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CERN | Geneva | Switzerland

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Women in physics: Are we there yet?

Many efforts have gone into addressing the gender gap in science. Physics is a field where women are still outnumbered. Is the situation evolving? Yes, very encouragingly, but numbers are not the only thing.

CERN is an international organization where exactly 15000 people (at least on September 11, 2012) were working. The vast majority, about 11200 scientists are so-called “users” paid by their home institute and coming from 69 different countries.

With about 2000 scientific authors coming from 176 institutes from 38 different countries, the ATLAS collaboration is a good place to look at the situation of women physicists. It gives a flavour of how the situation is evolving in its member countries.

In 2008, the fraction of women in the ATLAS collaboration was 15.6%. Four years later, we now account for 19.9% of the 1952 authors signing scientific papers and still active members of ATLAS. Half of these women are 36 years or younger, whereas only 33% of all men in ATLAS belong to this category. Below the age of 30, women account for 30% of all physicists in that age group, showing that more and more women are joining the field.

I also looked at the fraction of women according to nationality and affiliation. The numbers speak for themselves: some countries have many female physicists while others have very few. Some hire more women then there are women from this nationality, which seems to indicate that these countries are less successful at attracting them to the field. Here are the statistics for all countries participating in ATLAS. Only those shown with about 1.0% of all ATLAS authors (20 people) are statistically meaningful. I also included CERN and JINR (Joint Institute of Nuclear Physics) from Dubna, two large international laboratories.

The second column shows what fraction of ATLAS authors is hired by an institute from that country. The third column gives the fraction of women hired by all institutes in that country. The last column lists the fraction of women out of all people with this nationality. For example, I am Canadian and I am working for Indiana University, an American institute. So I go under USA for affiliation but under Canada for nationality.

It is also very interesting to reorder this list to see which countries hire the highest fraction of women. In the second table, I only included the countries having at least 14 people working on ATLAS. Many European countries make the top of the list: Romania, Spain, Greece, Poland and France. A female Turkish physicist used to explain it by salaries: in countries where physicists salaries are modest (including France, Italy and UK), men are less attracted into this field and women are more easily welcome.

For example in Ukraine, when the salaries in computer science started to drop significantly, the fraction of women in the field increased proportionally. On the contrary, countries where the salaries were higher such as Japan, Germany and Switzerland tended to have much less women, but this trend has fortunately greatly decreased since 2008.

So the representation of women is increasing steadily and encouragingly. But are women physicists getting a fair share? Judging by the appointed tasks in the ATLAS collaboration since around 2000, the situation is also improving there. While women account for only 19.9% and appointed tasks are usually offered to more senior people, women occupied 19.2% of all appointed task since 2008, slightly less before. More importantly, we now find women in all categories, including the decision-making posts. For example, Fabiola Gianotti has been ATLAS spokesperson now for the last four years, the first woman to be elected in this position in a large particle physics experiment. Only one other woman, Young-Kee Kim, had been elected co-spokesperson of CDF, another large particle physics experiment.

While the situation for women in ATLAS is improving on all fronts, a worldwide study launched by the American Institute of Physics involving 15000 physicists revealed that there is still a substantial gender gap in terms of access to opportunities. The survey showed that female physicists are invited speakers less often than their male colleagues. They get fewer opportunities to travel abroad, fewer resources (grant money, office space, hired staff) and fewer students to supervise. They are also less likely to serve on important committees, thesis committees or conference organizing committees. This held for all women, from developing countries as well as very developed countries. The differences were statistically significant in all cases given the large pool of respondents.

Will having yet more women in physics help fill that gender-based difference? Possibly. It is therefore worth checking this study that showed what might help bring more women to physics.

The researchers from the PRiSE study showed that students, both male and female, need to have a strong “physics identity” to pursue a career in physics. This means being good at it but most importantly, believing in their own ability which can be reinforced with encouragement from peers, teachers and family.

Several classroom activities had a positive influence on building a strong “physics identity” such as having discussions on cutting-edge physics topics, being encouraged to ask questions or teaching peers.

Of all the common strategies used to attract more young girls to scientific careers, such as providing role models or talking about female scientists, the only factor that was found to help according to this study was having a discussion on why there are so few women in scientific careers. This alone had the most impact on strengthening the girls’ physics identity while having no effect on boys. This claim is questioned by many women physicists who feel that having a role model greatly influenced their career choice.

So just in case: here I am, talking about it. Let’s hope that young women will keep coming into physics and that their presence will help achieve equality in numbers and opportunities. To paraphrase Maureen Reagan, I strongly believe we will have achieved equality the day an incompetent woman will be elected to a high position.

Pauline Gagnon

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7 Responses to “Women in physics: Are we there yet?”

  1. Marcel Vos says:

    Hi Pauline,

    Not disagreeing with the objective of getting more women into physics, but I think we should be careful when we define the “equal share” goal. The study you quote does not show there is significant discrimination against women. Attempts to regulate the fraction of women are likely to be unfair and counterproductive.
    To clarify this, let’s consider an example. Let’s assume only a small fraction f0 of students that enter (and leave) the physics faculty is female. If f0 is significantly less than 50% (and it is in many countries) I think that tells us we should try to encourage more girls to get into physics. I don’t think, however, that we should aim for a female participation greater than f0 at any level above the entry point to an academic career. In some countries the equal opportunities rules require a 50% share of women in faculty positions, for instance. Unless one can demonstrate that the female students are significantly more competent than their male colleagues, this kind of regulation breaks the meritocratic principle (that should, I believe, be the only criterion to hire anyone in science) and leads to an unfair advantage for women.
    Cheers, Marcel

    • CERN says:

      Dear Marcel,

      thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. I agree with you: it should all be based on merit. Or as Susan B. Anthony once said it: “Men – their rights and nothing more; Women – their rights and nothing less.” The problem at stake here is not to try to give any group more rights than any other group but simply make sure that everybody is treated equally. What we see right now is that women are continuously discouraged from pursuing a career in physics and other fields. We live in a society that keeps repeating to girls that they are supposed to behave one way and boys, another way. When you add it all up, you end up with a situation where women are told in so many different ways (some subtle, others less) that they don’t belong there that most of them stay away from physics or do not join. Gender stereotypes hurt every one. If all human beings were treated equally, we would have no racism, no sexism and no homophobia.

      To come back to your point: changing mentalities is what we need to achieve. This will help having more women in science (and in all other fields) and this will also help change mentalities. Positive discrimination in the meantime is one small way to re-established the balance. This can be done fairly by giving the job to a woman when all candidates are equally qualified.

      Cheers, Pauline

  2. Hi Pauline,

    Thank you for your thoughtful posting.

    I’m a particle physicist by training. I’ve been interested in gender representation in science while I was in science and that continued after I left for the consulting world. I wrote an article on culture, gender and leadership in an Information Technology context, the Year 2000 Century Date Change Problem in 1999. That focused on women. I am working on three new articles now that look at gender equity on three time scales. The present mix of equity and inequity, the transition to equity as normal (not perfect, varying in expression by culture) and finally the future that comes after that transition; where there are new normals.

    The focus of the first 51-page article is a model. (Once a physicist, always a physicist.) It is a model for invisible privilege, entitlement or advantage males have under inequity and for how these become invisible disadvantages when equity becomes pervasive, which creates a resistance effect. I believe that this model could explain why physics and other STEM fields lag (at least numerically) other fields like Law and Medicine.

    I am seeking critics and collaborators for this model. I confess that thinking in social science terms is a challenge. (The social science culture on relating to data and mathematics is a culture shock, to be polite about it.) However, I think that bringing a better model, if proven, could make invisible aspects of the issue more visible, more discussible, more changable.

    I have mostly been seeking collaborators from the social sciences, however your article reminded me of my community of origin and that there could be others who, like me, wonder what can be done to impact the issue. The numerical difference between participation in Law and Medicine and the STEM fields is an order of magnitude. To model makers, that is a signal. It’s telling us something valuable. With the right model, it might allow us to make a difference.



  3. Luboš Motl says:

    It’s very unfortunate to use a flagship discipline of science, particle physics, as an abused tool to further some particular social engineering projects based on a particular ideology and scientifically indefensible prejudices about what percentage of what groups should be specializing in particular activities. Can’t you take it elsewhere? This is just way too important business over here.

  4. […] Texto do blog Quantum Diaries com algumas estatísticas sobre as mulheres que trabalham no CERN: Women in physics: Are we there yet? […]

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