The Need for Femininity in Physics

Imagine finding these lines in a physics textbook:

“A woman is pushing a stroller with velocity V…
A woman is giving birth, having contractions at rate W…
A woman is scrubbing the kitchen floor with force F…”

This is a quote from the show “Truth Values: One Girl’s Romp Through MIT’s Male Math Maze.” “Truth Values” is a one-woman show that I saw last week at the Annenberg Center for Performing Arts at UPenn. Gioia de Cari, the show’s playwright and actress, is an “ex-mathematician,” and her performance describes the hostility of “higher math” culture towards traditional femininity and people who identify with it.

I am female and a physics major, and I have seen similar hostility to femininity in some physics environments. Watching “Truth Values” helped me realize that to make the field welcoming to women, it would be useful for physics to adopt some aspects of traditionally feminine culture. While our society is hopefully working toward transcending stereotypes of “masculine” and “feminine” roles and activities, we must acknowledge that these stereotypes still hold power, that physics textbooks are rife with stereotypical images of masculinity, and that physics labs are full of men. To bring more women into physics labs, we should put feminine and masculine language side-by-side in our textbook.

De Cari graduated from UC Berkeley summa cum laude twenty years ago, and immediately enrolled in a PhD program in mathematics at MIT. She found the math department highly unfriendly to most aspects of femininity. She received glares and even official complaints when she wore skirts and dresses to work. She was sexually harassed in the library and office. She was asked to perform menial, domestic tasks that were never assigned to male students: one professor asked her to bring cookies to every seminar. Her few female co-workers dressed like men, in flannel and loose jeans, in order to avoid this type of harassment.

But the male-centric culture of mathematics wasn’t only interpersonal. De Cari describes how the culture was written into the very textbooks of the courses she taught. This is true in my experience as well. In physics classes, I come across a lot of problems like this:

“A man drives a tractor with acceleration A.
A boy swings a baseball bat with force F.
A bullet moves with speed V.”

 Frustrated and stifled in an underground office that left no room for anything traditionally feminine, de Cari half-jokingly suggested alternate premises for word problems:

A woman pushes a stroller
A woman goes into labor
Or, better yet,
A woman scrubs the kitchen floor

 To print these in a textbook would certainly be troublesome; the word problems appear sexist, suggesting that women ought to be taking care of babies and doing housework. But is it not prejudiced for a textbook to suggest that only men should be driving trucks and using screwdrivers?  And is it not most sexist of all to implicitly suggest, by the language of word problems, that only men belong in physics?

 Trucks, hammers, guns, baseballs and, of course, rocket ships form the basis of mechanics problem sets. Dump trucks and baseball bats and rocket ships are the toys that fill the shelves of the Toys-R-Us “gifts for boys” aisles. Bob the Builder and Thomas the Tank Engine and birthday gifts and learning-to-read books inculcated most of us with the notion, as much as we might now try to fight it, that cars and trucks, trains and planes, hammers and nails are “boys’ toys.” We have been taught to associate these items with masculinity.

 So what does a girl think when she opens a physics book and sees these brawny images littering the pages? Well, sometimes she learns to love physics; twenty percent of physics majors are indeed female, according to the New York Times. But other times, she doesn’t. Frequently, my female friends say, “Physics just isn’t for me.” Or, “I like biology more, because I can relate to it.” Rocket ship imagery implicitly signals a male domain.  My friends are put off by the book full of rocket problems, because for their fifth birthdays, they were probably given plastic kitchen sets and doll strollers instead of tubes of flying fire.

So let’s incorporate spatulas and rolling pins and electric mixers and strollers into our problem sets, for goodness’ sake. We don’t need to write problems so edgy as those at the beginning of this article about women scrubbing floors; these suggest more that a woman should be doing housework than physics. But we need to incorporate the values and activities that many girls and women are taught from childhood.

A man rolls cookie dough with a force F.
A boy pushes his baby sister in the stroller with acceleration A.
A mother helps her daughter jump rope with frequency W.

I believe that problems framed this way are not sexist but rather a much-needed dose of traditional femininity in science. They can complement “rocket problems” so that physics textbooks reach both ends of the traditional masculine-feminine spectrum.

In addition to problematic word problems, I have seen many other androcentric pedagogical techniques in physics classes. Intent on teaching us projectile motion, one high school physics teacher asked each member of my class to throw a dart at a stuffed Einstein figurine and “aim for his crotch.” Here at Swarthmore, I have learned that “all great thermodynamicists have great beards.” I have constantly heard this masculine voice amplified, but I never hear its sorely needed counterpart: a voice that reflects my own gender identity.

The hostile environment wore down Gioia de Cari. After a few years, she dropped out of her PhD program with a master’s degree in math. Let’s make room for femininity in math and science so that women in our generation don’t have to do the same.

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