remarks – wasn’t, in the end, just damaging to me; it’s also not really the best way to go about changing things.

The gender gap is, however, steadily shrinking as other efforts to do away with sexist notions and the chilly climate are being made. A report by the National Academy of Science concluded that this narrowing divide indicates the difference in turnout between men and women in hard sciences is better explained by cultural, rather than biological, differences.

Efforts are also being made in the Rutherford Physics building: as of January, there are now five (five out of forty professors) female physics professors on staff. Assistant Professor Tracy Webb tells me that they meet on a regular basis, and are looking to start a mentoring program for female undergrads.

But if we want to encourage women to stay in Physics, we have to examine the day-to-day ways that we enforce the notion that women are less than men.

In the months that followed Ben’s comment that I was “just being a catty girl,” my relationship with him disintegrated into passive aggression (him), and slammed doors (me). I am not up for staying somewhere where I feel so fundamentally unwelcome. I posted an ad on Craigslist for a lease transfer, and I moved out.

*name has been changed

Shannon Palus is a U3 Physics student and a member of the Daily Publications Society Board of Directors. She likes quantum mechanics, and having feelings and would definitely love to hear from you. She can be reached at shannon.palus@gmail.com.


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