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Students: Physics climate improving

Many students reacted with surprise to a report suggesting widespread gender-based discrimination in the physics department, saying that the department provides a good and ever-improving climate for women. For those who said gender bias exists in the department, insensitivity and condescension were the most commonly cited offenses.

The Chronicle of Higher Education, a widely read publication in the academic community, ran a lengthy report last week, "Louts in the Lab," that highlighted allegations of discrimination and harassment in the Duke physics department.

Provost Peter Lange criticized the report for not focusing enough on the positive steps the department has made to improve the climate for women, but many students argued further that the climate was never as bad as the Chronicle of Higher Education report made it sound.

"As far as I know, I've never seen this kind of thing before--never," said second-year graduate student Qiang Ye, echoing a common refrain. "I don't think there's any discrimination in my department between females and males."

A number of graduate students, male and female alike, said Duke's physics department was the friendliest they had ever worked in and that conversations between men and women in the department were always professional.

Others, while disputing the bleak climate portrayed in The Chronicle of Higher Education article, acknowledged some subtle gender-based discrimination, especially in social situations.

"I have been in situations that I have known made female students uncomfortable," said John Wambaugh, a third-year graduate student and president of the physics department's graduate student organization, "but it's [likely to be] a social situation where someone has said something incorrect, and usually someone lets that person know right away that that is incorrect."

Those who pointed out instances of discrimination said the climate has improved since allegations of rude treatment and harassment first cropped up several years ago. Physics Chair Harold Baranger earned much of the credit for confronting the issue head-on.

"It's gotten better," said fourth-year graduate student Hanna Dobrovony. "The fact that people are wiling to talk about it shows there really isn't that much of a problem here."

First-year graduate student Kenneth McClellan speculated that physics as a field may be particularly prone to gender difficulties because of the peculiar social aspects of the discipline. "I have a theory that male physicists like the idea of having a relationship with another physicist, and it may be that there are far too many men interested in the few women in the department," he said. "That can create a very oppressive atmosphere for [women], I'm sure of that."

A vocal minority of students denounced the comparatively rosy picture of a satisfactory and improving climate for women in the department. In the Chronicle of Higher Education report, second-year graduate student Julie Ziegler said she was shunned and ignored because of her gender and now holes up in a subbasement to avoid the department's males.

Fourth-year gradate student Emily Longhi conveyed similar sentiments. "I have not had a very good experience in the department and am disappointed that the recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education has been met with so much denial and claims that problems have been fixed," she wrote in an e-mail. "I admit that discussions have finally begun amongst the faculty as well as the students, but I have not seen that any significant progress has been achieved. If it had, then I believe that not only the tone of the article would have been different, but also that it would not have been met with such vehement denial from everyone that the problems are severe and longstanding."

Last fall, a handful of undergraduates claimed that physics professor emeritus Lawrence Evans discriminated against women in his summer course, second-semester General Physics. They said he was extremely condescending, implicitly made assumptions about women's ability in physics and would solve problems for female students whilst working step-by-step with males.

The accusations stunned Evans, who was then being courted by Nicholas School of the Environment faculty to teach at the Duke Marine Laboratory in Beaufort. In an effort to clear his name, he asked associate physics chair Ronen Plesser to survey the last two General Physics classes he taught and asked if they had seen any evidence of gender discrimination.

Evans was vindicated by the results, as he said only about two or three students out of approximately 50 respondents said he treated females any differently from males--and these criticisms were far less "vituperative" than the earlier complaints. Many students said he was simply condescending to all students, regardless of gender.

In a follow-up e-mail to the surveyed students, Plesser wrote, "The responses to my survey show that this bias was NOT perceived by a vast majority of you. Many of you expressed shock and dismay that such claims were made, and even anger at me (and the department) for taking them seriously."

Evans, who has taught the class since the 1970s, said this was the first time anyone had ever accused him of gender-based discrimination.

"I'm not going to argue that it was made up out of thin air; I just know it wasn't anything I did consciously," Evans said. "These days, it's an awfully easy thing to accuse somebody of gender discrimination."

Most students said they did not feel that the climate in the department had forced men to be overly cautious or hypersensitive in dealing with their female counterparts.

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