The physics professor’s appointment is representative of a larger problem in scientific disciplines
As of July 1, 2019, Dr. Catherine Lovekin will be Mount Allison University’s first female professor to be tenured in the physics department. This appointment is frustratingly late, since Mount Allison awarded the first bachelor of science degree to a woman in the British Empire in 1875, nearly 150 years ago. More importantly, since the turn of the 21st century the of female students in post-secondary education has exceeded the number of male students, but the ratio of female lecturers in science professions still remains below 50 per cent. Lovekin’s tenure promotion, though a great step forward, reflects this gender imbalance. This tenure appointment in the physics department is late, because as early as 1977, there was already scholarly work addressing the barriers in science that excluded the participation of women.
The bias toward white, male “objectivity” that Dorothy Smith discussed in her 1977 critique of sociology can also been seen in the field of physics, where women are largely excluded. Smith argued that the white, male bias led sociologists (and other academics) to relegate roles which do not require rational capacity to women, while roles requiring reason were deemed only appropriate for men (who happened to be white). It was this criteria that the researcher be disinterested and rational (rather than passionate) for the research to be objective that led to limited participation of women in sciences; they were seen as too emotional to be objective with their research. Drawing on Smith’s work, it is apparent that the same biases and arguments are used to exclude women from the field of physics. With this in mind, is it any surprise that these structures which were (and still are) at play also affected the male-to-female faculty ratios in academia?
Since the 1980s there have been countless studies in feminist philosophy, philosophy of science, sociology of science and other feminist fields that further brought to light the structures in science that deter and discriminate against women’s participation.
Mount Allison University takes pride in being the first school in the British Empire to grant a bachelor of science degree to a woman (Grace Annie Lockhart in 1875), the first bachelor of arts degree to a woman (Harriet Starr Steward in 1882) in Canada. Assuming that 20 years after Smith’s work was published would be sufficient for universities to recognize the need for diversity among the faculty, the first tenured female faculty in our physics department comes 10 years late. This long wait is not an indication of the Mt. A physics department holding sexist attitudes, but rather a reflection of the structural effects of the various barriers that inhibit women’s success in science.