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Gender politics in the world of physics

Professor Alessandro Strumia, a physicist at the University of Pisa and Cern Scientist, has been suspended from the European Organisation for Nuclear Research with immediate effect following comments he made during a workshop in High Energy Theory and Gender that physics was “invented and built by men.” Professor Strumia’s claims were made only days before a woman went on to win the Nobel Prize in the discipline for the first time in 55 years.

Under the guise of delivering a lecture on his most recent bibliometrics paper at the European nuclear research centre in Geneva (Cern), the Italian physicist instead used the opportunity to deliver a slideshow illustrating the “discrimination” men had faced in the science. The mainly female audience were presented with a series of graphs, which Alessandro Strumia claimed showed how women were hired over men whose research was cited more by other scientists in their publications. Following on from this, Strumia added that although male and female researchers were equally cited at the start of their careers, men scored progressively better as their careers progressed – an indication of higher quality work.

Professor Strumia’s claims were made only days before a woman went on to win the Nobel Prize in the discipline for the first time in 55 years

This may have been motivated in part by the fact that Professor Anna Ceresole, an Italian high energy physicist, was eventually chosen for a position at the National Institute of Nuclear Physics which Strumia had also applied for. When discussing being overlooked for the role in favour of Ceresole, who had fewer citations, the physicist stated: “I like physics and science because everyone can do what they want. I don’t like it when there’s social engineering to decide how many men, women and categories there should be.” He also shared his belief that anyone who spoke out risked losing their job or being attacked.

During the slideshow presentation, Strumia also told the audience that female STEM students in Italy tended to benefit from “free or cheaper University” education, whilst Oxford University “extends exam times for women’s benefit.” According to Strumia, this clearly showed how male researchers were being discriminated against because of ideology.

This may have been motivated in part by the fact that Professor Anna Ceresole, an Italian high energy physicist, was eventually chosen for a position at the National Institute of Nuclear Physics which Strumia had also applied for

In comments reported first by the BBC’s science correspondent Pallab Ghosh, Strumia reaffirmed his views that “physics was becoming sexist against men… Physics is not sexist against women. However, the truth does not matter, because it is part of a political battle coming from the outside.”

Although scientists do not generally believe in karma, Donna Strickland winning the Nobel prize in physics in the same week that Strumia argued women were unsuited to the subject may well make them think twice. Strickland, from the University of Waterloo in Canada, will share the 9 million Swedish Kronor price (£770,000) with Arthur Ashkin and Dr Gerard Mourou for “Groundbreaking inventions in laser physics.”  Strickland is only the third ever female laureate in physics.  Maria Goeppert Mayer, a German American physicist, won in 1963 for her work describing the structure of the atomic nucleus. Before that, Marie Curie was awarded the prize in 1903 for her role in the discovery of radiation.

Although scientists do not generally believe in karma, Donna Strickland winning the Nobel prize in physics in the same week that Strumia argued women were unsuited to the subject may well make them think twice

Ashkin won half the prize for his development of “optical tweezers”, which allow scientists to grab atoms, viruses and bacteria in finger-like laser beams. Dr Mourou of France and Dr Strickland each received a quarter for research which paved the way for the shortest and most intense laser pulses ever created. Strickland, alongside her supervisor Mourou, developed the Chirped Pulse Amplification (CPA) which has been used widely in the biomedical sphere.

Closer to home, Warwick’s physics department has been recognised for its efforts to promote gender equality numerous times. In 2009, Warwick, along with Imperial College London, became the first Physics Departments ever to be recognised by the Institute of Physics as Juno Champions. Moreover, the Physics department was awarded silver status from the Athena SWAN charter which recognises good employment practice for women in Stem subjects.

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