Breaking Into the Harvard Physics Boys Club

Melissa Franklin had her share of challenges n the male-dominated world of physics: colleagues made passes at her, they asked her not talk, and were generally “less evolved socially.” She explains how she preserved to become the Harvard Physics department’s first tenure woman.
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Question: What were the unique challenges of being a woman in the field?

Melissa Franklin: Well, when I as young I didn’t really notice that it was asymmetric. I didn’t notice a lot of things when I was young. But so it wasn’t so hard doing – trying to do physics and because I didn’t take it very seriously, because I didn’t really want to be a physicist, I didn’t have to worry about the fact that other people didn’t think I was very good at it. It didn’t really matter to me in fact. What mattered to me was that I was interested in it and not what people thought of me. Amazingly enough. Lately I worry about what people think of me, I don’t know what happened. I think it could be the change. It could be the life change. But the kind of problems I had were ones of, it was hard to focus. I didn’t have a lot of confidence and people were always trying to kiss you and stuff like that. You’d be doing problem sets with somebody and you’d be thinking about the physics and they’d be thinking about your lips, or your whatever. And that’s complicated.

Question: How did the Harvard Physics Department react to you getting tenure?

Melissa Franklin: Actually, I’ve been there a long time. I’ve been at Harvard for 22 years and the thing I really like about the Physics Department there is that everybody is so confident and everybody has such a high opinion of themselves. They don’t really worry about you. They’re not threatened by me at all except when I try to be really threatening. Some of them are smaller than I am. But that’s one thing that I really like about it. The other thing is, I was the first woman there and they had a little problem – I mean the first woman who had tenure. So I, as the first woman who went to, for instance, a senior faculty meeting of the senior faculty. And I remember after a few faculty meetings a professor came up to me and said, “You know, it might be a little easier for everyone if you just talked less because we’re really not used to having a women at all in the room and then one who talks so much is a little bit disconcerting.” So, that was interesting. People have been generally pretty nice, but people in physics can be less evolved socially than other people. So, you have to deal with that.

Recorded on: October 21, 2009