November 16, 2010

When I was growing up, sometimes in the autumn, the lord of the manor would drive into the village in his Land Rover and announce that the following day he needed 20 boys, 14 years might be a typical age, to be beaters to scare up the pheasants in front of him and his guests, who would then shoot at the birds. We beaters were then treated to bread, cheese and beer for lunch and a few shillings pay for the day.

When I visited my grandparents, my grandfather would come downstairs on a Sunday with his suit on and my grandmother would put out his shoes, which she had warmed on the stove, and he would step into them. Taking his bowler hat, which my grandmother had freshly brushed, he would step out to the chapel for a service that no women attended. Similarly, when we buried my grandmother, we carried the coffin from the house in strict order of seniority from husband, to sons, to grandsons, but no women went to the graveside.
A structured society!

Telling such stories is a way to raise some laughter, and there are more from where they came. I would like to think that things have changed. But if so, these changes are relatively recent.

In everyday life, there are several situations in which the numbers of women match the numbers of men in skilled work. However, science and engineering are not among those situations. This is unfortunate; a diverse society is a healthy society. A diverse society can envisage a future.

For a multitude of reasons, science and engineering is endangered in many countries. There may be a perception that math, science and engineering are too much of a challenge at school. There may be a perception that excelling in such “hard” subjects is uncool. It is a fact that the breadth of society in which it is expected that one can carry on a conversation about science is much narrower than that in which it is expected that one have an opinion about art or music. Despite these perceptions, society as we know it will not survive without scientists, engineers, doctors, people who have more than a passing acquaintance with science. But none of these reasons should differentiate between gender or color.

There was an article in the International section of The New York Times about gender equality in France. In turn, it quoted the editor of Elle magazine, Valerie Toranian, as saying, “French women are exhausted. We have the right to do what men do – as long as we also take care of the children, cook a delicious dinner, and look immaculate. We have to be Superwoman.” At Jefferson Lab, we do have women, and to a lesser extent minorities, in a broad spectrum of careers, but their numbers are far less than those of white men.
If we want our society to survive we must nurture its population, and try to grow its diversity. The growth potential is not in old white, grey-haired males. The growth potential is in humankind of diverse colors and all genders. We MUST strive to generate a real equality of opportunity for all, and this should permeate everything we do.

I am pleased that our colleagues in the lab and the universities are not unaware of these issues and do take the initiative. For example, little more than a year ago, we hosted a Workshop on Women in Science and Engineering, which came out of a group that was self- organized. The efforts of this group could benefit all of us in the future. This and other examples of what we try to do can be found at: http://www.jlab.org/div_dept/admin/HR/diversity.html