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Source CERN Document Server
Date Created 2007-03-21
Language English
Subject Domain (in DDC) Natural sciences & mathematics ♦ Physics ♦ Modern physics ♦ Technology ♦ Engineering & allied operations ♦ Applied physics
Description Physics has always had a relatively low proportion of female students and researchers. In the EU there are on average 33% female PhD-graduates in the physical sciences, while the percentage of female professors amounts to 9% [1]. At CERN the proportion is even less with only 6.6 % of the research staff being women [2]. The fact that there is no proportional relationship between the number of PhD-graduates and professors also suggests women are less likely to succeed in an academic career than men [1]. A typical ATLAS plenary meeting. More laptops than women... Is the low representation of women in physics a problem, do we actually need more female physicists? In my view this question has to be answered from three perspectives, the perspective of society, the perspective of science and the perspective of women. The perspective of society Starting from the viewpoint of society, several issues can be raised. Firstly, physics is a field of innovation. Many technological advancements having a huge impact on society and everyday life come directly or indirectly from physics. Being a physicist is therefore to have access to people and knowledge that sets the technological agenda. Secondly, research and academic positions are in many countries regarded as high status jobs. Academic staff are often appointed to committees that fund research projects or advise governments on issues that are closely related to their field of expertise. As such, scientists influence the focus of research and the general development of society. Finally, it is a democratic principle that power and influence should be distributed equally and proportionally among different groups in society. An EU average of 9% female physics professors does not even come close to equal representation in this field. The fact that women also fund research through tax payments add to the demand for more female scientists. The perspective of science From a scientific point of view, the lack of women represents a huge waste of talent. In order for physics to develop further as a science more people with excellent analytical, communicational and social skills are needed. It has also been reported that departments without women suffer in many ways [3]. The perspective of women Women will of course benefit from increased influence in society, but contributing to physics is not squarely about struggling for influence and power. Fundamental questions have been asked throughout history by both men and women alike. Contributing to physics is therefore to partake in a human project, driven by curiosity and wonder, seeking to understand the world around us. So why do women fail to advance to the top levels in academia? Some reports state that it is because women are less likely to give priority to their career [4], inferiority in the ability to do science compared to men or that women lack some of the abilities necessary to be successful in science [5]. For example it has been suggested that men are on average more aggressive than women, and that this property (among others) is necessary in order to succeed in academic work [5]. What these reports have in common is that they all conclude that there will never be as many women as men in academia because of innate differences between the genders, and also that these differences are the main reason for the under-representation of women. Others again state that women don't succeed in physics because of prejudice, discrimination and unfriendly attitudes towards them. Studies have shown that women need to be twice as productive as men in order to be considered equally competent [7]. In fact both men and women rate men's work higher than that of women [8]. There is also the psychological mechanism called "stereotype threat", which causes individuals who are made aware of the negative stereotypes connected to the social group they belong to, i.e. age, gender, ethnicity, religion, to underperform in a manner consistent with the stereotype. White male engineering students will for instance perform significantly worse on tests, when they are told that Asian students usually outperform them on the same tests [9]. It is important to remember that these prejudices are present in most human beings and do not necessarily arise from evil will or conscious hostility. A survey designed to identify issues important to women in physics also reports on negative experiences as a minority group due to the male domination in the field [11]. In this survey 80% state that attitudes towards women in physics need to be improved, while 65% believe one needs to be deal with the problem of discrimination. This survey also reports on positive experiences among female physicists, in particular their love for their field and the support they have received from others. What can be changed? To produce an exhaustive list of reasons explaining why so few women are able to reach the highest positions in academia would be a tedious endeavor with many conflicting opinions. However if we agree that we need more women in physics, it is clear that actions need to be taken. In this regard it is important to recognize that some of these actions will also be beneficial to men, and improve their ability to succeed in a scientific career as well. In academia several things can be changed to eliminate discrimination and hostile attitudes towards women (and men): Transparency in selection processes for scholarships, funding and positions, i.e. making all evaluation done by the selection committees public so that any discriminating mechanism can be unveiled. This will also benefit men, since they are also subject to discrimination [7]. Investigate hostile attitudes in institutes and laboratories. Those who discriminate tend not to see how their behavior affects their environment, and those discriminated against are usually very reluctant in admitting it. The Institute of Physics in London visits institutes, on invitation only, to investigate their attitudes towards women [3]. Make the career path more predictable. Both genders suffer from the unpredictability and requirement of mobility in an academic physics career. This can also conflict with the wish to start a family [11]. Awareness of discrimination. Nobody wants to discriminate against others, but the use of stereotypes and prejudice is part of the human nature. For that reason it is important to be aware of how these properties affect the way we evaluate and treat others. Awareness of discriminating procedures have caused changes. Both the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) [12] for pioneers and the Swedish Medical Research Council (MRC) [7] changed their routines after being made aware that their evaluation and recruitment schemes were prejudiced against women. There is no doubt that the under-representation of women in physics is a sensitive issue. Women and men that never experienced discrimination or bias towards their gender, often feel repelled when the issue is discussed. However, I believe the numbers speak for themselves: women do not have the same possibility to succeed in academia as men. As individuals we would like to think that we can all approach any branch of society without being met with hostility or bias, no matter what ethnic group, social class, religion or gender we might belong to. In the end most women would just like to be able to make the same mistakes, produce the same amount of papers and be respected, accepted or rejected on the same conditions as their male colleagues, no more, no less. Acknowledgments: Thanks to the ATLAS Women's Network, David Milstead, Robindra Prabhu, Helene Rickhard, Josi Schinzel, Jonas Strandberg and Sara Strandberg. Editor's note: This article is also being published simultaneously in the June issue of the CERN Courrier in agreement with the CERN Courrier Editor. References [1] She Figures 2006, Women and Science -Statistics and Indicators, European Commission Directorate-General for Research. [2] J. Schinzel, "Statistics for Equal Opportunites 2005" (Draft), CERN 2006. [3] P. Main, "Gender Audits of Physics Departments in the UK" . Talk at the Nordic Conference for Women in Physics, Bergen (2005). [4] The Science of Gender and Science. Pinker vs. Spelke: A Debate [5] P. Lawrence, "Men, Women, and Ghosts in Science", PLoS Biology 413-15 (2006) [6] B. A. Barres, "Does gender matter?", Nature 442 133-136 (2006) [7] C. Wenneras and A. Wold, "Nepotism and sexism in peer-review", Nature 387 341-343 (1997). [8] P. Goldberg, "Are women predjudiced against women?", Trans-Action 5 267-276 (1968). [9] Steele Discusses "Stereotype Threat" (2004) [10] "Learning in a man's world: examining the perceptions of undergraduate women in male-dominated academic areas" J. Steele, J.B. James, R.C. Barnett, , Psychology of Women Quarterly, 26 (2002) 46-50. [11] R. Ivie ans S. Guo, "Women Physiscists Speak Again", Proceedings from the 2nd IUAP International Conference on Women in Physics (2005). [12] M. Carnes, "Gender:macho language and other deterrents", Correspondence in Nature, 443, 868 (2006)