Well-publicised comments from a former researcher at CERN show the barriers and prejudice women still faceby Philip Ball / April 8, 2019 / Leave a comment
The award of last year’s Nobel prize in physics to Donna Strickland of the University of Waterloo in Canada for her work on laser science was a reminder that physics, even more than most other sciences, has a gender problem. Strickland was only the third woman to receive a physics Nobel, after Marie Curie in 1903 and nuclear scientist Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963.
There is clear evidence that female scientists face all kinds of barriers in science. According to the US National Science Foundation, although women earn about half the doctorates in science and engineering in the United States, only about one in five full science professors, and one in 20 full engineering professors, are female. And on average, they earn just 82 per cent of what their male counterparts make. Half of the women questioned in a survey by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2010 said they had encountered gender bias. As for harassment, frankly I don’t need statistics; I have heard enough personal testimonies to know it is still rife.
Astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell has said that whistles and catcalls were routine for a woman in physics when she was doing the work for which she was notoriously overlooked by the Nobel committee. She discovered the neuron stars called pulsars while working under the supervision of Antony Hewish at Cambridge in 1967, but only Hewish (along with astronomer Martin Ryle) got the 1974 physics prize. (It’s less well known that Marie Curie was included in 1903 only because her husband Pierre, with whom she shared the prize, insisted.)
Against this backdrop, the remarks made last year at the particle-physics centre CERN by physicist Alessandro Strumia sounded antediluvian. Speaking at an event on gender issues in physics in September, Strumia claimed that women were under-represented in physics by choice, that they were simply not as good at it as the best of the men, and that they are sometimes promoted or hired over men with better credentials. Physics, said Strumia, was “invented and built by men, not by invitation.” The episode showed that there are still scientists in male-dominated disciplines who actively resent and resist efforts to give women parity—and that…