(ScientificAmerican) The discovery of quantum mechanics in the early 20th century spawned a revolution that tore through scientific disciplines with abandon.
Now, scientists and engineers are excited about a “second quantum revolution.” An outgrowth of our quest to understand and control quantum behavior has given rise to remarkable developments—the idea of a “quantum computer,” and a “quantum internet.”
Chandralekha Singh, the author of this article contends that the US is losing ground in the race to develop these technologies, in part because of a highly limited pool of trained scientists and engineers. Why? There are many reasons, including restrictions of international STEM talent, but a glaring omission is what she calls the “factor of two” problem. Physics, computer science and engineering have only about 20 percent of degree recipients identifying as women for the last decade. We are largely missing out on the talents of half of the population.
Many theories have been put forward for the low representation of women in these disciplines in the U.S. But a major reason is the chilly climate and culture. Singh is a woman physicist. She knows firsthand what it is like to be part of the “physics culture.”
The entire field of physics has always been permeated by the mythology of brilliant men making incredible discoveries. And it is true—men did make the vast majority of them. But who encouraged women to pursue physics in a serious way? The culture of physics is steeped in stereotypes about who belongs and who can excel.
Physicists, when told about the need to improve the climate and culture in their discipline, often deny that there is a problem to begin with.
Singh knows firsthand of the challenges women experience in physics, on a daily basis. She knows women are talked over by the male peers. Women’s ideas are dismissed, unless the same ideas are articulated by a male peer. She recounts the stories of countless women physicists describe the cold blank look of their male colleagues when they run into them in the corridors and coffee rooms, which reinforces the feeling that they do not belong in physics. These experiences are fully corroborated by large-scale surveys conducted by the American Institute of Physics.
What can we do to fix the culture of physics? First, we need to recognize that being complacent about the status quo actively perpetuates the current culture that turns women away from science and engineering disciplines.
Culture change will unfortunately be a gradual process, which is inconvenient for a quantum revolution. But it is never too late to embark upon this important task of improving the climate and culture of physics and related disciplines that have prevented many women and other underrepresented groups from contributing.