I posted the following on social media recently:
“I am reading a book on Emmy Noether, a great mathematician of the 20th century. I am struck by the gender references, and wonder how these make others feel.
Albert Einstein: ‘In the judgement of the most competent living mathematicians, Fraulein Noether was the most significant mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.’
Norbert Weiner: ‘Miss Noether is...the greatest woman mathematician who has ever lived. Leaving all questions of sex aside, she is one of the ten or twelve leading mathematicians of the present generation in the entire world…’
Does the explicit reference to gender subtly undermine the accomplishments of the person they are applauding? Like saying ‘You're the best in your group, but our group is, of course, better.’”
People on social media had varying views on this. Many people feel like we have made great progress since those days, and we must be compassionate with ourselves. I think I understand their perspective and I do have some compassion, but I don’t fully agree.
The reason I posted this is not to judge the past, but to notice how much of that past is still present in my own mindset. I went to school in physics in the 90s, and got my masters in physics just two years ago, and in neither case were there a lot of women in my classes. I attributed this partly to the following: the fields of math and science were structured even in elementary school to align with a certain type of thinking, one that I think was of a greater appeal to our masculine side. Boys and girls were maybe shepherded into certain silos of thinking, where girls were expected to think in feminine ways whereas boys were encouraged to think in masculine ways. How much has that changed? I am not sure.
The examples used in physics classes of rockets, cannons and competitive sports and the style of disconnected, objective reasoning appeals to our masculine side, whether we are female or male. By the time college comes around, many people have already made up their mind as to what subjects they love based on the style of thinking that is most comfortable for them. (And I beg your forgiveness if even here my own gender biases are embedded in this description.)
From this upbringing, I also notice in me a built in bias about what types of people are good at physics and math. But it isn't really the physics and math that are inherently masculine but the way physics and math are conceived in our society that is biased toward the masculine. Physics was developed mostly by men because of the social structure at the time. Throughout the early years of science, men were the only people allowed to study abstract math and science and get paid and earn respect in society for their work. So physics is shaped around the masculine psyche. Physics could be a very femininely-driven field, about connection and embodiment, but in our culture it is largely about disembodied ideas and objectivity.
Those same seeds live inside of me, the same biases our ancestors had, to some extent. I am trying to weed the garden.