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Zoe Louise Matthews | ASY-EOS | UK

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From the ALICE Control Room on International Women’s Day

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.


Great ALICE Physicists with ambition (who happen to be women!) From top left: Petra Riedler (Austria), Naomi Van Der Kolk (Amsterdam), Anju Bhasin (India), Jennifer Klay (USA), Nora Pitz (Germany), Maya Shimomura (Japan), Martha Spyropoulou-Stassinaki (Greece), Brigitte Cheynis (France), Yaxian Mao (China), Johanna Stachel (Germany).

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.

  • Penny

    Totally agreed! I don’t think I’ve encountered a trace of sexism in all the time I’ve been doing physics (I’ll probably remember a minor incident or two later now I’ve said that!). Any barriers to women getting top jobs in physics have very subtle causes (chilcare and maternity leave, unintentional cliqueyness, not wanting to be in something seen as unfeminine perhaps) and looking at the obvious things when that isn’t the problem just isn’t helpful.

    I rather doubt there are any serious barriers to women getting senior jobs in physics at all. Female professors are definitely a small minority, but the gender ratio of professors could be just a reflection of university entrants between roughly 20 and 50 years ago rather than any biases in promotion now.

    Hope to see you at some point this week! Are you coming to the Meyrin site for lunch at all?

  • Zoe Louise Matthews

    I should be around in the day, yes. Thanks for this, Penny – I think this isn’t admitted to by enough women, and the more that do, the more comfortable potential future students may feel.