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Physics survey highlights sexism among students

Department recognizes need for “female role models”

A number of Physics students at McGill have an “underlying belief that there is a difference in intellectual capacity between genders,” according to a report on gender equity authored by the McGill Society of Physics Students (MSPS). “Socio-cultural conditioning” and “innate differences in interest” between genders were also cited by respondents as potential causes for female underrepresentation in Physics.

Women only represent 21.9 per cent of the undergraduates in Physics at McGill and about 13 per cent of those enrolled in Honours Physics.

The report follows a 14-question survey conducted by MSPS in response to a Commentary article published in The Daily in October (“Fine Men, Sexist Pigs” October 11, 2012, page 7), which highlighted the negative experiences of a female Physics student at McGill.

“The MSPS made it its objective to investigate further to see if other females and/or students in the department were experiencing similar situations,” read a statement provided to The Daily by the MSPS executive.

The survey was conducted online over a three-day period, and a total of 124 of 346 undergraduate Physics students responded. Twenty-eight of the respondents were female.

The MSPS report also noted that “several students referenced the hypothesis of [former] Harvard University President, Lawrence Summers, that there is an innate difference in mathematical and computational ability between genders.”

Citing confidentiality concerns, the MSPS declined to share the results of the survey with The Daily.

According to associate professor Tracy Webb, who sits on the department’s newly-formed Women in Physics Committee, and who has seen both the survey results as well as the report, the outcome is of no surprise.

“These are issues that women in undergraduate Physics face everywhere,” she told The Daily. “These problems, like a lack of female role models, aren’t just at McGill.”

Webb is one of the six women in the Physics department – a number which she says is actually quite high compared to other universities – and according to her, the department is making a concerted effort to be female-friendly.

The department “recognizes a need for more female role models,” and “all things being held equal,” this is being implemented in its hiring practices, she told The Daily. “Offers are being made and accepted.”

The Women in Physics Committee has begun a mentoring program, hosts talks, and plans events aimed at building a better community for women in the department.

Despite the department’s efforts, the survey indicates to Webb that the culture among undergraduates – and certain undergraduates in particular – needs some updating.

“A few people are clearly making the atmosphere unpleasant,” she said. “There also seems to be an issue with the student lounge, which should absolutely be a safe space.”

According to the report, several female students responded in the survey that they had been the victims of “obnoxious” behaviour in common areas, particularly the Physics students’ lounge.

“In reference to derogatory language and gender specific comments in common areas, the MSPS believes it can be addressed by increasing the awareness of acceptable conduct followed by peer reinforcement,” the report says.

The report, which identified gender equality as being a “social issue,” rather than an “academic” one, concludes that “the MSPS believes there are no official actions required by the Physics Department or the [MSPS] in response to the article ‘Fine Men, Sexist Pigs’.”

A problematic methodology? 

SSMU Equity Commissioners Justin Koh and Shaina Agbayani take issue with the survey’s methodology.

According to Koh, it is problematic that many of the questions were “ideological,” and not instead aimed at investigating “personal experiences of discrimination.”

In equity surveys such as these, “you need to look at people’s particular experiences in order to get the bigger picture,” he told The Daily.

Questions from the survey included “Do you think males and females have a different capacity of intelligence?” and “Which gender do you feel is the cause of sexism?”

“The survey was not constructed to be informative, but rather to identify a general opinion [among undergraduate students] to decide if corrective action by the department and/or the MSPS was necessary,” MSPS executives told The Daily by email. “It is for this reason that not all of the questions were formulated with extreme diligence.”

The report presents “generalized conclusions” made by the MSPS about the survey, but not “rigorous statistical analysis” of those findings.

This is another problem for Koh and Agbayani. “There is no presentation of the overall statistical findings, just selective presentations of what the MSPS deems, from their perspective, the most notable or ‘shareable’ results,” they told The Daily in an email.

The report says that uniformly negative answers to the question “Has a sexual or gender directed comment led to a decrease in your self-confidence at school?” reveal that students’ academic self-confidence has not been impacted by “gender-related remarks.”