Where are the women in physics?

Submitted by AWL on 18 October, 2018 - 2:50 Author: Les Hearn
Emmy Noether

Physics pervades our lives, not just in the experiences of gravity, momentum, heat and cold that our ancestors would have felt but with the engines, electricity, communications and computing that are now taken for granted. The laws of physics have been elucidated by a group of people unknown for much of human history - scientists - and this group has been largely, but not entirely, male, the balance changing slowly throughout the last century. Women are still under-represented in physics, research, teaching, and industry, relative to their proportion in the general population - that is beyond dispute. The proportion of girls taking Physics A-level is little more than 1/5th (2014), about the same as for women taking physics degrees, while the figure for women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) jobs is about 1 in 8.

There is no reason apart from prejudice to assume that women could contribute any less than men to the development of physics and many universities, research facilities and physics organisations, as well as self-organised groups of women physicists, have been trying to tackle the popular misconception that physics is not for women.

CERN (European Centre for Nuclear Research, home of the Large Hadron Collider)1 has been taking the promotion of gender equality and diversity seriously, with initiatives to encourage girls to study physics in schools and for women to enter physics study and research. One of these was a workshop on high energy physics (HEP) theory, and gender in the world of physics. The aim was to present up-to-date research into nuclear physics, including string theory, to improve the visibility of women in HEP, and to discuss how to support women and minorities in HEP.

Open to all, the workshop was attended mainly by early-career women physicists. The speakers were mainly young women HEP theorists, with a quarter of the sessions devoted to gender-related issues. These included the aspirations of young women, academic recruitment and retention, and unconscious bias. CERN reported that the workshop was a great success in promoting gender diversity, allowing young researchers to discuss with senior women theorists how they might progress their careers in a male-dominated area.

However, the success of the workshop was, in CERN’s words,2 “overshadowed by one speaker who made statements contrary to the ideals on which CERN is based.” This was Professor Alessandro Strumia who announced to a shocked and angered audience that men had “invented and built” physics. His arguments were a re-hash of pseudo-scientific justifications for gender imbalance in physics, and in science in general, asserting that women were just less capable than men.

Furthermore, said Strumia, with current attempts to promote inclusion and diversity in physics-based studies and research, it was men who were now being discriminated against, giving himself as the example - it appeared that a woman whom he regarded as less qualified had got a job that he had applied for. As CERN states, “worse, the same speaker used his presentation to make unacceptable personal allegations against individuals attending the workshop, which is why we have been obliged to take action.”2

This included suspending Professor Strumia from any work at CERN (he is employed elsewhere) while an alleged breach of CERN’s Code of Conduct was investigated. Referring to his comments as “highly offensive,”3 CERN removed his slides from the online repository [they were extremely poorly produced, in addition to being very poor science - LH]. He had after all accused a less-qualified (in his opinion) named woman of taking part in the appointment of another less-qualified (in his opinion) named woman to a job that he had applied for. The successful candidate was in the audience to hear his insulting attack.4

Strumia’s fellow physicists were quick to condemn his behaviour in a statement signed by over 200 particle physicists (PP) and endorsed by some 3000 other physicists.5 On the relative abilities of men and women, they observe that “Strumia is not an expert on these topics and is misusing his physics credentials to put himself forward as one.” There was already a perfectly plausible explanation for the observed gender imbalance as the result of discouragement and discrimination. They also took apart his claims to greater qualification. One piece of evidence is his greater citation rate than the named women [this is to do with how many times a scientist’s published papers have been referred to in other papers]. But citation rate is not by itself proof of anything. Scientists work in groups so one citation of a paper benefits all authors equally. Strumia got nearly 17000 citations, about a third of his total, from a single CERN paper (on the discovery of the Higgs boson) of which he was one of 2872 authors. And the cited work may be wrong, as occurred with nine of Strumia’s CERN papers about a blip in the data which disappeared when more data were collected: the nearly 700 citations all count!

Strumia claims that the likes of Marie Curie were not discriminated against so the rarity of female Nobel prize-winners reflects the rarity of talented women physicists. The PP statement points out that Curie was discriminated against, suffering sexism and xenophobia for a large part of her career. It also names four other women physicists who arguably deserved Nobel prizes: Chien-Shiung Wu, Vera Rubin, Lise Meitner, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell. I can think of at least two more - Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin and Emmy Noether. The PP statement ends “we would also like to underline how grossly unethical it is to misrepresent the topic of one’s talk to promote an agenda which is antithetical to the workshop itself. To personally attack one of the organizers during said talk is even worse.”5

It is clear that Strumia has done himself no favours: in addition to CERN’s action, Strumia’s home institution, the University of Pisa, has opened an investigation into “reported violations of the University Community fundamental values” and “contravention of academics’ code of conduct.”

However, there are no doubt many other physicists who feel the same way without trumpeting it - they simply fail to support or actively hinder women or minority groups in their physics careers. One notably absent voice in the fight for inclusion and diversity has been that of the trade unions. Despite policies favouring equality, they seem to have spoken out little on combating sexism in science.

1Solidarity has covered the activities of CERN, particularly the discovery of the Higgs boson. https://www.workersliberty.org/story/2011/11/23/what-cern-and-what-good…
https://www.workersliberty.org/story/2012/07/11/higgs-here

2https://home.cern/cern-people/opinion/2018/10/promoting-gender-equality…

3http://press.cern/press-releases/2018/09/updated-statement-cern-stands-…

4https://physicsworld.com/a/thousands-of-physicists-sign-letter-condemni…

5https://www.particlesforjustice.org

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