A bad week for women in physics, and beyond.

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Michelle Collins Oct 09, 2016

It’s been a rough week for women in physics. Hell, women generally. I’ve found myself cradling my head in my hands, dejectedly looking up at information displayed on my glowing monitor at work on multiple occasions this week, as I read about yet another blow to women in physics, instead of focusing on my own work.

So, why has this week been so bad for me and my ladies-of-physics? Where to start… I guess at the beginning of the week.

Tuesday - The Nobel Prize for Physics is announced

Ah, the Nobel Prize. That annual event that sees top people within their discipline honoured and recognised for their contributions to the field. The winners are always people who have done great science. Something truly remarkable, and worthy of note. But, they’re also a very specific type of person. Really, all coming from the same gender.

The Nobel Prize for Physics has been around since 1901. It has, at this stage, been awarded to 203 individuals. Of those 203 individuals, only 2 have been women. 2. Out of 203. That’s fewer than 1% of all awardees. Given that ~20% of Physics PhDs are awarded to women, this is obviously embarrassing. It has now been 53 years since a woman won the Nobel Prize for Physics. The last women to have been awarded one was Maria Goeppert Mayer, back in 1963. Before that, it was Marie Curie even though she actually wasn’t nominated, only her husband was. Pierre Curie was alerted to this fact by panellist Magnus Goesta Mittag-Leffler, and Pierre went on to inform the committee that any Nobel prize for radioactivity that didn’t include his wife would be a tragedy. If it were not for this, we’d probably only ever have had the one woman winning the Physics prize.


So, are there women who should and could win a Nobel Prize in Physics? Yes. There are. For example, Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, the woman who discovered the Pulsar. This phenomenal discovery was thought to be worthy of the Nobel, and the prize was awarded for it in 1974. But not to Jocelyn. Instead, it went to her supervisor, Anthony Hewish. A man. In addition to Jocelyn, Slate have compiled a list of awesome female physicists who could, and should, have a Nobel under their belts. Including my personal favourite for the award, Vera Rubin. A pioneering female astronomer, whose observations of the rotation of stars in disk galaxies demonstrated once and for all that the masses of these systems could not be understood via a combination of their baryonic constituents (stars, gas, dust planets etc) and Newtonian gravity. Attempts to explain the physics underlying her observational results led to the theory of dark matter. A Nobel-worthy effort if ever I heard one. But Rubin is now 88. Can she expect to be awarded the Nobel in her lifetime, given the glacial rate at which the prize seems to honour women? At this point, I don’t have much hope that she can. The Nobel Prize for Physics may as well be renamed the Mens Prize for Manly Physics. It’s more than apparent to the women working in my field that it is not something we should deign to aspire to.

Wednesday - A paper arrives on the arXiv that discusses success rates for telescope proposal

On Wednesday, an analysis of over 13000 applications for time on European Southern Observatory (ESO) telescopes in the past 8 years, landed on the arXiv. The paper was authored by Ferdinando Patat, who has done an excellent job of determining the likelihood of being successfully awarded time with ESO, based on your career level and gender. In general, the more senior the principle investigator (PI), the more likely the proposal is to succeed. And, if you’re a man, you have a 30% higher likelihood of getting your proposal accepted than a woman. As a woman who requires telescope time to do her research, this is something of a crushing blow to my confidence. Perhaps I’ll submit all my proposals under the name ‘Michael Collins’ from now on…

Such biases (both in career level and gender) have been seen at other telescopes before. The Hubble Space Telescope also published a report a while back, showing systematic biases against female PIs. This year, in an effort to combat these types of biases, HST have taken a proactive step to try to reduce these biases. They've moved to a system where all the authors of a proposal are listed alphabetically, so the identity of the PI is not known. It will be interesting to see how these biases are affected by this change, although we’ll likely need a few years data to say anything significant.

Friday - A Guardian article on the scale of sexual harassment and assault in academia is published

The Guardian have been investigating sexual abuse in Universities, no doubt as a result of several high-profile stories of sexual harassment in astronomy, physics and other areas. After a general request to hear from women who had experienced sexual harassment in UK Universities, more than 100 women responded with their stories. Some likened the scale to that of “scandals involving the Catholic church and Jimmy Savile”. And, from personal conversations with women throughout the sciences, I don’t doubt that these 100 stories are the tip of the iceberg.

It’s not just the numbers of women targeted that is shocking. It’s also the consequences (or lack thereof) for the perpetrators. Would Geoff Marcy have resigned his position without the pressure from Buzzfeed, who broke the story? Berkeley certainly had no intention of firing him. Even when women are brave enough to come forward and talk about their experiences (such as the 3 female astronomers who recently spoke with CNN), often nothing is done to tackle the problem. In the US, Representative Jackie Speier is trying to introduce a bill that would “require colleges and universities to report all substantiated findings of sexual assault and harassment by professors to every federal agency that has awarded the institution competitive research and development grants in the past 10 years”. With such reporting, funding for these known harassers could be withheld. And abusers would not be able to just quietly disappear from their current university, and set up shop in another institute, with the people there having no idea of their past crimes. It would perhaps do much to prevent this type of harassment continuing in academia.

Also Friday - Trump

I mean… do I need to say more? The man is a racist, misogynist, ableist butt-head. So I can’t say I was surprised to learn he’d been boasting about sexually assaulting women. Nor to hear him defend it as just a bit of locker room banter. And I’m pleased to see that this - finally - might be the thing that undoes him. I just wish the line of what is acceptable to hear coming out of the mouth of a person who is vying to become the President of the United States could have been drawn much earlier. Say, when he called Mexican’s rapists. Or when he threatened to ban all Muslims from the US. Or any of the other inexcusable things he has said and done over the course of his campaign.

One of the results of this latest Trump debacle was the appearance of the #YesSheHas hashtag on Twitter, where women shared their stories of being assualted by men in the style described by Trump. The scale of such behaviour is clear. And it should not be tolerated.

So, that’s it. My week as a woman in physics, and the world generally. Here’s hoping the next one goes a little better. I guess, if nothing else, I’ve at least learned to always keep my lady parts more than an arms-length away from Trump. Every day’s a school day and all.

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