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A stark reminder that physics still struggles with its gender problem

Well-publicised comments from a former researcher at CERN show the barriers and prejudice women still face

By Philip Ball  

Pierre and Marie Curie in the laboratory. Marie shared the Nobel in 1903 only because her husband Pierre insisted

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 they do so not (or not just) with old-fashioned sexism but with Powerpoint graphs presenting allegedly scientific arguments. 

In response, CERN announced at the end of September that it had “decided not to extend Professor Strumia’s status of guest professor.” (He is based at the University of Pisa, which issued a public sanction on Strumia for his remarks in January.) Naturally, this has given Strumia license to claim victim status and suggest that his views have been suppressed by political correctness. He got another opportunity to air them in a recent Sunday Times profile, in which his claims went largely unchallenged.

Strumia’s arguments have been comprehensively debunked already. According to physicist Philip Moriarty of Nottingham University, “Strumia wears the mantle of the ever-so-courageous rational scientist ‘speaking truth to power’ and just ‘telling it like it is,’ when, in fact, and despite his loud claims to the contrary, he’s wedded to a glaringly obvious ideology.”

To explain why this is so requires a point-by-point analysis of the claims in Strumia’s talk, which fortunately Moriarty, particle physicist Jon Butterworth and others have had the patience to undertake. Strumia’s assertions are also roundly critiqued in an open letter signed by more than 3,000 international physicists. 

Of course, there is nevertheless always an audience hungry for this sort of thing. But what partly sustains the attention is that, in the time-honoured manner of contrarians, Strumia taps into some long-standing controversies. One of the central pillars of his argument is the claim of “greater male variability.” The idea here is that, while the IQs of men and women do not differ on average, men are more heavily represented at the extremes—there are more low-intelligence men but also more geniuses. There is some evidence that this is so, although it’s debated what it implies—the authors of a 2008 study showing greater male variability in IQ concluded that “sex differences in variability did not appear to account for sex differences in high-level achievement”—in other words, any innate differences that do exist that can’t account for gender disparities in “success.”As neuroscientist Kevin Mitchell writes in his book Innate, “it is extremely difficult to separate [the] possible influence [of variability] from the many cultural influences at play.”

What’s more, there seem to be more important factors to career success than IQ (who knew?), and no reason to believe that physicists are drawn predominantly from the high extreme of the IQ distribution even if a small gender difference exists there. One of the key criticisms of Strumia’s assertions is that he assumes a straightforward correlation between IQ and how well received a researcher’s work is (as measured by citations), which is far from obvious and certainly not proven. 

Underlying this debate is the broader issue of whether there are any systematic differences in the behaviour and cognitive traits of men and women. This too is still hotly disputed. At one level it is trivially true: there is clearly a massive (although not universal) preference in mating choice for the opposite sex in all other animals, and no conceivable reason why humans should be any different (that is, why the predominance of heterosexuality in humans would not be largely innate, even if cultural conditioning plays some role too). It would be surprising if other differences did not exist too, although the data generally aren’t good enough to say for sure: “many of the historically reported findings in this field have been inconsistent,” says Mitchell. 

The question is rather whether the anatomical, neurological and biochemical differences seen in male and female brains map in any meaningful way onto social aptitudes and choices. Several recent books, including Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain, Cordelia Fine’s Testosterone Rex, and Angela Saini’s Inferior, question whether that is so, and make a compelling case for how in any event the supposed “science” has routinely been used to shore up stereotypes and defend inequalities. The idea that the sexes are all but indistinguishable as far as innate human behaviour goes has some strong critics, and the arguments will rage on. But when scientists assert that, even if the data were abused and distorted by cognitive bias and prejudice in the past, they are beyond that now, one can hardly be surprised when critics raise an eyebrow.

In other respects it’s hard to know whether the facts of Strumia’s case are skated over in the Sunday Times article by design or simply because of poor research. It gives the impression that Strumia was sacked by CERN for his comments on women in physics. But CERN’s Director General Fabiola Gianotti has made it very clear that what led to Strumia’s dismissal was that he publicly attacked the professional standing of a colleague in his implication that two female colleagues had not been appointed on merit. He “used his presentation to make unacceptable personal allegations against individuals attending the workshop, which is why we have been obliged to take action,” said Gianotti.

That, too, pertains to the most egregious lacuna in the article. Counting up citations to published papers—a commonly used index of how significant the impact of the work is—Strumia “claims that women given academic posts tended to have fewer such mentions than men,” the article said. But why be coy about it? What he actually asserted in his talk was that two women at CERN got top jobs that he didn’t, while having fewer citations than him. Still, he was speaking totally objectively, you understand. (Women do receive fewer citations than men on average, and there are reasons for it that have nothing to do with quality and a fair bit to do with bias.)

Other of Strumia’s assertions are sheer facepalm stuff. “It’s not as if they build walls to keep out the women [from physics],” he said, trowel in hand. Women might suspect that the environment will be less than welcoming, for example, if they happen across the musical video made by Strickland’s fellow Nobel laureate Gerard Mourou to promote a new European project in 2013, in which he struts around a lab surrounded by young female students who strip off their semi-transparent lab coats to reveal not much else beneath. Mourou has now expressed embarrassment, but such lack of judgement leaves little doubt about the everyday sexism that lingers in the community.

It comes as little surprise that harassment is still a common problem in science. Some of the highest-profile allegations of serious sexual harassment in science have centered on physicists, such as leading astrophysicist Geoff Marcy of the University of California at Berkeley and physics populariser Lawrence Krauss, who was placed on “administrative leave” at Arizona State University.

The problem is not so much that there are lots of lecherous male physicists but that unacceptable behaviour has been tolerated and excused for so long in the discipline. Even now, plenty of physicists who lionise Richard Feynman dismiss the behaviour described in Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman!, in which he recorded how he trained himself to think of women as “bitches,” and called one “worse than a whore” when she didn’t reward his paying for sandwiches in a café with sexual favours. The common excuse is that that’s just the way things were back then, despite there being no shortage of male physicists who didn’t say and do such things in the 1950s.

Science has long had difficulty facing up to deplorable actions from scientists, especially if they are eminent. Physicist Athene Donald has recently called out the widespread and “pernicious” culture of bullying and harassment in academia, and the inability or unwillingness of institutions to deal with it. The Sunday Times article makes things worse by suggesting that the problem with the likes of Strumia, as with James Watson, who in 2007 was dismissed as Chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory for genetic research after he claimed that black people are less intelligent than whites, is that they have “stray[ed] off discipline.” There’s nothing wrong with straying off discipline (apart from the risk of making a fool of yourself). But talking offensive nonsense is another matter.

All the same, it is somewhat heartening that Strumia’s claims have found so little traction among scientists. Of course, some will agree with him that this merely shows how science, like the rest of academia, is irredeemably “woke”—that, as Strumia claims, “it is about excessive political correctness.” He joins the list of columnists and commentators who fulminate regularly to a huge audience about how “there are ideas that are wrong but nobody is allowed to say it.” 

It’s encouraging too that there are signs of change. In a recent study, two researchers at Cornell University performed “hiring experiments” for science and economics faculty at American universities which showed that women candidates had twice as much chance of getting appointed as men with comparable qualifications and lifestyles. (The exception was economics, for which there was no significant difference between men and women.) Needless to say, some have used this as evidence that everything Strumia says is true—worse, that men in science are now the victims of discrimination. The researchers themselves say only that “our results indicate a surprisingly welcoming atmosphere today for female job candidates in STEM disciplines.” They point out, however, that a lower proportion of women eligible to apply for tenure actually do so (that’s why Strickland was not a full professor when she was awarded the Nobel). To suggest that the study disproves any suggestion that the historically low representation of women in physical science is due to something other than choice is, however, absurd; this is simply another datum in a complex landscape.

In one way, Strumia’s latest diatribe confirms the assertion by writer and journalist George Monbiot that “the more disgracefully you behave, the bigger the platform the media will give you.” But Strumia typifies a dilemma to which science is particularly prone. Without the freedom to ask any question, it is reduced. But the choice of questions is not neutral. The possibility that one group of people differs in their abilities or predilections to another can’t be excluded simply because it would be politically inconvenient or embarrassing to find evidence that this is so. But no one has ever found convincing evidence that, say, women have less aptitude for physics than men, or that black people have inherently lower IQs than whites. What they have found, clearly and consistently, is that both of those former groups have suffered systematic discrimination that has held them back. In that circumstance, you can’t but wonder about the motivations of people who say “no, but are you absolutely sure these differences aren’t innate? Shouldn’t we check again before taking any action to address the other injustices?” As Saini shows in her forthcoming book Superior, on the history of science-based race discrimination, there has never yet been a figure in that depressing tale who could plausibly and ingenuously have said “I’m only asking.” “For those with a political ideology to sell,” Saini writes, “the data itself doesn’t matter so much as how it can be spun.”

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