Daughters of Science

R. B. Laughlin
Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology
373 Guseong-dong, Yuseong-gu, Daejeon 305-711, Republic of Korea

Chosun Ilbo, November 19, 2005

I did not have any daughters, unfortunately. But lots of my friends had them, including a particularly good friend who had three. He naturally yearned for sons and often subconsciously tried to turn his eldest daughter into one, but it did no good. Genetics won, and his children developed into three lovely young women. The first is now a scientist, the second is a photographer and artist, and the third is still deciding. None of them is married yet, which makes my friend happy because he doesn't want that rushed.

My friend's complex feelings about his children capture a dilemma that is playing out quietly in households everywhere in Korea at the moment: is is one thing to discriminate professionally against women because it is "natural" but quite another to have your own daughters discriminated against. They don't like it, and neither do you. You want them to be educated. You want them to acquire some professional status before marrying as defense against getting trapped in a bad situation. You LIKE them to be interesting people with minds. Unfortunately, a person so empowered understands the true price of having children herself, and often chooses not to do so. The birth rate in Korea is now close to 1, half the value required to sustain the population.

Koreans have not yet decided how to deal with this problem, but I think it is clear what will happen eventually: the time-honored practice of discriminating against women will be abandoned. If it isn't, daughters will stay on strike, and the population will implode.

Another interesting thing about my friend's family is that his wife is an engineer. More precisely, she used to be an engineer, for she quickly advanced into management and has now started her own small robotics company. She is a wonderful woman, very beautiful and kind, but also the sort of person who would sweetly say "clean out your desk" the moment it became necessary. How she achieved this while having the major responsibility for raising the children still eludes me. She seems superhuman. My own wife taught school through those child raising years, and even that responsibility seemed impossible at times.

This particular life trajectory I think is a good model for a lot of strong-willed women, notably Korean women. Technical life appears to be a bit mannish, and therefore objectionable many of them, but this is belies the reality that it's extremely intellectual and fair. If the woman makes a discovery, she is revered. If she does a better design job for less money, the contract goes to her without discussion. Moreover, technical work, being inherently individualistic, has the time flexibility required for juggling the conflicting demands of work and family. Doing so is still difficult, but it's possible.

I know lots of women in the US who have used a technical profession to balance their lives. There is, for example, my female colleague who runs an excellent nanoscience laboratory at Stanford and also has two fine sons. Another faculty colleague balances family life with running a huge particle detector project at the Stanford Linear Accelerator. There is the faculty wife who raises the children while writing software manuals for IBM. Then there is the wife who recently moved from doing research at the gene company Genentech to brokering venture capital to biotech startups in Taiwan.

Let me therefore send out a plea to you mothers and fathers of headstrong Korean daughters to consider giving in to their ambitions and encouraging them enter technical life. Daughters need dreams to grow just as much as sons do, and truth is that they will fight for economic freedom no matter what you do. The march of progress has made it so. You might as well point them in directions with demonstrated compatibility with family structure, one of which is professional science and technology.

When I was lecturing at Ewha Women's University this week I got asked by a sharp student whether it was possible for her to win the Nobel Prize. My answer was immediate and simple. Yes.

[Copyright 2005 R. B. Laughlin. The author grants permission to copy, distribute, display, and perform this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.]