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A conference about gender equality in research environments

How can the field of physics become more gender equal, and what can international organisations do to help? These key questions will be addressed when the renowned European Organization for Nuclear Research CERN hosts a Gender in Physics Day (GiPD) on 27 January. Several representatives from Nordic science organisations will participate in the event.

Gender in Physics Day is the title of a series of conferences. This particular one-day conference will be organised by CERN, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and NordForsk. The intention is to make visible and analyse the lack of gender equality in research environments within the field of physics. The conference on 27 January will focus on what international organisations do and can do to improve the situations, but also the situation in the Nordic countries. Reports show that Nordic academia is far from gender equal. Almost 80 per cent of all professors are men, with the natural sciences and engineering showing the greatest imbalances. Lotta Strandberg works as senior adviser at NordForsk:

Lotta Strandberg
 Lotta Strandberg. Photo: NordForsk

‘The situation is particularly problematic in physics. We hope that the conference will give us at NordForsk some ideas about what we can do to improve things,’ she says.

Science organisations from Sweden, Norway and Denmark will present descriptive gender statistics at the conference. There will also be a presentation on the situation in developing countries.

The decision to host the event at CERN may seem like a strategic move. CERN employs particle physicists and R&D engineers from across the world, but less than 15%of them are women. According to Geneviève Guinot, CERN’s Diversity Programme Leader, the reason for this is that CERN receives few job applications from female scientists:

‘We seem to have stagnated at a certain level. We need to talk about what we, who employ scientists and host international physics collaborations for cutting-edge experiments, can do about it.’

Geneviève Guinot
 Geneviève Guinot

Geneviève Guinot sees several reasons for the lack of gender equality in physics. Research shows that gendered choices of educational paths tend to begin early in life.

‘The stereotype about what a typical particle physicist is like is one problem. People immediately think of a male scientist. Another problem is that many students don’t know what jobs a physics degree can lead to,’ says Geneviève Guinot.

She also mentions other obstacles women face when planning their careers. Due to norms and unconscious gender blindness, women do not enjoy the same opportunities as men. Concrete cases from CERN will be discussed at the conference.

Lotta Strandberg from NordForsk says that physics in particular is a field with many discouraging stories about how women have been treated.

‘I once heard of a professor who was denied working in a research environment because the place lacked a ladies’ room. Her entire postdoc went down the tubes because of it. In another case, a woman realised after her parental leave that her department had given both her doctoral studentship and her research project to somebody else,’ she says.

According to Geneviève Guinot, CERN is addressing the gender equality problem in several ways. For example, they organise special theme days to which they invite girls from compulsory school to spend a day with leading scientists. CERN also offers a programme for physics teachers, which includes a course in gender-inclusive teaching. In this course, the participants discuss for example how gender stereotypes related to physics can be avoided in the classroom.

‘I hope GiPD will contribute to noticeable change when it comes to gender equality and opportunities for female physicists,’ says Geneviève Guinot.

Updated 13 April 2020