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James Doherty | Open University | United Kingdom

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Girls, at CERN – loads of ’em!

My pal got chatting to a drunk fella in a bar in Oxford a few weeks before he started a new job at CERN. When he mentioned the identity of his future employer, the drunk fella guffawed with a “well you’re not going to find a girlfriend over there!”.

Now, either this intoxicated chap was implying that my pal is inherently unattractive to particle physicists (which seems unlikely as he’s a very handsome man) or he was insinuating that there aren’t too many ladies at CERN. I think it was more likely the latter and to that my response would be – not so!

I’m not sure of the exact figures but from a cursory glance around the lecture theatre there seems to be a roughly equal number of girls and boys on the CERN Student Summer Programme this year. Moreover, a significant proportion of our lecturers are female, with Daniela Bortoletto, Tara Shears and Magdalena Kowalska proving to be fantastic communicators as well as scientists.

Females are prominent and very visible at CERN. For example, the observation of the Higgs, one of the most important discoveries in modern science, was partly announced by Fabiola Gianotti as spokesperson of the ATLAS detector.

Fabiola Gianotti appears on the cover of Time magazine.

Fabiola Gianotti appears in Time magazine.

Now, that’s not to ignore the reality that the ratio of sexes at CERN more generally is still tipped in favour of males but, nevertheless, particle physics isn’t solely a man’s world. A CERN website specifically states that:

“CERN hopes to… send a clear message to all young women interested in particle physics and high technology that they are welcome in the field as physicists, engineers and computer scientists… Particle physics is a field where women play an active role at the forefront of experimental research.”

CERN even has an official and very active Women’s Club to provide an additional support network for females working at CERN. 

So, if you are female and hoping to break into particle physics, the opportunities, support structures and role models are there for you to get your foot in the door and progress to the pinnacle of your field.  So no excuses – get the application in…


Contrary to the predictions of an inebriated man in an Oxford drinking establishment, my pal is now dating a very lovely female particle physicist. So ha!

  • Freya

    The numbers are approximately as follows (all are accurate around 5%)

    young (~under 30) scientists at CERN working for various universities (CERN jargon: users): about 25% women. So that’s really not that bad a fraction for the sciences and definitely much better than in many other STEM fields.

    The average fraction of woman scientists at CERN (all ages) is about 15%.

    Obviously if you start looking for older groups there are less females, as in the olden days things were different.

    Personally, I hope that everyone at CERN is trying to make sure that those 25% women actually continue in the field and are not discouraged by non-physics factors to leave.

  • As I discovered when I first came to CERN, the CERN Women’s Club isn’t for females working at CERN; it’s more for presumably-unemployed spouses of people working at CERN, who have the time to participate in club activities during working hours.