Physics Has an Obvious Gender Problem—So How Does Someone End Up Thinking the Field is Biased Against Men?

Few pursue a career in physics expecting it to be a smooth ride; the subject is notoriously challenging, the playing field competitive. For women, though, the road can be downright treacherous. Feelings of not belonging or imposter syndrome, rampant among physics students at the best of times, are compounded by the frequent lack of female faculty members (women held only 14% of physics faculty positions in the U.S. as of 2010) and the harassment women face, leading many to give up or change majors early into their physics careers. So when, earlier this year, a physicist named Alessandro Strumia took the stage at CERN’s first workshop on high-energy theory and gender only to launch into a tirade alleging that the field is biased against men, the community responded swiftly with what can only be described as a logical and statistical beatdown.

Study after study shows that women in the natural sciences are subject to frightening levels of verbal harassment related to their gender; in astronomy, around 44% of women report having been harassed. (This accounts for negative language that explicitly includes discriminatory remarks. The number of women who have faced other types of negative comments is twice that.) Many report skipping classes and meetings because of feeling unsafe, which immediately places them at a professional disadvantage. Perhaps this is part of the reason that female students make up only 22%—that’s one in five—of undergraduate physics students.

It’s also been shown that women of color face a double disadvantage as they are frequently attacked for both their gender and their race; some 35% of women of color in astronomy have experienced harassment related to their race. What does that mean for diversity in the field? Take a look at the figure below—a long, hard stare—and try to internalize it.

This graph shows the numbers of women who received bachelor’s degrees in physics annually over a five-year period. Note in particular the shockingly small numbers granted to minority women.
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From 1973 to 2012, 22,000 white men earned physics PhDs; in that same time span, so did 66 black women. Sixty-six. Why is this a problem? In a culture that prides itself on individual freedoms, it’s truly troubling that many girls and women feel they cannot pursue a degree in physics, despite their inclinations or abilities. Studying and working in physics is an important way to participate in society and one where women should be welcomed, not pushed away. Besides, it’s not good for research teams to be completely homogeneous. Researchers, even in a field as impersonal as physics, bring their own perspectives and backgrounds into the lab with them, their interests and insights coming—in part—from their own manner of relating with the world. Teams composed equally of men and women have been shown to outperform male-dominated teams in other arenas, and there is no reason to believe that physics is different.

That is why it seems like there are ever-increasing initiatives to recruit female students to the sciences, particularly fields like physics and engineering that have traditionally been male-dominated. In some cases, these initiatives are represented by affirmative action; in others as efforts to engage young girls in STEM through special activities; in still others, they take on the form of scholarships and fellowships reserved solely for women. To an outside (male) observer, it may be frustrating to see these opportunities present themselves to women and exclude equally qualified (or even more qualified) men. However, these exist only because of the countless other scholarships, fellowships, and academic appointments that are effectively, if not nominally, closed to female candidates.

To give just one example, a 2012 experiment gave science faculty mock applications from students applying for a lab manager position. Regardless of whether the faculty members were men or women, they rated the applications with men’s names attached as significantly more “hireable” than applications with women’s names—even though the other aspects of the applications were identical. Perhaps this helps to explain why, although women earn around 46% of Ph.D.s (across all fields), they only represent one-quarter of full professors—and they earn, on average, 84% of their male colleagues’ salaries for comparable positions. In addition, numbers can be deceptive; while the gender gap is narrowing for number of PhDs conferred overall, women are largely relegated to less prestigious programs than men. Female-only opportunities exist to combat the internalized and institutionalized bias that women face in physics—not to discriminate against men.

If the statistics on sexual harassment and discriminatory hiring aren’t enough to convince you, attend any meeting of women in physics. Ask your female colleagues if discrimination in the lab and the classroom is still a problem. Even if they have not personally experienced harassment or discrimination, they will almost certainly know of someone close to them who has.

Nevertheless, CERN scientist Alessandro Strumia made international headlines in late September, when he turned a lecture on his recent bibliometrics paper into a diatribe about sexism in physics. The problem? He claimed that his work shows that physics is a hostile environment for men, and that women are more warmly welcomed.

Men, he claimed, were passed over for jobs in favor of less-qualified women, and they were shut out of female-only scholarship opportunities. He argued that the “gender gap” is a fallacy, since other professions have a larger number of women than men, and that the only reason men are over-represented in metrics such as number of citations and conference presentations is that they are “over-performing”. He showed data to back up his hypothesis, so could he be right?

To begin with, Strumia is a high energy physicist, not an expert in gender studies. His data has not been corroborated and his findings are in stark contrast to the entire body of literature created by actual experts. In the words of a top-tier rebuttal put forth by a coalition of high energy physicists called Particles for Justice (and signed by over 4,000 scientists in related fields), “He frequently made the basic error of conflating correlation with causation, and while Strumia claimed to be proving that there is no discrimination against women, his arguments were rooted in a circumscribed, biased reading of the data available, to the point of promoting a perspective that is biased against women.” Among these errors, according to the statement, are failures to consider that women flock to other professions because of systematic discouragement, that women are subject to additional pressures like taking on a primary caregiver position in the home, and that men are inherently at a systemic advantage in physics.

For example, a key “finding” of Strumia’s work indicates that women are hired with, on average, a lower number of citations of their publications than men. In the academic community, the number of citations an article or paper receives is largely seen as a measure of its success; theoretically, the most novel and impactful research will receive the greatest number of citations from other researchers as they build upon it. While there is some truth to that, the full picture is a lot more complicated than the simple comparison of citation numbers that Strumia suggests. In particular, there are three key points to keep in mind:

• Men and women have both been shown to internalize gender discrimination—which means that most researchers are unconsciously biased towards men. Even without being aware of it, researchers choose more often to cite male researchers’ papers, and hire/promote men over women. This of course means that women’s papers are at an inherent disadvantage in accruing citations. So although there isn’t a significant difference in the number of publications between women and men in physics, implicit bias can cause primarily male-authored papers to reach a large number of citations while their female colleagues are left behind.

• The scientific community, defined as the connections between research papers in the form of citations and coauthors, has the mathematical form of what’s called a directional scale-free network. Without delving too far into the mathematical theories behind this structure, it means that the network of citations gives itself over to a “hub and spoke” structure where about 80 percent of citations go to only 38 percent of scientists. Since citations raise scientific awareness of a paper, those papers that start out with just a few more citations than similar ones can quickly snowball—effectively, they go viral in the academic community. Does that mean that the papers that receive huge numbers of citations aren’t high quality? Of course not. But the necessity of reaching the “critical mass” of citations it takes to become an academic hub means that slight biases can become heavily amplified.

• While the number of citations researchers earn is absolutely an important metric of success in academia, many positions require more than just a rigorous research history. Take Strumia’s “case study”, in which he laments the fact that a female colleague with one-tenth his number of citations was offered a prestigious position over him. Of course, we can’t pretend to know the details behind this hiring process, but it’s worth remembering that despite Strumia’s protestations, number of citations is not the only qualification. While his argument is that, as the more-cited candidate, he should have received the offer, the job posting itself says otherwise. Yes, in the desired qualifications it lists academic rigor and relevance—of course it does. But it also suggests that the hiring committee is looking for a candidate who has experience leading national and international collaboration. While Strumia’s CV is certainly impressive, the majority of his collaborations were with Italian colleagues. Meanwhile the eventual hiree, Anna Ceresole, earned her PhD in New York, received a Fulbright Scholarship to conduct research abroad, and has a long history of working with researchers from around the world. Furthermore, as the Particles for Justice statement points out, the breakdown of Strumia’s citations doesn’t speak so much to personal contributions in the field as to advantageous collaborations: “Almost 1/3 of Strumia’s citations come from being one of thousands of authors on the CMS Higgs discovery paper, to which we can safely conclude that his contribution (as a theoretical associate in an experimental collaboration) was modest,” the Particles for Justice statement reads. “Hundreds more citations come from papers about the statistically insignificant 750 GeV fluctuation at CERN, which disappeared with more data.”

The part of Strumia’s lecture that got perhaps the most media attention was a slide declaring “Physics was built by men, not by invitation”. Strumia then doubles down on this claim by pointing out that very distinguished women (he gives Marie Curie as an example) have been accepted to the club after “showing what they can do”. Some of them even won Nobel Prizes.

It’s irrefutable (and should not be forgotten) that a few historical women did manage to break into physics; in the 18th century Émilie du Châtelet published groundbreaking works on light (where she predicted the existence of the infrared), kinetic energy, and Newton’s Laws of Motion.* Today, very few people outside of science history circles know her name.

Lise Mietner was a brilliant German physicist who was forced to flee to Sweden during the Second World War. Despite the upheaval, she kept in contact with her lifelong friend Otto Hahn (who would later seek to minimize her contributions to his work so that he would receive the lion’s share of the credit). It was she who correctly interpreted the experimental results that puzzled him to no end, explaining the mechanism he’d discovered for promoting nuclear fission. It was he who received the Nobel Prize.

Naturally, there are many other illustrious women—past and present—who have been overlooked in physics where their male counterparts would not be. But Strumia’s assertion that Marie Curie was “welcomed” is a misconception that needs to be put to rest.

Marie and her husband, Pierre, were very much a team, and Pierre admired her intelligence exceedingly. Their partnership and Madame Curie’s personal discoveries were well known to other scientists at the time; despite this fact, the letter submitted to the Nobel Committee in 1903 nominated only Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel, with no mention whatsoever of Marie. (Three of the four signatories had worked personally with her and were intimately familiar with contributions to the project. One was her mentor and advisor in graduate school.) It wasn’t until Pierre, secretly appraised of the situation, declared he could not and would not accept the prize without mention of his wife that her name was added to the nomination. When they won, Henri Becquerel received half of the award, while Pierre and Marie were left to share the other half—an indication of her status as an afterthought. “Welcomed” indeed.

So although physics, both the science and the history of that science, has been largely written by men, some incredible women did persevere—only to be largely edited out. But how many lacked the means, mental strength, or situation to reach their full potential? How many more great physicists would we know by name if only they had been born male?

Since this presentation caught international attention, CERN has cut ties with Alessandro Strumia and released a statement in support of a diverse physics community. While it would be difficult for them to do otherwise, it’s unfortunately likely that this reaction will only increase Strumia’s bitterness and reinforce his self-proclaimed role as the victim of a “political battle coming from outside“. We can only hope that the facts will speak more persuasively than his misplaced frustration.

As uncomfortable as it makes us, raising awareness—in the painful, ugly, concrete details—of the problems women face as they fight to be taken seriously is crucial. We are fortunate to live in a time when more and more women are publicly baring the reality they live day-to-day. We are equally fortunate to have a large body of scientific literature detailing problems and offering recommendations to combat them (this recent report by the National Academy of Sciences and this article from the Harvard Business Review are both well worth a read).

So let’s keep talking. Now is not the time to retreat to our corners. It’s not always comfortable, it’s not always convenient, but it is necessary.

—Eleanor Hook

*In fact, du Châtelet worked double-time on her last paper because she was pregnant in her early 40s and knew she was unlikely to survive. Sure enough, she published her work, then passed away shortly after giving birth.

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