Positive and negative developments for women in science
The events of the last few days have brought discussions about the participation of women in science back to the fore. First, on Tuesday, a woman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2018 (along with two men), the first such recognition in 55 years and only the third in physics in Nobel Prize history. Then, on Wednesday, a woman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2018 (also along with two men), only the second such recognition in over 50 years. However, a few days before that, an Italian scientist gave a lecture in Geneva where he presented “data” and concluded that, not only are women preferentially treated — not being discriminated against — in the scientific community, but their contributions are less than those of their male colleagues.
Needless to say, the reaction to both events has been strong. Most commentators have hailed the Nobel Prize award for Donna Strickland, deeming that long overdue; though a few expressed surprise (she didn’t have a Wikipedia page until the prize was awarded, and she had not even been promoted to “full professor” at her university in Canada).
As for the Italian scientist’s lecture, the reactions were extremely strong. Dr. Alessandro Strumia, a physicist from the University of Pisa, gave a presentation in a workshop on gender and physics that was organized by CERN, the big European center for nuclear and particle physics. The three-day conference was attended by 90 participants. For his talk, Strumia collected bibliographical data from thousands of scientists and their papers, looking at the percentage of female researchers in different fields and various countries, citation numbers (how many times a given paper is cited in literature after its publication — a generally agreed upon measure of the quality of the work), invitations to conferences, hiring to academic positions, etc. He concluded that there seems to be discrimination in favor of women and against men, and this is detrimental to physics and science.
CERN quickly condemned the talk, which it described as “unacceptable,” “highly offensive,” and “contrary to the CERN code of conduct.” It removed it from its website and suspended Strumia from conducting any research on its premises “pending an investigation.”
It was not enough that Strumia drew hasty conclusions from the data he collected, his talk — the slides for which could be found elsewhere on the web — used sarcasm, inflammatory language, and rather offensive cartoons. For example, he stated that “physics (was) invented and built by men, it’s not by invitation.” He sarcastically described the views of those who insist that there is definite discrimination against women in science and academia: “You don’t see? You have (unconscious) bias and steal credit (for) women. Evaluators tend to favor men.”
This week's Women In Science debate shows we need to find out how to make sure society treats girls and women fairly, from kindergarten to the Nobel Prize.
One cartoon he used showed two hiring booths, one for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and one for gender studies. Three women show up and all go to the latter booth, and some years later they are holding signs that say “more women in STEM,” “science is sexist,” and “STEM is a boys’ club.” Strumia also presented data showing men and women by fields: Women dominating education, psychology, humanities and medicine, and men dominating STEM, construction and such. He referred to humanities as “where right/wrong, good/bad distinctions (are) less clear.”
Despite all the shocking statements and the huge outrage that his presentation produced, Strumia remained defiant, telling various media outlets that people must look at his data and discuss it objectively, not fall back on “ideological,” politically correct positions. It is true that some reactions were less than objective and refused to discuss his data, focusing instead on the fact that he mentioned being overlooked for a job when the woman who was hired had only one-tenth of the number of citations that he had, thus seeing in this a personal reaction.
I think people should engage with Strumia objectively and not censor him just because he says things that are unacceptable in 2018. For example, his citation numbers are inflated by the fact that his papers tend to have dozens of co-authors, as is the norm in big experiments such as CERN’s. Moreover, there are other indicators of quality when evaluating researchers: Diversity of contribution, being first author on many papers, making truly novel and valuable contributions, not just producing good and useful data from experiments, etc. And women’s family lives tend to reduce their research time.
What we should ask ourselves is: Are girls at various stages of their lives being equally encouraged and supported to go into STEM fields, or to choose any career they wish? If yes (and that is doubtful, considering various sociocultural pressures), then there is no problem. If not, then we need to determine the reasons for that and help women with “affirmative action.”
UNESCO has a webpage on gender and science. It says: “Currently, there is a large imbalance in the participation of women in STEM, compared with the participation of men, in particular at the more advanced career levels.” It quickly adds, however: “There are various possible explanations for this gender imbalance, and a large amount of anecdotal evidence, but solid information is still lacking.” It concludes: “Effective STEM policies need to be evidence-based and hence supported by relevant statistics and indicators. There is an urgent need to develop new indicators and methods to collect and analyze sex-disaggregated data on women’s participation in STEM around the world, in order to elaborate and implement appropriate solutions.” It then mentions a few projects that UNESCO is conducting to address this complex issue.
This is exactly what we need: A careful study and assessment of how and why girls and women end up choosing various fields and careers, and how to make sure society (all societies) treat girls and women fairly, from kindergarten to Nobel prizes.
- Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum