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Posts Tagged ‘gender’

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


Women in physics: Are we there yet?

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

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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