Sex­ism in Science Zero Point Five

The Bias Against Women in Physics

The McGill Daily - - Contents - Mar­garet Bruna Sci+tech Writer

On Septem­ber 28, 2018, Alessan­dro Stru­mia, a the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist at the Univer­sity of Pisa, gave a talk at a con­fer­ence held by CERN (Euro­pean Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Nu­clear Re­search) in Geneva. His pre­sen­ta­tion ar­gued that the field of physics has be­come dis­crim­i­na­tory to­wards men, and un­fairly favours women. His pre­sen­ta­tion was con­sid­ered highly of­fen­sive by the au­di­ence and or­ga­ni­za­tion com­mit­tee. Stru­mia has since been sus­pended from work­ing with CERN.

The main is­sue that lis­ten­ers took with Stru­mia’s claims was that most of his state­ments were bla­tantly false. Women in physics of­ten ex­pe­ri­ence strong cul­tural bias and gen­der-based dis­crim­i­na­tion. How­ever, the harm­ful im­pact of Stru­mia’s pre­sen­ta­tion isn’t iso­lated to this one in­ci­dent. To a lot of women in the field, the prob­lem of work­place bias is a re­al­ity of daily life. Sci­en­tists like Stru­mia will ar­gue that the in­cred­i­ble un­der­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women in Physics isn’t dis­crim­i­na­tory, be­cause “physics [was] in­vented and built by men. It’s not by in­vi­ta­tion.” When dis­cussing the pre­sen­ta­tion, Maude Bé­dard, a U2 Physics un­der­grad­u­ate said, “what sucks is that it’s not sur­pris­ing.” This at­ti­tude is un­for­tu­nate but not un­com­mon in the field. This leads to women feel­ing iso­lated, in­ex­pe­ri­enced, and un­wel­comed. It also works to dis­cour­age women and femmes from en­ter­ing the field.

The is­sues that mod­ern women face in male- dom­i­nated fields like Physics, are of­ten sub­tle and sub­con­scious. Bar­ri­ers are put in place largely by a cul­ture that en­cour­ages and cel­e­brates men’s in­tel­lec­tual goals but dis­cour­ages the same from women. Tami Pereg-barnea, a Physics pro­fes­sor at Mcgill said, “Very early on, we don’t ed­u­cate our girls to be smart, we ed­u­cate them to be nice. We don’t em­power them enough.” We of­ten raise men and women in a bi­nary sys­tem, where one is treated dif­fer­ently from the other, and taught to en­joy dif­fer­ent things. Brigitte Va­chon, a Physics Pro­fes­sor at Mcgill and founder of the Cana­dian Con­fer­ence for Un­der­grad­u­ate Women in Physics, says she no­ticed the dif­fer­ence in the way her chil­dren were treated as early as three years old. She ex­plained that she found her son was com­pli­mented on his abil­ity to count or play with Lego, while her daugh­ter was more of­ten com­pli­mented on her ap­pear­ance. She said, “I caught my­self do­ing it. Every­body does that. We talk to chil­dren dif­fer­ently.”

This sub­con­scious bias in the way men and women are treated only gains strength as chil­dren get older and ad­vance into academia. Va­chon pointed out that the ad­jec­tives used to de­scribe women and men in ref­er­ence let­ters are vastly dif­fer­ent. Women will be de­scribed for their ad­min­is­tra­tive ca­pa­bil­i­ties, and men for their in­nate in­tel­li­gence; “She’s work­ing re­ally hard, she’s de­liv­er­ing, she’s or­ga­nized,” as op­posed to, “he’s bril­liant and in­tel­li­gent.” Pereg-barnea noted that she “didn’t get a sin­gle re­quest from fe­male un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dents to do a pro­ject with me. But men find it ok to sug­gest that they come here to talk about my re­search, even when they know noth­ing about it.”

As women in western cul­ture, we will of­ten in­ter­nal­ize the bi­ases we grew up with. This can lead to a lack of as­sertive­ness; women find them­selves be­ing non­con­fronta­tional and unas­sum­ing in their field. Ac­cord­ing to a study on gen­der dif­fer­ences in Science, Tech­nol­ogy, En­gi­neer­ing, and Math­e­mat­ics (STEM), re­ported by Sta­tis­tics Canada, “women are al­ways less likely to choose a STEM pro­gram, re­gard­less of math­e­mat­i­cal abil­ity. The Pro­gram for In­ter­na­tional Stu­dent As­sess­ment (PISA) is a test which evaluates 15 year old stu­dents on their read­ing, math, and science ca­pa­bil­i­ties in var­i­ous coun­tries around the world. Among those who went to univer­sity, 23 per cent of women in the three high­est cat­e­gories of PISA scores chose a STEM pro­gram, com­pared with 39 per cent of men in the three low­est cat­e­gories of PISA scores.”

Im­poster syn­drome also con­trib­utes to lower lev­els of fe­male rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the field. De­scribed as a feel­ing of chronic self- doubt and in­ad­e­quacy de­spite ob­vi­ous suc­cess, im­poster syn­drome can of­ten cause women to feel hes­i­tant to par­tic­i­pate, or feel un­wel­come around their peers. This is a feel­ing com­mon in teach­ers and stu­dents amongst other pro­fes­sions. Va­chon shared that she is “al­ways very ner­vous about say­ing any­thing or ques­tion­ing peo­ple, but [her] male col­leagues will not shy away.” Im­poster syn­drome feeds into a lack of rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the fac­ulty, and vice versa. Only 13 per cent of the Physics fac­ulty at Mcgill is fe­male. “It’s so in­tim­i­dat­ing when you don’t have a place in this field. It’s hard to feel like you have a chance when the sta­tis­tics tell you that it’s so un­likely,” ex­plained Katie Savard, an­other U2 Physics un­der­grad­u­ate. Many stu­dents don’t get to learn from women as their pro­fes­sors un­til later into their de­gree. PeregBarnea pointed out, “we still have this im­age of a sci­en­tist, which isn’t nec­es­sar­ily a woman.”

Un­der­min­ing the abil­i­ties of women in the field has been nor­mal­ized, and is of­ten done sub­con­sciously. The fact that the ex­pe­ri­ences of women are of­ten sub­tle and not im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent to men makes it dif­fi­cult to de­scribe or point out spe­cific prob­lem­atic be­hav­iors. It seems that many males in the un­der­grad­u­ate pro­gram don’t no­tice the bar­ri­ers their fe­male class­mates face. Women can ex­pe­ri­ence a fear of be­ing mis­un­der­stood, or be­ing told they’re over­re­act­ing, and many of­ten no­tice that men will get de­fen­sive when these prob­lems are pointed out to them. “You [men] choose to vic­tim­ize your­selves”, said Chloé Robeyns, a Physics U2 un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dent. Stru­mia is a prime and out­spo­ken ex­am­ple. “Men don’t think about these things be­cause it doesn’t hap­pen to them. But if you care about women, you need to start pay­ing at­ten­tion,” ex­pressed Savard.

The sources used here rep­re­sent the ex­pe­ri­ences of white women in Physics. There are other bar­ri­ers, such as those faced by queer peo­ple, peo­ple of colour, and peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, which also de­serve pub­lic dis­cus­sion. Not only is there a lack of rep­re­sen­ta­tion for these groups, but the bar­ri­ers fac­ing these groups are of­ten greater than those faced by white women in Physics. To be­gin chang­ing the field, we must lis­ten to all those who are start­ing con­ver­sa­tions and ask­ing to be heard.

This con­ver­sa­tion is, how­ever, ac­tive and on­go­ing in the STEM com­mu­nity. Im­por­tant fo­rums like the Cana­dian Con­fer­ence for Un­der­grad­u­ate Women in Physics, or the Women in Physics Canada Con­fer­ence ( be­ing held at Mcgill this sum­mer) are or­ga­nized to cre­ate a wel­com­ing and sup­port­ive com­mu­nity for women. “I think one of the key as­pects of help­ing to de­velop an in­ter­est in physics within young women is pro­vid­ing them with some kind of in­spi­ra­tion. Be­ing ex­posed to more women in Physics, re­lat­ing to them and hear­ing their chal­lenges and suc­cesses are all so im­por­tant,” said Ju­liann Wray, a Physics un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dent. Con­fer­ences such as these “seem to be fill­ing a need for dis­cus­sion, for pro­vid­ing a safe space,” said Va­chon. Change is hap­pen­ing, and it is now crit­i­cal to make the dis­cus­sion big­ger and louder. Now more than ever it’s im­por­tant to foster safe spa­ces where women are free from the in­ter­nal bar­ri­ers caused by ex­ter­nal cul­tural norms that hin­der the con­fi­dence and feel­ings of com­pe­tence in young women. Open­ing up the con­ver­sa­tion is a big step in break­ing down the bar­ri­ers women face.

Bar­ri­ers [for women] are put in place largely by a cul­ture that en­cour­ages and cel­e­brates men’s in­tel­lec­tual goals but dis­cour­ages the same from women.

“Men don’t think about these things be­cause it doesn’t hap­pen to them, so it’s fine. But if you care about women, you need to start pay­ing at­ten­tion.”

– Katie Savard, U2 Physics Un­der graguate Stu­dent

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