I sincerely hope that anyone considering a career in physics reads this.
I flew to Geneva today to start a week of my first Central Trigger Processor shifts of 2010. By now, I have had plenty of experience of the slow days, the busy days, the exciting and confusing days. Today is fairly quiet, but it is special in one particular way, so I hear. It is, apparently, “Women’s day” in various places around the world, and in order to celebrate this, CERN has encouraged their female staff to take interviews throughout the day for the media. I arrived after this had died down, but the positive atmosphere it generated in the ALICE Control room is still clear. I felt it would be a shame not to make a little comment about this.
I would like to say that my experience working my way into physics has NOT been one of triumph through adversity, a battle to succeed despite being a struggling minority in a strange and lonely male-dominated world. In fact, it has been fairly normal. I have been accepted for who and what I am: a constant questioner, a bit of a worrier, a skeptic, a northern Brit with an eye for a problem and a knack for writing, an occasional baker, a waffler with tons of enthusiasm, a scientist, a woman. One thing that can be said for academia is that if you can cut the mustard, by working hard and knowing what you are talking about, being the best you can be and recognising your weaknesses – and if you can do so with enjoyment, even passion – then everything else about you, the good, bad, unusual or seemingly irrelevant, will be accepted. In my view, there is categorically no reason why any woman should think her pursuit of a scientific career is somehow hindered by her being female. She may meet one or two very ugly attitudes, but they are rare and usually ignorance comes as a package (anyone who believes women to be generally incapable are likely, in my experience, to have many other outstandingly piggish ideas, but you can’t live your life in a bubble hoping never to meet a pig).
However, that isn’t to take away from the fact that physics is very tough. You need, above all things, to enjoy it, to want it. With that drive, anything is possible. I do, ever so slightly, resent the implication that, by being female physicists, we somehow represent some exceptional achievement of women. There was a time when to gain a degree or PhD was a truly significant challenge for a woman compared to a man – it just wasn’t done. Times have changed an awful lot! In truth, when I am at CERN, I look at people who have traveled from all corners of the world, learning English and French to the best of their ability, performing outstandingly and fighting for the opportunity to be funded and work here at any cost – these are people who have overcome challenges to get what they want. Their sex has nothing to do with it.
For me, International Women’s Day has been a demonstration of our freedom to follow any path we wish – celebrating (and hopefully communicating) that things are now as they always should have been. I hope that this is what the interviews show. Girls, if you want to do it, go for it.