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Success, failure and women in physics

xkcd comic


By Margaret Harris

Giving out science careers advice is tricky. On the one hand, you want to be encouraging – not least because if you aren’t, there is a chance that your advisee will go on to win a Nobel prize, and you will then look extremely silly. But on the other hand, you also want to prepare the person, mentally, for the possibility of failure. Otherwise, when they do fall short, they may not know how to recover and try again.

The need for balance between encouraging big dreams and preparing for failure was one of the central insights to come out of Sunday’s panel on “Feminism, sexism and bringing up girls” at the Cheltenham Science Festival. After one of the panel members, psychologist Tanya Byron, noted that in clinical practice she sees many bright, successful girls whose fear of failure is “absolutely destroying them”, her fellow panellist Gabriel Weston put her finger on the heart of the problem. How, Weston asked, do we celebrate young women’s achievements and encourage their dreams without also pushing them to be “perfect little glass statues” who shatter under pressure?

At this point, I was hoping that the panel – which also included the feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and a journalist, Tanith Carey – would go on to talk about how this fear of failure shapes the experience of girls and women in science. But while Criado-Perez briefly mentioned studies showing that women do worse on mathematics tests when they are exposed to “women are bad at maths” stereotypes, the session ended before anyone could dig into this more deeply. And that’s a pity, because there are some interesting things that can be said about failure and physics.

In physics, failure and success are pretty clear-cut. On physics exams, especially, an answer is usually either right or wrong. Most people who choose to study physics are okay with this (indeed, some find the clarity appealing), but that is partly because they are usually “high fliers”, accustomed to getting top marks. The clear-cut nature of success in physics exams has, basically, reinforced their sense of themselves as successful people.

At some point, though, no matter how much of a high flier you are, you will fail. And as a professional physicist, you will fail pretty much all the time. Your experiments won’t work. Your ideas will go nowhere. Sooner or later, your theories will be disproved by observations. To be a successful physicist, then, you need to do failure well. The playwright Samuel Beckett put it nicely: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

These things aren’t just true for girls, of course. But if high-achieving girls are less able than boys to cope with unaccustomed failure – whether because they’re pushed to be “perfect glass statues”, or because when a woman fails in a male-dominated field, it’s regarded as evidence of a wider deficiency in womankind – then that could, in part, be why the percentage of women in physics remains dismally low, even at the early stages of the pipeline.

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  1. MJBridger

    “But if high-achieving girls are less able than boys to cope with unaccustomed failure – whether because they’re pushed to be “perfect glass statues”, or because when a woman fails in a male-dominated field, it’s regarded as evidence of a wider deficiency in womankind ”
    These interpretations look a bit subjective, putative and perpetuating of a gender bias.

    I note that recently in the few art school degree shows I’ve seen, the percentage of female students has been about 70 to 90%. Whereas some time ago it was (in my own experience) about 50/50, as one might expect. Things can shift, culturally.

    • I’d phrased this as an “if” for a reason – I don’t regard it as proven (or even likely) that girls don’t cope as well – but I agree, it looks very subjective when put like that. What I should have said, instead, is that culture may influence *how* boys and girls cope (or don’t) with failure, and those differences could have implications for science.

      There was actually a lot in the panel discussion about how cultural expectations are hurting boys, as well as girls. Girls are pressured to be “perfect glass statues”, but there’s also a lot of pressure on boys to “tough it out” and not show that they’ve been hurt or disappointed. In the panel discussion, Tanya Byron noted that 75% of suicides are men or boys. Is there a link? Possibly. It would be hard to prove, though.

      • MJBridger

        Yes probably, but not provable.
        In so many cultures, even today, it’s the male or the male career that is considered more important and hence more pressure to succeed or a greater shame in failing. And maybe the male who holds that anachronistic point of view is also doomed to ‘failure’ in his own terms…until he adapts to a cultural shift.

  2. Dileep Sathe

    The events of the year 2005 – the I.Y.P. – were focused on the popularization of physics in students in particular and society in general. Therefore I think we have to focus attention on the logical basis of physics rather than focusing the attention on physics. I am quoting following facts in support of the change indicated.
    1) John Warren’s investigation, Physics Education, 1971: He found that although students pass by getting adequate marks in the conventional entrance examinations of engineering, they fail miserably when their understanding of *circular motion* is tested using questionnaire. More over their non-Newtonian answers are quite similar to Kepler’s forgotten reasoning of planetary motion. Physics Educationists have to consider this finding seriously, though their answers are not according to Newton.
    2) Dean Zollman’s investigation, American J. of Physics, December 1974: One of his students said: *I didn’t learn anything because teacher always answered my questions.*
    3) Richard Gunstone’s investigation, Australia, Research in Science Education, 1984: One girl did not respond to his survey on circular motion but expressed her unhappiness on the survey.
    4) Frank Wilczek, leader of theoretical physics and a Nobel laureate, now age 64: But he had maximum difficulty in learning Newton’s laws of motion when he was in a school – about 45 years ago – Physics Today, October 2004.
    5) Josie, a British teenager, studied physics for one year – after the celebration of the IYP in 2005 – but left it and took up Biology as she did not find physics interesting at all. I tried to guess why she reacted so sharply on physics in July 2007.
    6) Exoplanets: Many astrophysicists feel that exoplanets are challenging existing planetary theories. Though I am questioning all theories, I do have a reservation about finding the equation of orbital velocity of a *retrograde* exoplanet – Physics Education, January 2012.
    In view of above points, I am more interested in the logical basis of physics, with particular interest in the Newtonian mechanics and hence I am of the opinion that we need a new Albert Einstein in the 21st century – Space Research Today # 192, April 2015.

  3. Ruby Raheem

    Thank you for this article that explains the attitude of physicist towards failure. I specialised in physics from advanced level onwards; I was curious about failed experiments – trying to figure out why it failed – rather than feel like a ‘failure’. It takes parents and teachers to create that sense of personal worth. That is where ‘quality of the home and educator’ begins to matters.

    • mortimer zilch

      Girls – if in fact they do have a problem with failure – should play more baseball where failing 7 times out of 10 can still get you in the Hall of Fame with a .300 batting average.

      • mortimer zilch

        in other words, Boys may be more comfortable with failure than Girls, and have a history of working on developing skills and attitudes to overcome failures, or at least, improve results and diminish failed outcomes…which are important character traits to possess at even the Entry Level of careers in Science.

  4. S. N. Tiwary

    article on Success, failure and women in physics is of intense interest and has great impact on readers. Such article should continue to publish.

  5. Trackback: » Physicists and failure

  6. Satyajay Mandal

    Really,this is because Physicists specialize in “bhoots”,”prets”,”dakinis” and “joginis” during their DSc studies and research on them to get a degree


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