I had an argument with my friend Dave a few weeks ago that made me so angry I could hardly see straight. He was talking cynically about how impossible it is to change the general social impression of scientists as geeky, socially hopeless, introverted males, because once you get to the top of the academic ladder in science, especially in physics and physical chemistry, it is nearly all men. Despite all the progress being made, despite all the female postgrads and postdocs, it is still a man's world.
I tried to respond to him, and it went something like this, although I fear it wasn't nearly as coherent as I wanted it to be at the time, what with being choked up by rage.
I think it's exactly that sort of attitude that causes women to leave the academic ladder. I mean once you've heard the same insinuations – because few would dare claim that outright these days, they tend to be more subtle about it – about how women just aren't quite as good at spatial intuition/hardcore maths/programming countless times, from kindergarten through to college and beyond, you can get crushed by it. Maybe the antidote to these repeated onslaughts, those thousand tiny pinpricks, is for some people to make concerted efforts to counteract them. Maybe one of those efforts is the clear commitment that a few professors of both genders have to recruiting female colleagues at all levels of the academic hierarchy. And, incidentally, not judging them as lost causes or failures if they choose to step off and try another path to intellectual fulfillment. Maybe another is the women (and men) who spare the time to go into schools and tell children to give science a try. It's unlikely that one in twenty of them will end up in physics, but I would be thrilled if my example and my enthusiasm left them with a positive impression of science and an expanded view of the kind of people who choose to do it for a living. A large percentage of students, when they go in for their university interviews, cite a single event like an outreach day as the inspiration to do a science degree. Instead of bitching about the inefficacy of doing outreach work, I'd like to see others go and do some themselves, especially those who are charismatic and engaging (when they're not moaning cynically).
The rage dissipated in about five minutes and we hugged and made up before we left the pub. However, it rankles. There is a certain amount of altruistic spirit that goes into my outreach work, but I would be lying to myself if I didn't admit that a percentage of it comes from the years of pent-up frustration with the fatalistic attitudes about science and academic society that so many who choose it as a career path seem to have. I struggle to find ways to fight them, though I'm not big or important enough to do so on a grand scale. I have moments of hope. Today, I feel like I'm losing.