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Lucie de Nooij | NIKHEF | The Netherlands

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natuurkunde meisje

It is going to be hard to answer to question why there are so little women in physics. This will not stop me from coming back to this issue every now and then. I am not so much bothered by the fact that we are outnumbered, but it annoys me that I can not come up with a good reason for it. Over the last week, I have heard different arguments and I will discuss three of those here:

1) “You need a role model, and girls cannot find role models in physics.” First of all, this is not a very optimistic point of view in terms of change. Let’s not assume that few women will lead to few women forever, please. I do think everybody needs a role model. But why can’t my role model be a man? And why does he/she need to be a physicist? My role model is not really one person. It is more the optimized physicist. We should dream big.

2) “Girls are less self-confident and physics is notoriously hard.” Physics is notoriously hard. I am probably not the right person to judge whether physics can live up to its reputation. But if girls do not choose physics because of its reputation, all teenage girls should have a course in bluffing. They should believe that they can do anything, and that they just don’t do it because they don’t want to. But I think there is a truth in here; most girls I meet in physics are the self-confident type. They “dared” to go and study physics. But in general I don’t think that the people in physics are the bluffing-daring types. Is there a real difference here?

3) “In high schools girls are not encouraged to study technical subjects.” This may be the biggest hurdle to take. My mentor at high school mentioned physics being “very difficult and highly specialized” at our discussion on my future plans. He has studied Classical Literature, which was my best subject in high school. Luckily I expected him to be sceptical about my choice. Mentors should support everybody in their choices, again everybody is served best by honesty.

I am aware of the fact that these arguments only refer to choices people make. In The Netherlands, the drop out rate for girls is not higher (I would say even lower) than for guys. So why do many Italian girls study physics? Maybe they can come and study physics in The Netherlands?

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