The Lecture Sabine
Hi, my name is Sabine*. I am a lecturer at the 1st Physics Institute at the University of Göttingen and I will conduct this semester’s introductory lecture on experimental physics. First things first: of course we still present experiments in our lectures! You can ask my students which experiments leave the strongest impression. I would also be pleased to show you the tools in my lecture kit…a look “behind the shadows”, so to speak. Needless to say, a lot has changed since Pohl’s time, most recently due to the corona pandemic. We lecturers had to become somewhat creative, but actually, that’s nothing particularly new for us. The simple fact that I, as a woman, even present lectures was basically unthinkable in Pohl’s era—and today, it’s nothing unusual. There is, of course, still room for improvement in regard to gender equality in physics.
*Sabine’s character is based on the University of Göttingen postdoctoral fellow Sabine Steil, who worked as a lecturer for students taking experimental physics as a minor subject during the time “Projections: The Teaching Collection of Robert Wichard Pohl” was produced.
The Show Must Go On
Once ridiculed and even frowned-upon, Pohl’s lectures transformed experimental demonstrations from pure spectacle to an accepted teaching method. Even today, live experiments are an important part of the physics curriculum, despite regular use of overhead projectors and computer simulations. Perhaps the overall quantity of such demonstrations has decreased, but to compensate, the underlying theory is presented in more detail. Despite these changes, the introductory lecture still delivers moments of theatrical wonder. Three students reflect on their experiences and special memories from the lecture hall.
Women in physics
Unfortunately, like many academics of his time, Pohl held little regard for the role of women in science. He himself had no female doctoral students and almost never worked directly with women as equals. Even today, patriarchal structures can perpetuate and reinforce many long-standing prejudices. Two women from the physics institutes at the University of Göttingen reflect on their experiences navigating around gender stereotypes.
Would you please describe the obstacles or stereotypes you faced—now or in the past—in pursuit of your scientific interests and work?
Dr. Sarah Hoffmann-Urlaub: …as a child of working-class parents probably affected me more than being a woman. Aside from that, I always felt that I had an equal opportunity to progress in my field.
Dr. Sabine Steil: …experiences on this topic. I began my studies at a small university in 2003 and, to be honest, I never felt any discrimination there. In general, I was more affected by common stereotypes and obstacles at school or in my personal relationships. In my family, the typical comments would be heard when my test results were less than satisfactory: “Well, boys are simply better at this type of study…” Ironically, I once comforted myself with this very stereotype when I did not achieve a perfect score on a topic in which I excelled. Another time, my childhood pediatrician (a woman!), suggested that my mother withdraw me from university because physics would be “too difficult” for me. I found this situation very unsettling, particularly since my age at the time (2004) made me legally an adult. The underlying stereotype in both these instances seemed to be that women are less capable of logical and analytical thinking than their male counterparts.
Do you think that women (and minority groups) are adequately supported in the sciences?
Dr. Sabine Steil: …Conference for Women in Physics was held in 1997, and the very next year saw the formation of the Working Group for Equal Opportunity. Since the scientific community is global in nature, many similar international movements appeared near-simultaneously. It is now possible to see the positive consequences of these early efforts by analysing the number of women enrolled in scientific studies over time at the university level. Around the year 2000, the proportion of women was just less than 10%, reaching around 20% by 2010, where it has remained relatively stable. However, 2018 saw a further increase in female students, possibly driven by new courses in environmental physics and biophysics. Although relatively small in total enrollment numbers, around 40% of the students in these courses are female. Certainly much has changed over the decades, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.
The ever-present need to foster gender equality is not just a challenge in the scientific disciplines. The hard work of shifting gender stereotypes away from “girls aren’t good at X” and “boys aren’t good at Y”—in science and beyond—is a task for society as a whole.
Dr. Sarah Hoffmann-Urlaub: …spent parenting is rightly included in a CV, women with children must still hope that the unavoidable gaps in their study, research or employment history will be assessed favorably by a grant jury or admissions board. But, if we are to be honest, many women simply do not have the same chance to publish or raise grant money as their male colleagues of similar age. When it comes to hard numbers, the eternal truths of biology often mean that intelligent, capable women simply miss out on valuable career opportunities.
What exactly are the enrollment and advancement statistics on women in university physics?
Dr. Sabine Steil: …German statistics on first-year student enrollment and degrees issued in physics have been collated according to gender (source: Physik Journal 17 (2018) No. 8/9). The proportion of females has remained near-constant over a number of years at just above 20% (2018: Bachelor 23%, Masters 22% and Doctorate 24%). Compared to when I started my studies, twice as many women are now involved in the study of physics—an increase that is readily apparent when scanning the audience in lecture halls and seminars.
A significant shift in gender representation is currently seen only after students have received their doctorate. On the one hand, this may be a lag effect, since the increased proportion of women has simply not had sufficient time to complete their post-doctorate work to achieve professorships. On the other hand, a woman is often confronted with a tough decision after the effort of completing a doctorate—should I have children, or not? At this point in life, the challenges around equal opportunity are quite different than those faced at the beginning of one’s studies.
In 2010, the proportion of women receiving their doctorate was 18%, post-doctorate and junior professorships were around 20% and completing qualification for a full professorship (academic rank of W2 in Germany) shows a significant drop to 8%. But when we correct for the time required to achieve each qualification level, it becomes evident that female physicists actually have the same opportunities and statistical rate of advancement as their male counterparts, while still comprising a smaller overall proportion within their discipline. Source: DPG AKC lecture, Christine Meyer and Agnes Sander 02.11.2013, with reference to the German Federal Statistical Office).
Do you have any general comments on the subject of gender bias?
Dr. Sarah Hoffmann-Urlaub: …that publications with women appearing in the author’s list are, on average, cited less frequently than scientific papers with an exclusively male authorship. This suggests the existence of a persistent underlying bias.
In general, the compatibility of career and parenthood—primarily a problem for women—is a challenge that must be addressed at an institutional level. A shortage of child-care services often means that one is simply happy to find a day-care spot, even if it is inconveniently located. The German parental allowance is also problematic, with its undesirable tax implications. Both of these points are not exclusive to parents in the sciences, but they remain a pressing factor. All in all, one must be able to “afford” children, both in terms of time and money.
opportunities, scientists with kids must be prepared to face fundamental challenges that simply do not apply to those without families. Efforts to level the playing field are present in University governance mandates, usually in the form of time credits, parental leave arrangements and financial support programs. However, this assistance can sometimes seem out-of-touch with the realities of life as a scientist. To varying degrees, once you’ve started a family, you are forced by circumstance to pull back from your study, research or work. Even if the gender roles are not 100% traditional, one partner generally manages the home while the other advances their career in pursuit of a stable position with a reliable income. This division of labor requires a conscious decision—competing against someone without children becomes very difficult if all family duties remain evenly shared between both partners. Of course, there are brilliant exceptions and adaptations to this problem, and indeed, some women (and even some men!) happily put their careers aside to become full-time parents, deciding that this is the best way towards a happy, stable future.
The corona pandemic forced major adjustments at all universities, including the physics institutes at the University of Göttingen. Suddenly, experiments had to be broadcast live from the auditorium directly to students at home. This required conversions to the lecture halls, new equipment and reconfigured presentation methods. However, changes in teaching paradigms are inevitable, and even without a pandemic, lecturers are constantly evolving their teaching style to meet an ever-expanding palette of expectations and requirements.
“Behind the Shadows”— Pohl Today
As part of the research project on Pohl’s legacy, a documentary film was produced to present his teaching collection in a theatrical context, featuring a “backstage pass” at the lecture hall and “broadcast” of remote lectures conducted during the pandemic. “Hinter den Schatten“ presents the stagecraft and personal impressions of lecturers and their technicians while showcasing the ideas and devices—conceived and refined by Pohl over a half century—that still play a starring role in the physics program at the University of Göttingen.
Dokumentarfilm „Hinter den Schatten“ von Sofia Leikam und Michael Markert, 2021 https://av.tib.eu/media/55731 [letzter Zugriff 26.09.2022].