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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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