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Louts in the Lab

Duke U. looks for ways to stop the discrimination and harassment that women continue to face in physics; some male professors call it a smear campaign

(from the Chronicle of Higher Educations, January 23, 2004)

By Robin Wilson

Durham, N.C. - Julie Zeigler came to Duke University last year with plans to earn a doctorate in physics. She will leave at the end of the spring semester with a master's degree instead.

The 23-year-old graduate student says her male counterparts have shunned and ignored her because she is female. "I've isolated myself in a subbasement so I don't have to deal with them," says Ms. Zeigler, who holes up in a dank, tomblike office amid a cluster of empty cubicles. "It's a survival technique."

Men in the department have refused to take her seriously or to include her in problem-solving sessions, she says.

Her situation is just one example of a problem that female graduate students and faculty members alike say has persisted for years in Duke's physics department and is now threatening to tear it apart. They say male physicists have kissed and grabbed them, mistaken them for secretaries, pushed them out of the way in laboratories to keep them from moving large pieces of equipment, and met their questions and suggestions with hostility.

Harold U. Baranger, who became physics chairman in 2002, said in a memo to physics professors last year that he was "ashamed about the climate for women in our department." He has vowed to change it. But some men in the department accuse him of fostering a "hypersensitive" environment, one that is good for neither gender.

National Predicament

The problems at Duke present a snapshot of what female physicists say goes on at universities all over the country: demeaning comments, jokes, and incidents that, collectively, may be contributing to the scarcity of women in the discipline.

In 2002, only 10 percent of physics professors nationwide were female, according to the American Institute of Physics. That's up from 6 percent in 1994. Women represented just 13 percent of those earning Ph.D.'s in physics in 2001 -- a proportion that hadn't changed in a decade. Fewer women earned doctorates in physics than in chemistry, engineering, mathematics, or the life sciences.

Judy R. Franz, executive officer of the American Physical Society, says the atmosphere for women in physics has improved somewhat nationally since she started her first tenure-track job, in 1968, but that female physicists still encounter barriers.

"If you're a woman and you get a lot of discouragement and small insults, then you start thinking, 'I don't like research,'" she says. "Well, no one loves it every day. But the question is whether you feel part of the whole enterprise."

Ms. Franz says Duke may have more problems than most universities do. The society's Committee for the Status of Women in Physics visited the department last spring and cited a "polarization" and "general mistrust" among faculty members there.

Academics have been stumped by the question of why the number of women in fields like medicine and law has grown but the number in mathematics and the hard sciences has remained so low. Colleges, foundations, and corporations have created programs to encourage young women to pursue those fields, but such efforts have had little effect.

The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, is even looking into what steps colleges are taking to ensure that women aren't denied access to programs in science and engineering. A report on the inquiry, which was requested by Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Barbara Boxer of California, is due out this summer.

Physics remains one of the most male of the male-dominated hard sciences. "That makes for lots of situations where there are lots of men and no or just a couple of women," says Joshua E. Socolar, an associate professor of physics at Duke. "Whatever chauvinistic tendencies people might have are amplified."

The discipline has been a "men's club" for years, says Ms. Franz, adding that men who pursue physics are not necessarily the most adept at dealing with people. "In some cases, men who were very bright but were not comfortable with social skills gravitated to physics and math," she says.

B.C. Clark, who goes by Bunny, is one of the country's most-senior female physicists. Since 1969 she has worked at Ohio State University at Columbus, where she is now a distinguished university professor of physics. She has one tenured female colleague there, but the physics department on Ohio State's flagship campus hasn't hired any other women in 22 years.

She advises women in the field to "have a good sense of humor. ... If you sit around and say, 'They're so bad to me,' then you lose your mind. What you have to be focusing on is the work you're doing."

Even so, Ms. Clark does not minimize the problems at Duke. She was one of five female physicists who visited the campus last spring for the physical society. She calls the effects of discrimination and harassment on women there "heartbreaking" and a "tragedy."

Kisses and Touches

Roxanne P. Springer, an associate professor at Duke who is the most-senior woman in the physics department, has complained of sexual harassment and discrimination for years. Her charges, she says, have been largely ignored.

Duke administrators, who say they are concerned about the problems faced by all women on the campus, trumpeted a new "Women's Initiative" last fall, in which they pledged to make female professors and graduate students feel more welcome throughout the university. But the report never mentioned the long-running problems in physics.

When Ms. Springer started as a 28-year-old assistant professor here in 1992, she was the first female faculty member to work in Duke's physics department in 25 years. Ms. Springer's problems began about two years after she arrived, with the hiring of Sergei Matinyan, a 62-year-old theoretical physicist from Armenia. Mr. Matinyan was a visiting professor who was hired to collaborate with Berndt O. Mueller, who led Duke's nuclear-theory group and is now dean of natural sciences here.

Mr. Matinyan, says Ms. Springer, routinely kissed her on the forehead or cheek, put his arm around her, poked her in the side during meetings, and came up behind and bumped or grabbed her. She complained, she says, and Mr. Mueller told him to stop.

Ms. Springer works on quantum chromodynamics, the study of the particles and forces that bind together in subatomic particles. In December 1997, she left for a sabbatical at the University of Washington at Seattle's Institute for Nuclear Theory. While she was gone, Mr. Matinyan stopped by the office of Robin Yost, a female graduate student, and kissed her twice on the lips, says Ms. Yost, who told her faculty adviser but never filed a formal complaint. She left Duke with a master's degree.

Settlement Agreement

After Ms. Springer returned to Duke, in the fall of 1999, she was walking down a hallway when, she says, Mr. Matinyan grabbed her. She says she shouted at him to let go and hit him with a notepad. Then she filed a complaint with the university's Office of Institutional Equity.

In May 2000, unhappy with the pace of the office's investigation, she took her complaint to the Durham Human Relations Commission. Under a settlement agreement a year later, Duke agreed to conduct anonymous surveys about gender relations in physics and to establish an e-mail address where female students and professors in physics could send complaints.

The university created a three-person panel of professors outside the physics department to monitor its gender problems. The Bryant Committee, named for its chairman, Robert L. Bryant, a professor of mathematics, issued a confidential report to administrators calling the department's culture unfriendly to women. The committee -- which now has three new members -- continues to observe the situation.

"The root of the issue," says Linda B. McGown, a professor of chemistry who served on the committee, "is a deeply ingrained reluctance to accept women as equals in the scientific community, giving women the impression that they don't belong in physics."

Only a "vocal minority [of men] generated a hostile atmosphere," she says. "The vast majority just want to be left alone to do their work, and they see these issues and time and money being spent on them as wasteful and a diversion."

Despite the panel's findings, Duke's Office of Institutional Equity told Mr. Matinyan in August 2001 that Ms. Springer's complaints of harassment against him were unfounded. By that time she had earned tenure, but fighting Duke and Mr. Matinyan had worn her down, she says, and she suffered "a catastrophic drop" in her publication rate.

"I will be very surprised if I ever become full professor," says Ms. Springer, who is now 39. Still, ignoring the problem wasn't an option. "I decided I was going to do what I thought was right," she says.

Mr. Matinyan, who is now 73, says Ms. Springer's complaints are unfounded. He calls the incident in which she says he grabbed her in the hallway a "minor collision" that occurred as he was recovering from heart surgery and still had sutures in his chest. Ms. Springer, he says, is overly sensitive to touch.

As for Ms. Yost, the former graduate student, Mr. Matinyan acknowledges that he kissed her. He says that she had been friendly to him, and that he was upset that day because a doctor had just told him he needed heart surgery.

Duke declined to reappoint him in 2000, although he continued to collaborate with some scientists here and visited the physics department for seminars until he was banned from the building by the dean of arts and sciences in 2002, at the urging of Ms. Springer.

Mr. Matinyan, who has published 230 papers and a book, says the dean's action is unwarranted, given his exoneration by the Office of Institutional Equity. Since 2000 he and his wife have lived in Durham on $800 a month in Social Security payments, he says -- "a well-known physicist, living on food stamps."

Mr. Matinyan wants Duke to hire him back, or at least give him access to the physics department. He says a lawsuit is not out of the question if Duke doesn't comply.

Peter Lange, Duke's provost, says he can't comment on personnel situations. Mr. Mueller, the dean who brought Mr. Matinyan to Duke, will say only: "In physics, half the members are not born and raised in the United States. Behavior that in one country is legitimate and even normal and desirable turns out to be unwanted here."

'It Had To Stop'

Ms. Springer isn't the only woman in the department who has complained of harassment. Mary A. Creason, a lecturer hired in 1999, was in her office that year searching the Internet to buy a cello, which she had once played. A laboratory technician popped his head into her office, asked her what she was doing, and when she told him, he responded, "Are you trying to find something to put between your legs?" Ms. Creason complained to the chairman; the technician has since left the department.

The 14 female graduate students now at Duke tell similar stories, although those women are more reluctant to complain because they fear for their futures more than female professors do.

Ms. Zeigler, who has isolated herself in the subbasement office, says men in her group treated her as if she wasn't there.

Emily Longhi left for London last year, where her partner lives, even though she's not sure that she has all of the necessary data from Duke's Free Electron Laser Laboratory to write her dissertation.

"I dreaded going into the office," says Ms. Longhi, who arrived at Duke in 2000. Male professors, she says, made no time for her, or criticized her for being too aggressive when "I was being firm and sticking up for what I needed."

Gender Issues

Mr. Baranger's own mother is a physicist at the University of Pittsburgh, but he says gender issues were not on his radar screen until he became chairman of Duke's physics department in 2002.

"This is not what I expected to have become one of my priority items," he says. "But it was really the wrong way to treat people, and it had to stop." He didn't want the department's gender problems to plague its two new female professors, Anna L. Lin and Haiyan Gao, who were hired in 2001 and 2002, respectively.

He has taken several steps to bring students and professors together at special lunches and receptions, on the theory that if everyone gets to know one another, it will minimize harassment and discrimination. He also asked the department's Climate Committee, which acts as a sort of watchdog in matters of gender, to come up with proposals to deal with the department's problems.

Faculty members acknowledge that they are more comfortable in their laboratories than in dealing with gender wars.

"We're all very good at doing physics, and now we're facing a problem outside our expertise," says Glenn Edwards, a professor who serves on the Climate Committee. "This is one of the hardest problems I've been asked to help solve."

The seven-member committee has drafted a policy on behavior that the rest of the department has supported. But professors have balked at the panel's proposal to maintain a database in which specific incidents of harassment and discrimination could be reported. Professors don't like the idea that they could be written up without an investigation.

"Anything anybody thinks you say in a hallway could now be put in a database," says Lawrence E. Evans, an emeritus professor of physics. "People feel they are under target."

T.J. Phillips, an associate research professor, says he is a victim of the department's new vigilance. Last year Ms. Creason, the lecturer, accused him of staring at her breasts during a conversation in a hallway. Ms. Springer and a male professor who has since left Duke complained in the past that Mr. Phillips had "leered" at female students. After Ms. Creason told Mr. Baranger about the hallway incident, he barred Mr. Phillips from teaching for the fall 2003 semester.

Mr. Phillips denies that he deliberately stared at Ms. Creason's chest, saying it is well known that men don't always make eye contact during conversations. He chalks up the complaints against him to "personal rivalries and competition." But he has changed his behavior. "I'm very careful when I talk to some female colleagues," he says. "This has had a chilling effect on my relationships."

Mr. Lange, Duke's provost, calls the physics department's efforts to address gender problems "exemplary." The situation "is a deep cultural thing, and you're not going to change some people ever," he says. "But they may learn their behavior is no longer acceptable."

Some of the male physicists, however, accuse the chairman of going too far.

"The word 'harassment' is being tossed around here left and right," says Mr. Evans. "It's a kind of smear campaign that's going to divide the department."

Change for the Better?

Some women have succeeded in Duke's physics department despite the problems. Amanda Sabourov, a third-year graduate student, says she has had to toughen up and "become a bit of a bitch" to make it clear to male colleagues that she was capable and confident. But gender relations have improved since Mr. Baranger took over, she says, "The issue is out in the open, and people aren't afraid to talk about it."

As for Ms. Springer, she is picking up the pieces of her career. A licensed pilot and a marathon runner, she says she never expected to be sidelined by her gender. After years of being considered a troublemaker -- and being kept out of leadership positions, she says -- she has been asked by Mr. Baranger to serve as director of graduate studies in physics, starting this summer.

But last month, even as evidence mounted that the situation in the physics department was improving, Ms. Springer got a nasty surprise. Duke administrators, she learned, not only are considering paying Mr. Matinyan to work again, but have decided to let him back into the physics building.
Section: The Faculty
Volume 50, Issue 20, Page A7