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Seth Zenz | Imperial College London | UK

View Blog | Read Bio

Women at CERN: A Professional Perspective

Can you think of anything that all the men who won the Nobel Prizes in science this year have in common? I’ll give you a hint: the answer is already in the question. In fact, out of 195 people awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics since 1901, only two have been women: Marie Curie in 1901 and Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963.

I have been thinking quite a bit about the status of women in science and what we say about it lately, ever since reading the most recent posts on the subject here on Quantum Diaries. Both were written by James Doherty: “Girls, at CERN – loads of ’em!” and “Five Lessons from a Summer at CERN” (formerly titled, in part, “Italians are Hot,” and still with a subsection by that name). I think it should become clear that I don’t approve of James’s tone in some places, although I understand that he was aiming to convey his experience as a summer student in “an open, honest and light-hearted way.” At the same time, Quantum Diaries is a place for voices from the physics community: writers here usually don’t speak for anyone, but we are supposed to be representative. So, if we are going to talk about the issues faced by women in physics, we also need voices from professional particle physicists, who have thought and learned a bit about where gender inequalities arise and their implications for our field. In that spirit, let me put forward my viewpoint, along with links to many other views I’ve found educational; I’m sorry to say that from my perspective there’s a bit less to be light-hearted about.

Particle physics is my job. I come to CERN every day and work with my colleagues to learn more about the universe. Some of my colleagues are women. Some are men. Some are Italian. Who they are, how they look, or what they’re wearing cannot be my foremost concerns. If I don’t look all of my colleagues in the eye and listen to what they’re saying, then I am doing poorly at my job. I’m likely to suffer for it later, because whoever I didn’t listen to probably said something I need to know. The starting point is to treat everyone professionally and with respect.

Easy enough to agree with so far; I think almost everyone would. The problem is that, well, we still have a problem. As Pauline Gagnon wrote here last year, more and more women are joining our field, but they are still greatly underrepresented. Unless you believe that women are inherently bad at physics – and there are pretty straightforward reasons to believe that that can’t possibly be causing the imbalance – then something is going wrong somewhere. A lot of excellent potential physicists are deciding against physics as a career at one stage or another, or perhaps never learning about it in the first place, or are even being pushed or nudged out by sexism. Anywhere we lose potential colleagues makes our work poorer.

Where is it going wrong, and what can we do about it? Well, my experience actually isn’t very informative. I have never seen an example of deliberate ill-will toward female participation in physics, and indeed I’ve only recognized a few situations that were even accidentally awkward. But bias can be unconscious and difficult to recognize. As a scientist, I know two things:

1. Just because I’ve never seen something, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
2. I can read what other people have written to learn about stuff.

So here are some articles and blogs I have found enlightening, in particular on the question of what actions we can take as scientists to help bring about more even participation by women:

The literature on women in science, technology, engineering, and math is enormous, and I’m very far from knowing all of it well. Do you have a favorite article or study, especially on what we as scientists can do better? Post the link and I’ll add it below.

Update, Oct 16: Some suggested links (thanks, Ben, Sarah, and Ken!):

Update, Oct 21 (thanks, Marga!): http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013/10/a-ripple-of-voices-against-sexism.html


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  • Ben Jones

    Really good piece in the HBR about the ‘pipeline’ fallacy:

    And from the NPR, stereotyping in STEM:

    Great post, keep it coming.


  • Leilani

    I was just about ready to unsubscribe from Quantum Diaries after those last few articles. Thank you for this – a much more humble, thoughtful, reasonable perspective.

  • rmdc

    Your attitude is refreshing and positive.
    Its an interesting imbalance and I still don’t understand why its around.

  • Sarah

    Nice post, much appreciated! There was a good article on the Guardian today: http://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2013/oct/14/science-policy-women

  • Ken Bloom

    The New York Times Sunday magazine had an interesting feature story on this recently:


    In my opinion, nothing surprising, but it’s well-written. I should say that a few days later I ran into David Saltzberg, science adviser to “The Big Bang Theory”, and he criticized the article for being needlessly prejudiced against nerds. But, you can read and decide for yourself.

    Seth, good thought to write this post.

  • Matti

    A lot of interesting reading. I can only remember once a very bad comment about women in physics. It was from our program director in university. He was never able to wash that off him. Our next director was a women.

    I do not have time to read all the links. The nytimes article is pretty long. But it raises many questions.

    Do all women get harassed in physics class or how common is this? How big impact does this and tales of this have?

    Why are young people so obsessed about status? How does this work in countries where you status is directly connected to your grades?

    My mind is running way faster then I can write and instead of writing a uncomprehensible mess I will stop here.

  • Xezlec

    “Unless you believe that women are inherently bad at physics… then something is going wrong somewhere.”

    Yuck. I don’t really have a stance on this particular issue, but I hate it when people set up false bifurcations, especially when the third option that has been ignored is in fact the most common argument put forth by the opposing side.

    If you’ve ever had this argument with anyone before, you know that the standard response is that it’s possible women are just statistically less interested in physics than men are. That would not be strange. Such a gender discrepancy in interests could arise from cultural reasons or biological ones, neither of which, in my view, can automatically be viewed as inherently illegitimate. Where is your argument that there is no difference in interest? Or that there *shouldn’t* be such a difference? Why should we try to force the two genders to have exactly the same stitistical mixture of interests?

  • Hi Xezlec, thanks for your comment.

    First of all, I do know several arguments and counter arguments relating to that line and the talk I linked to. You’ll find, if you read some of my other posts here carefully, that I sometimes also simplify particle physics a bit. The purpose there, as here, is to get a clear point across and not digress too far.

    The danger in looking at a social inequality and saying, “It could be for reasons we can’t do anything about,” is that it’s an excuse for inaction. I view things in exactly the opposite way: until you’ve verified every possible pernicious explanation is false, you should worry. You should run down everything you might be screwing up and see if it can be done better. And if some day everything in STEM education and research is perfect, from preschool to emeritus faculty, and still only 45% of physicists are women, then and only then can you shrug it off.

    But in fact, we already know there are real problems. There is a lot of research and a lot of documentation behind that, which is the point I was trying to scratch the surface of with some of my links. There’s real, statistically-verifiable bias against women in academia. And gender ratios can be improved when you make an active point of trying.

    I’m not proposing to force anyone to do anything; individuals make choices based on their own experiences, and those individual choices are not “inherently illegitimate.” But the statistics tell us that there are a number of issues tending to push women out of physics, and I’m confident in saying that’s not legitimate at all. We have an obligation, institutionally, to give everyone a real opportunity to do anything they want.

  • Do you want to know why women leave science? Just jump on the #ripplesofdoubt scandal of sexism in science. Hundreds of testimonials this weekend.

  • Hi Marga, thank you. I have indeed been following it, and I’ll link to the New York article in the post as a place to get people started if they haven’t. It’s very important that all these voices be heard.

  • Denis

    > more and more women are joining our field, but they are still greatly underrepresented. Unless you believe that women are inherently bad at physics – and there are pretty straightforward reasons to believe that that can’t possibly be causing the imbalance – then something is going wrong somewhere.

    No, it does not follow.
    Even though women are equally capable as men to tackle physics, they might be *not equally interested in it*.

    You can’t possibly be suggesting that women need to be *forced* to do physics just in order to reach a “50% women quota” or similar, right?

    Another suggestion, that women needs to be accepted into physics programs preferentially, again to reach a “50% women quota”, is less outlandish, yet still wrong: sexism of _either_ sign is wrong.

  • Hi Denis, thanks for your comment. You might start by reading my response to Xezlec above for a discussion of the sentence that you quote.

    Your suggestions about forcing people to pursue a particular course of studies, or instituting strict quotas based on gender, did not appear anywhere in what I wrote. What I am proposing to do is to address the inequalities that are known to exist in academia and STEM education, as illustrated in the links.