(Q) When did you start using the label of feminist and why?
I never qualified myself as feminist. Although I know that I do a job in which there are few women, and to some extent I feel I am contributing to the advancement of the position of women in society. I see “feminists” as people who go beyond trying to advance the position of women and other minorities by just going about their own lives. I see [feminists] as people who are more militant in trying to generate positive action. What I have done is to be a woman in a profession of men. That is already something. Also for women and Latinos in hard sciences to see a role model for that.
But I do not consider that this is enough to be a feminist. Believing in gender equality is not enough in my view. You have to do something more about it. Believing is the first step.
(Q) What do you think about people who reject the word feminism and prefer the term gender equality because they think it is more inclusive?
This is correct. You can be feminist and also be for other types of equality. But one does not exclude the other. Gender equality includes but does not replace feminism. I think that the word feminist is a good word. I would be proud for someone to consider me or call me a feminist. I think that people that think feminists have a bad rap are mistaken. They think that feminists are outdated and that is not true.
(Q) Through your profession, you have met many people from all over the world. Have you heard stories of extreme misogyny, or places that are very pro-feminism?
The most misogynistic places I have met people from are Saudi Arabia and Iran and Japan. Women can be discriminated in different ways. In Japan, women are second-class citizens. For example, even women who have the same job at the laboratory, they always end up serving the cookies to the men. Among industrialized countries, the most misogynist I know is Japan. I have heard that in Japan when a husband and wife live in a condominium, the husband must always go to the homeowners meetings because the wife’s opinion is irrelevant. It is not taken to represent the opinion of the couple. Among Islamic countries, the education of women and men is very segregated. In Saudi Arabia, women are so limited. They cannot drive by themselves. They cannot be seen outside of the home without a male companion. Their work possibilities are limited because of that. In Iran and Turkey, I know women physicists who say that the situation for women was better in the past but women have lost some of the benefits they had won in the past because their countries became more fundamentalist. The best places for gender equality are Europe and the US. I must say that I come from Argentina and I find that the situation of women in there is pretty good too. In Brazil, Chile, and Argentina, women are pretty equal to men. All three countries have had female presidents! Something that United States hasn’t had.
(Q) As a professor at UCLA, have you seen or experienced any gender or sexuality based discrimination? Be it with faculty, students, or administration.
I haven’t seen this. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. At least in my department this behavior would be very severely reprimanded.
(Q) Physics is a very male dominated field. Why do you think that is, and is there anything we can do to change that?
When I started at UCLA in 1989, there were only one full time, and one part time, female professors in the physics department. There were 40-45 male professors in the department. I was the third female faculty member in the department at the time, and I was actually the first UCLA physics professor to be pregnant. They didn’t even know what sort of maternity leave corresponded to professors! Today the ratio hasn’t changed by much, with 47 male professors and 4 female professors in the department. Besides women, there are also very few Latinos and almost no black people in physics. The origin of these gender inequality, and also racial inequalities happens before one reaches the stage of becoming a professor. It happens in primary school, high school, and university. I think women are discouraged from entering into physics and mathematics. Many times women are pushed towards being the main provider of care for children because there isn’t affordable or after-hours childcare in the US. It is a choice between a career that is very demanding and staying at home. There are already few women that come from high school that could end up in hard science. Then in college they are dissuaded even more. Also they don’t see many female role models in the field. They don’t see this as a potential profession that they may choose. This is the chicken and the egg. Also in a male dominated environment where men are expected to work very hard and long hours, women who many times also have the responsibility – for societal reasons – to take care of their kids, they produce less, they are seen as less committed, and then they have a less good resumes. I was almost 43 when I had a child. I had a child after being tenured. Necessarily for a couple years my production was smaller. But at this stage I had the privilege of being able to have a dip in production for a few years. For being a single mother, my level of performance was compromised for several years in comparison with male colleagues that did not have those kinds of responsibilities. And my salary increased less than those of my male colleagues as a result. There are several things we can do. First, try to get more girls interested in hard science in high school and later. Second to give maternity/paternity leave to women and men equally. This is something that happens in Europe. Third, make childcare less expensive, more readily available for everybody. The cost of childcare after typical business hours is prohibitively extensive, even for a tenured professor like me.
(Q) Do you think rape culture exists? Does it exist at UCLA?
I was terribly surprised when I saw the clothesline project at UCLA. As years go by I’ve become much more conscious of different problems. And I think that is good that people at UCLA have become more aware of these kinds of issues like rape or discriminatory behavior against LGBT people. As soon as I learned that having bathrooms designated only for men or for women constituted a problem for LGBT people, I immediately became in favor of single use gender-neutral bathrooms. So many times it is enough to become conscious of discriminatory behavior to change it. One cannot change it without being aware. Sometimes one engages in discriminatory behavior without knowing it. In the last several years I was the chair of the diversity committee in the Aspen Center for Physics. And following the example of several universities, we also designated all of our single use bathrooms as gender-neutral.
Things are changing. While only 8 percent of full physics professors in the US are women, women make up 30 percent of newly hired assistant professors. So that’s a significant increase!
As more women enter into academia, and in particular physics, it becomes easier and easier for other women to do the same.