Recently, reporter Adam Bryant led a conversation with four businesswomen on “Succeeding in Business. “The article complemented recent and significant discourse on the experiences of women in their respective fields, be it science or business, law or, even, homemaking. 

Often, I find that these discussions feel removed from our orange bubble, exemplified by the opinions I saw when discussing my plan with friends: “Isn’t this already addressed by others?” or “Is this really an issue today?” But when is the last time you’ve talked to a professor about how this topic relates to them? 

I seek to mitigate these attitudes by adding some of our own professors’ musings, reflections, and discourse. As such, I tried to keep conversations open-ended to best let students get to know things they’ve perhaps never thought to ask about their professors. The conversations below were realized separately, but Knapp and Bahcall offer importantly distinct views for women so close in background and study. I hope that this will be the first of a series of similar conversations throughout departments. 

Gillian Knapp is a Professor of Astrophysics with degrees from the University of Edinburgh and the University of Maryland. She followed her graduate study with research at Caltech, and came to Princeton in 1980 as a researcher, becoming an Associate Professor in 1984. She currently works as the Director of Graduate Studies, and is heavily involved in teaching college credit courses in New Jersey state prisons. 

Neta Bahcall is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Astrophysics at Princeton University, with degrees from Hebrew University, the Weizmann Institute of Science, and Tel Aviv University.  She arrived at Princeton in 1971 as a researcher, and was made professor in 1989. She is Director of the Undergraduate Program in Astrophysics. Her husband John Bahcall, deceased, worked at the Institute for Advanced Study..

Following are edited excerpts from our conversations. 


NATHAN ECKSTEIN: You pursued science in University?

GILLIAN KNAPP: Yeah, you know this was after the Second World War in Britain when the country’s economy was generally starting to pick up. People like me [in my social class, or female] didn’t really go to university. I wanted to travel also and I figured I’d go to the US for graduate school just to see what it was like. So I went to the University of Maryland and that was a choice based on nothing more than the fact that it was near Washington DC and I thought that’s where everything happened in this country. Well you live and learn, right?

But I had a very good time there. I was very lucky; the department was growing. The department chair was quite a character. My closest friends date from that time, still. And I did okay actually. I was lucky.


NE: In undergraduate, did you know you wanted to pursue graduate studies?

GK: Absolutely. I went to a school in physics because I knew physics was necessary.


NE: Did you ever feel pressured that people were expecting you to do something else?

GK: Oh, completely. You wouldn’t believe. I mean, you don’t have enough time for all those stories.


NE: Can you tell me one?

GK: The second year of undergraduate school was a big physics lab. There were four girls and 60 guys in the class and a professor and a couple of TAs, basically. And the professor—god, I can see that man’s face today—he took it upon himself to discourage the girls from thinking that physics was something girls should be doing.

Basically, he would come and bully you at the lab bench until you cried. So all of us learned to burst into tears at the first five seconds so the bastard would leave us alone. He was—you know, once he made you cry he was happy. He’d go off with a grin and bully the next poor girl.

So that’s just one story, but there are many, many of them.


GK: Everyone goes on about Madame Curie, but it was quite clear, even at the time, that everyone went on about Madame Curie because there was nobody else to talk about. There were two things that changed my life at that time [in high school].

The first was reading John Stuart Mill’s “On the Subjection of Women”, a book I would suggest to every human. We read “On Liberty” in high school and I thought it was so beautifully done I went to read more of his books and found “On the Subjection of Women”, and what that said loud and clear is that there was nothing wrong with me. There was something very very wrong with the idea that you put people in these boxes in which they couldn’t do certain things. And coming from a powerful intellect—and a guy, frankly, a man—that just made all the difference.

The other thing was that one of Edinburgh’s Royal Observatory staff came to speak to our class about astronomy, Mary Bruck, who was on the staff there. And she was just a proof of existence. She was a female person and she was doing astronomy. That’s all it took. Before that, I could not understand my situation—the phase space was completely empty as far as I knew. There were scientists and there were women, but the two did not overlap.  She showed me that it did.


GK: [At the University of Maryland] they had had a young woman. (It was a new astronomy program that grew up in a physics department, as those tended to). They had had one young woman the year before I went and she dropped out after a year, and so I was the only one of 45.

And the guys took it upon themselves—this might sound bizarre of me to say, I didn’t realize it at the time at all. I was actually quite a piece of eye candy in those days. I didn’t know this. Some of the boys all took it upon themselves to see who could—you could imagine. I had no idea what they were playing at, I thought they were being friendly until I realized what was going on. Some of them really bullied me, and said, you know, you shouldn’t be doing this.

On the other hand, the department chair, and quite a lot of other people were really supportive. They didn’t see why anybody who wanted to do something couldn’t.

Our department chair, who died recently, was Dutch. He’d gone through the Second World War. Perhaps, who can say, but he didn’t have time for any of this crap. That’s what it takes I think.

So all in all, it was an extremely good experience.


GK: [At Caltech] people were pretty, well—sexual harassment wasn’t even on people’s minds in those days. That comes out wrong. People did it. They didn’t even realize there was anything wrong with it. And there was a great deal going on at Caltech. Somehow a feeling that as a female person you were fair game and you should consider yourself to be so. No person of authority doing anything about it. And a fair number of people thought it was their business to tell you that you were not up to it, that your science [scientific ability] was not very good. That it was generic, unimaginative—you know, whatever sorts of negative adjectives—and that you really should think of doing something else. That was a fairly common way of behaving.

GK: For a long time, basically women were only allowed to do solar astronomy. Because if you did observational astronomy at night that meant being at telescopes at night, staying and sitting all night with a guy which was simply not okay. So there was that, too. To avoid any conception of hanky-panky of some sort.


NE: What about reaction from students? Have students ever not taken you seriously?

GK: I’m sure occasionally. I think some students were reluctant, but you know, not really. They were fine actually.

We had when I came here, a long time chair was just retiring. He and his colleague were gentlemen of the highest order. They were very conventional old-fashioned gentlemen, but they were gentlemen. They taught me something, they taught us all, that courtesy, consideration, treating people decently, makes everyone happier, friendlier, more productive; that you benefit from that. And they created an atmosphere of courtesy and respect that the rest of us try to maintain to this day, even after they’re gone.

They were very reluctant, I think, to have anybody of a non-white male type on the faculty. Very nervous about it. But they weren’t the chairs anymore. I saw that they were very nervous about it, but they treated me, nevertheless, with great courtesy.


GK: So there was a general feeling that we are useful; that our limited intelligence would allow us to do some useful things. Especially, of course, gather large amounts of data, because we [women] are so good at detail. But the real important stuff, the heavy theory, was just something we weren’t equipped to do.

NE: Did you feel any pushback or almost ignoring of your academic work?

GK: All the time, all the time. And that’s a very difficult thing to evaluate because you do rely on this constant feedback to see whether what you’re doing is interesting or not. Throwing in this extra component, that you’re not to be taken seriously because of these irrelevant reasons, throws that out of whack. You don’t always get good feedback anymore.

It’s common in the field of research papers to just put one’s initials and last names. And there were plenty of instances of someone coming and poking their head in the door and saying “I’m looking for Dr. Knapp.” You say, “Hi, come on in, glad to meet you.” Then you say, “Well what would you like to talk to Dr. Knapp about?” And they say, “Well this paper of his.” And when you say, “well, that’s me,” and watching the reaction on their face would be interesting.

Now, sometimes when that’d happen the person would sit down and just talk about science and feel perhaps apologetic—and maybe you’d make a joke to laugh about it and get on with the business at hand. But some people, when they realized that it was a female person, would say “oh” and just split. Because immediately, once you realize its female, you would realize it’s uninteresting.

NE: Do you still feel this today?

GK: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, all the time actually. The most recent incident was within the last couple of years—there’s less of it. We were hosting a visiting delegation. The delegation was all these people that were head of the funding agencies, and also the head of an observatory, […]

We were invited for lunch. So several of the colleagues here and I go up for lunch, we got there first, and our visitors arrive and they come around to shake everyone’s hand and walk past yours truly. Then somebody who was from another of our big science departments—I’m withholding to protect the guilty here—and that’s someone else I know, and he walks right past me. I mean I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Then a colleague arrives and says, “I’m sure everybody has met everybody,” and goes around saying names and introducing. And the director of the observatory—you know, suddenly a penny dropped and he was horrified.

I was pretty upset about it, and I was furious with my colleagues who stood by and saw this happen. There’s a very easy way to deal with it. They could just say, “Oh, and I’m sure you remember Professor so-and-so.” That would’ve immediately solved that.

You know, there’s many things you could say about this incident, not the least of which is if I had been an administrator, why not say hello to me anyway? If I had been someone who was making the coffee, why not say hello, what harm had I done? But that was a very—that shook me, actually.


GK: One thing I think you’ll see for sure is that a lot of women do not want to ever be perceived as doing female type things in this situation. You know, they will not do anything that shows them behaving in a quote on quote “subservient” or a role like a secretary or administrator. They won’t wash a coffee cup. If there are coffee cups lying around that need washing, they won’t do it.

GK: I think we’d all be a lot hell-of-a better off if we dropped this sort of nonsense. I mean, you know enough math and physics to know that things sort of tend towards this nice homogenous entropic state, where everyone’s basically doing their own thing. And to keep people so compartmentalized takes a huge amount of work up here [points to head]. We like to put people in boxes.

I mean, I look at you and say, young white man. Must vote republican. Must do this,  must do that. I think I know all about you just from that one tag. And I don’t feel comfortable until I’ve put you in a box—and this is so wrong. It’s so much effort to do this. So much mental effort, so much physical effort. If we just dropped it we’d have so much time for better things.


NATHAN ECKSTEIN: How did you know you wanted to pursue the sciences?

NETA BAHCALL: I was in high school, always very good and interested in the physics, maths, and sciences. It came easier to me and I enjoyed it more than the, you know, the humanities, which I liked, but I enjoyed solving problems which were clean-cut and mathematical; you get exactly the right answer, and so on and so forth. I always enjoyed that. I always enjoyed figuring out how something worked, why does something work, and so I continued in college in physics and math.

We didn’t have astronomy at that time in Israel, so I was not even thinking about astronomy. But I did major in physics and math. Then moved more into astrophysics once I was at Caltech. There they have a big astrophysics group, I started there and slowly shifted to astrophysics and astronomy.

NE: And did you know you’d get your masters after undergrad?

NB: Well originally I was not planning on it, I very much thought I’d go back to teaching high school. I had a wonderful science teacher in high school, he was a terrific teacher. Real role model, made me love science. I thought that’s what I wanted to do, so I got a teaching certificate when I was in the Hebrew University. But when I graduated I thought rather than start teaching and working I’ll continue—many of my friends decided to continue to graduate school, so I decided I’d do a masters degree and then teaching.So I went to the Weizmann Institute and the middle of that time I met John, my husband. And we were married so I just continued that.

NE: Did you feel any pressure against you?

NB: I never felt that. I think in Israel at that time, I’m not sure if it’s exactly the same today, but I did not feel any, any pressure, against [myself then]—any discrimination. You don’t even hear, “well because you’re a woman you can’t do this.” I never grew up with that kind of feeling.

Israel started as a very small country as I’m sure you know, and women were fighting in the army.

NE: Did you serve?

NB: Well, no. I got deferment and didn’t have to go back because I was married. Now I wish I would’ve served, but you know women served in the army and fought with men. They built the country together. It was never really much of a separation in that respect. Women still serve in the army together with men, it’s mandatory. So it’s less of that: “because you’re a woman, you probably shouldn’t do this or that.”


NB: I do see more women in some of the sciences in Israel, the life sciences. I have not looked at the numbers, but I suspect more women are involved in politics in Israel. Here, although the numbers here are growing. So in some ways it’s better in Israel.

Still, I think in the physics and maths, it’s not much better.

NE: Once you went to Caltech did that change? Did you feel negative pressure?

NB: I did not feel negative pressure. There were a few young women with me at the time at graduate school, so we were maybe like three. Three that I remember, maybe it was a little more. Three or more.

I did not feel pressure, I think partially it’s a cultural thing. I grew up without feeling any pressure or any discrimination or any negative thoughts that because you’re a woman you cannot science, or you cannot do engineering, or you cannot do—you know, in Israel if you wanted to you could do whatever you wanted to, and nobody would say anything. So I grew up like that and I always felt that way, whereas some of my American friends did feel like that.

So a big part of it is just a cultural difference.


NE: Is there anytime at your career at which you’ve felt discriminated against based on your gender?

NB: Not really, but that is not to say from time to time I didn’t hear any comments that would reflect that. Which I did hear. I don’t know. It never bothered me. I remember the first time I heard some comment like that, I didn’t even know what in the world they were talking about. They just sounded so strange to me.

So I think it’s also the attitude that you bring in. I never got too worked up about any of these comments. There weren’t many, but there were some comments. At the end of the day, if you do a good job and you do good work, that’s what, at least the good departments and the good universities, are looking for. They want to bring in the best scientists, the best scholars. It doesn’t matter who they are. What gender, what color, whatever, they want the best people. So if you do a good job, then you do it.

Again, partly it’s a personal attitude. A cultural attitude. That’s not to say that there is no sub-conscious discrimination, there’s still a little bit of that, although I think the situation is getting much much better from when I first started. There were no women faculty in this department. When I first joined, I started as a post-doc. I was not on the faculty, I was on a research post, and so was Gillian Knapp.

I don’t know if you could call it discrimination or not. It’s small numbers. There were only five faculty, they were all men.

NB: So things have been changing. Now we are about 3 or 4 women out of about 13. So it’s about 30 percent, something like that. 25 or 30 percent. We just had released the list of astronomy departments with the fraction of women, and it ranges—the top one has 50 percent, that’s just one, small place, Indiana University. The chair there is a woman. So it does make a difference if some of the senior people are women.

And then it goes all the way down to 0 percent. Most places are about 15 percent. The mean or the median is about 15 or 20 percent. Obviously, it’s still very small. But it’s better than what it used to be.


NB: You know you look at a woman like Shirley Tilghman—I don’t know if she faced discrimination when she was younger, maybe she did, but she’s clearly done extremely well, she persisted, you know, she’s done extremely well. Everyone takes her very seriously.


NB: The fraction of senior women in physics is lower than in astrophysics. It’s probably the lowest of all the sciences, for some reason. It’s not—I don’t know if someone fully understands it. We all have some ideas of what’s causing it.

NE: What’s your idea?

NB: I think it’s a combination of a few things, it’s not just one thing. I think to start with, in high school—there was a very nice New York Times article on this. It starts in high school, maybe even earlier, when, again, the cultural perception that’s true of many of the teachers—not all the teachers, the science teachers, as well as among the peers, among the girls and the boys in the school, and sometimes even the parents—that “oh well girls aren’t really not much [good at] physics or math, biology maybe, but not much to the physical sciences or mathematics.”

And that’s only for nerds or geniuses. That perception starts very early on, maybe not in elementary school, but some place in middle school or high school. It starts and gets stronger with time. The ones that make it here—let’s say to Princeton or the other universities—are those women that did go to the sciences, to math, in high school and then they may start finding it, for some reason or another, a little more difficult. Even in colleges. I don’t think it’s as bad in the high schools, where some teachers are discouraging of women, other girls or boys are discouraging of their friends. Here it happens, in general. What I hear is partly [an aspect of the issue] is mentoring. It’s difficult. Physics is the most difficult major on campus here and probably on campuses around the US. Physics and math. And if you don’t get some kind of support, both for men and women, that can be discouraging.

Now why is it more discouraging for women than for men? It’s because maybe they don’t get as much approval or mentoring. The guys may get more mentoring, more support, more attention, at a time that is a difficult time. As a freshman, as a sophomore, taking difficult courses, you need support and encouragement. So mentoring I think is very very important.


NB: I hear what others are talking about. Not they are wrong, obviously. When we are at 25 or 30 percent women [on faculty], we are not yet at 50 percent. That is the fact. But we are not yet at 50 percent students to become faculty eventually. So we need to raise it from the bottom.

When I look at it from the last 45 years, from when I started, I think we have improved enormously. I think we are making big strides. I look at that the young women we have today, in our department or in physics, and I don’t see any difference not only between them and the guys but in how they and the guys see each other. It doesn’t seem to me that they even know if it’s a man or a woman, you know, you just do your work.