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Q&A: Sheila Tobias on her nonscience path to becoming a science activist

11 August 2020

The feminist advocate has explored math anxiety and other reasons why women turn away from the physical sciences.

Sheila Tobias.
Sheila Tobias speaks at West Virginia University last year. Credit: Julie Black, Teaching and Learning Commons, WVU

At the end of Sheila Tobias’s first year at Radcliffe College, in 1954, physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn congratulated her for her outstanding performance in his class, “Nat Sci 4: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” which she took to fulfill a general education requirement. But Kuhn didn’t encourage Tobias to take more science classes or ask if she’d considered going into history of science. A few decades later, she asked him why he hadn’t done so. His answer stunned Tobias: He told her that, as a college freshman with a limited science background, she already had been ineligible for a science career.

“I think everything I have done since then originated both in the thrill of that course and in the door closing through no fault of my own,” says Tobias, who graduated with a double major in politics and history. She went on to forge a career in education and advocacy, in which she has pushed to expand participation of women and other underrepresented groups in the physical sciences. “It took me a couple of decades,” she says. “I had to become a feminist and meet women like myself who were thwarted in their careers.” She found fulfillment in critiquing the hurdles that were keeping women out of math and science.

Over the course of her career, Tobias came to see herself as a “demystifier of technical subjects.” She is perhaps best known for exploring “math anxiety” and why so few young women pursue careers in the physical sciences. She has authored or coauthored 16 books. The most recent, Catch Up Your Algebra, will be available for download free of charge in September.

The accomplishments Tobias is most proud of include serving on the American Physical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Physics in the 1980s and being the only nonphysicist on the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics delegation to the third International Conference on Women in Physics in Paris in 2002. Now in her mid 80s, she still consults on equity and diversity for academic departments.

PT: What was special about Thomas Kuhn’s class?

TOBIAS: My exposure to physical science was very low at that point, because I was a girl, and my parents were not college educated. I took Kuhn’s course nearly by accident. It was a general course and had an interesting title. I loved the anomalies—that the conceptual schemes that are essential to doing science may at some point have to be abandoned when additional data are found to contradict the scheme. It was an epiphany, a wake-up call from which I have never stopped being waked up. It was 65 years ago.

PT: What did you do after graduating from college?

TOBIAS: I wanted to be a journalist but was discouraged by a recruiter from Time magazine, who assured me that I would never be more than a fact-checker. For a few years I worked as a journalist in Germany. I returned to the US in 1960. For a while I floundered. I worked in print and television journalism. To the extent I had a specialty, it was race relations. I worked on a four-part series about race relations in Mississippi. Later I was sent to London by ABC to do research on what would become an international documentary on race relations in Britain.

I also tried graduate school. I stayed for three years at Columbia, where I studied postwar German history and politics. It was a field that should have been a good fit, but I came to a realization: What it takes to be a scholar is the desire to have the last word on a subject. I wanted to have the first word. I didn’t belong in the scholarly community.

PT: What role did the women’s movement play in your professional evolution?

TOBIAS: The women’s movement is where my personal and professional life got restarted in the 1960s and 70s. I was captured by the analysis that was offered by very brilliant women like Kate Millett and Gloria Steinem. The analysis was that when women underperform, it suits the power structure: Somebody is benefiting from us being under-assigned and underpaid.

I went with my partner to Cornell University, where he planned to do a graduate degree. I was 33 years old, multiskilled, and highly motivated. Nevertheless, the personnel office gave me a typing test. I went to see Robert Sproull, the vice president for academic affairs and a physicist. The first thing I said to him was “What’s the matter with this place? How come they see a female and give her a typing test?” He created a job for me.

After two years Sproull moved on to become chancellor at the University of Rochester, and he left me with the keys to the kingdom. Nobody was supervising me. I co-organized a campus-wide conference on women in 1969 and a year later co-taught one of the first women’s studies courses in the country. Then I got a job offer from Wesleyan University. They were going co-ed and needed a senior woman administrator. So I went from a typing test in 1967 to associate provost at Wesleyan, where I stayed from 1970 to 1978.

PT: Describe your time at Wesleyan.

TOBIAS: I spent the first two years at Wesleyan dealing with bumps in the process of integrating women students and laying the groundwork for hiring women faculty. In the third year, I began looking at women students’ transcripts, and they revealed something I had not articulated until that moment: Girls were avoiding mathematics and majors that exposed them to advanced mathematics. They were not going into physics, chemistry, or economics. They weren’t even taking social studies courses that required advanced statistics. That was intriguing to me.

I thought there was a big subject out there that nobody was tackling: Smart, ambitious college girls were just “sliding off the quantitative” without objecting, not blaming anybody but themselves, and the university was not paying attention. The issue was lying there in front of everyone. It was just waiting for me to pick it up.

I was good friends with Gloria Steinem. I was talking about math as an example of the feminist term “learned helplessness” and how men were keeping us out of power because the learned helplessness disabled us from competing at full tilt. I came up with the phrase “math anxiety” to express not just that females were avoiding math logically, but that it was learned behavior that was being inculcated. Gloria thought math anxiety had legs, as she put it, and in 1976 I published an article in Ms., “Math anxiety: Why is a smart girl like you counting on your fingers?”

I had a tiger by the tail. Who was going to tackle this? I looked around and realized I would have to do it. I published my first book in 1978, Overcoming Math Anxiety. The experience changed my life. I suddenly became famous nationally as a math anxiety expert.

PT: What did you do next?

TOBIAS: It was during this period that the MX missile was being debated as part of the absurd idea that we would survive a nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union by means of a policy called “mutually assured destruction.” Women were not in the loop, both because we were not technically trained and because we had no confidence that we could envision an alternative. I got together some experts to inform myself, and we got a book out in 1982, What Kinds of Guns Are They Buying for Your Butter? It was written in language people could understand.

I was breaking a lot of rules, not least claiming the right of women to write about men’s territory. I was also being invited by math departments and slowly by science departments to consult. The physics community was especially eager to know why women students were not choosing physics.

Overall in the 1980s, the country was worried about a science shortfall. The strategy was to focus on grades K–6, because it was believed that’s where alienation started, or that poor teaching at that level had a long-term negative effect. The people investigating were mostly males, and that is when boys got hooked on science.

But feminists were grappling with role socialization. The fact is that girls are shaped by our parents and by society until we are about 15. After that, we can begin to decide for ourselves who we are and what we want to do. So I started to look at the first-year college course. In physics and chemistry, the first-year course is known to everybody as the weed-out course.

My theory was that there is a first tier of students in science who are made for it. They are never going to waver. All you have to do is teach them reasonably well. But there is a second tier of able young people who are perfectly capable of doing science but might need their own way. I put myself in that category.

PT: That goes back to your experience with Kuhn.

TOBIAS: Indeed. If Thomas Kuhn had said, “I’d like to recommend you take this history of science class, or this intro to physics class, or this applied science class,” I would have done it. I thought he was God.

But doing research into the science shortfall 30 years later, I realized there is a prejudice even broader than that against women. If you are going to do science, you have to identify it early—you will have collected bugs, or tested the flight path of a kite, stuff that girls are not encouraged to do.

PT: What did you do in this regard?

TOBIAS: I deployed very able graduate students to take the typical weed-out intro classes in physics and chemistry at the University of Arizona. They were mature students in philosophy, literature, social science, and anthropology. I paid them. They did very well. And weaving in their commentary, I wrote the book They’re Not Dumb, They’re Different: Stalking the Second Tier. It came out in 1990.

The book was received well by the scientific community, especially physicists. They wanted me to help them figure out how to reach more people. They thought if I could find 7 or 10 graduate students in other fields who might have done physical sciences, the field was likely missing many people who could make a contribution and were not being recruited.

PT: In the class of 2019 in the US, women were awarded 22% of all physics bachelor’s degrees, and only 10% and 4% went to Hispanic Americans and African Americans, respectively. What do you think needs to be done so that the numbers reflect representation in American society?

TOBIAS: There is still a lot of work to do. Having more women and people of color on college faculties and visible on the national stage has an immediate effect. And I believe a woefully unexamined variable hides within letters of recommendation.

In my most recent consulting job, we collected letters of recommendation for 200 women in physics who had applied for a job in a certain department—to remain unnamed—over five searches. None of them were invited to campus during the search. Why not? It’s an issue I’ve been tracking since I was in the provost’s office at Wesleyan. A clue is who’s writing the letters. It’s the senior adviser. If your senior adviser can’t use a superlative to describe your work, your prospects are hopeless. Men don’t refer to women as brilliant. Why not?

PT: What do you see as the most daunting challenges today?

TOBIAS: Now that we are in this pandemic and we don’t know what is ahead for universities or for the country, it would be wrong to say that women’s equality in science should cease to be a priority. I am hoping that when the pieces are collected and we rebuild society, that we rebuild higher education to meet the needs of the country and that we rethink how to educate people fairly.

My hope is that people take as a lesson from my career that if you are passionate about equity, you can make a career of it. And if you are curious enough to dip into lots of subjects, you don’t reduce your focus, you enlarge it.

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