Imagine a scenario of an aspiring woman Physicist, attending a workshop on gender issues and underrepresentation of women in Physics and an invited speaker gives a talk on how women are worse at Physics than men and that Physics was invented and built by men. How would that woman and many others sitting in the audience feel? This is what happened last year in October when a prominent Italian scientist, Alessandro Strumia,gave a talk at one of the biggest Physics facility in the world, CERN, claiming that women are underrepresented in Physics because they are “under-performing” to a group of women starting their careers in Physics.
One of the major claims he made were that Physics is not sexist against women, but against men. He produced various half-baked studies claiming that women were hired and promoted in positions unfairly and that women scientists receive less citations for their publications as compared to male scientists which prove that males perform “higher quality research”.
His talk was condemned widely worldwide and CERN issued a statement describing his talk “highly offensive” and that CERN stood for diversity. First thing that came to my mind was how he was allowed to give the talk at the first place. After reading more about it I realized that the organizing committee did not have access to his slides beforehand and his talk was supposed to be on gender bias in citations which was an important issue to be addressed.
He himself told in his talk that a woman with considerably lesser citations than him was given a position which he believed he deserved which makes me think that this talk was more a result of anger. Then the main basis of his talk was the number of citations. Citations are not a good measure of scientific performance as number of citations depend a lot on peer-review and there have been numerous studies suggesting that peer review process is biased against women . A statement was issued also by Physicists from around the world, condemning his talk and pointing out each and every point where he was wrong and concluding that his talk was fundamentally unsound.
There have been similar incidents in the past and there might be more in future but I think inclusive pedagogy is something that can play a big role in reducing these biases and addressing the underrepresentation of women in STEM. There needs to be an inclusive culture in classroom which can help women believe and trust that they are as good as everyone else and that Science is above all these biases. Everyone can do science and nobody should feel excluded by gender. To end this post on positive note, one of the most ironic things that happened in the same week as this CERN incident was that a woman scientist, Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2018. This shows that good work will continue to be recognized even if these biases exist.