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Female Physicists Worldwide Fight Sexist Stereotypes

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Three physicists meet at the International Conference on Women in Physics August 5-8, 2014 in Waterloo, Canada. Credit: Marina Milner-Bolotin/ICWIP

Women in physics tend to be outnumbered by men nearly all over the world. For a few days in early August, however, it didn’t feel that way when I attended the International Conference on Women in Physics in Waterloo, Canada. Hundreds of women from about 50 countries gathered there for talks, posters and brainstorming sessions to discuss both gender, physics, and the intersection of the two.

Despite cultural and geographic divides separating the home countries of many of the women, their stories were remarkably similar. A woman from Burkina Faso used nearly the same words as another from Peru to describe the cultural perception that “physics is not the domain of women, it’s for men,” as University of Ouagadougou physicist Pétronille Kafando put it.

Many told of being the only female physicist in their department, and quite a few said they were the only, or one of just a small handful of, female physicists in their entire countries. I asked a number of women to tell me about the situation for female physicists where they’re from. Here’s a sampling of what they said:

In Burkina Faso we have to talk about women in science, not women in physics, because I’m the sole woman electrical engineer in the country. The problem is the cultural mentality. People think that physics is not the domain of women, it’s for men. I work in a working group to provide guidance and so on to female students. We work together every four to six weeks to manage the problem.
Pétronille Kafando, Burkina Faso

Compared to the other fields in Finland, the situation in physics is bad. In the cabinet we have over 40 percent female MPs, we have had female presidents. In general we are considered quite progressive as a country. But to some extent it doesn’t hold for physics and mathematics. It’s something in the mindset of the people. Somehow people still consider it weird if women go into physics.

Some particular problems for Finland are the culture of drinking heavily, which is typical for Nordic countries. Sometimes if you don’t drink much you’re not considered as one of the guys and that hinders your advancement. There’s also the sauna culture. As a female you’re not allowed to participate in the men’s saunas, which are gender segregated. It’s a typical evening program at a conference; when the free time starts, people will go to the sauna.
Jaana Vapaavuori, Finland

The participation of women in physics is stable, but I think we still have a long way to go. Most of the programs are focusing on bringing in girls to science. This is good but we need something else. We need to be in the top positions, in the committees, we need to be professors, otherwise this doesn’t change.
Elisa Baggio Saitovitch, Brazil

The situation of women in physics in my country is very bad. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a big country but there is a department of physics only in the University of Kinshasa. From 1954 to today, we have only four women who have finished in physics. Me, I’m the second.

The problem is the motivation of women, because a lot of women don’t know there is a department of physics in the university. Women study chemistry, biology. Physics, they tell us it’s very hard, it’s a science of men.
Elvire Nzeba Banza, Democratic Republic of the Congo

The situation has been improving over the past 40 years, but in the last four or five years we have actually seen a leveling off in percentages of girls doing undergraduate degrees. We haven’t yet established why that is happening. I think it’s still stereotypes of what a physicist is or does or looks like. We still have departments of physics that are not as welcoming as we’d like.

Physics somewhat has a negative overall public persona. We’re the people who make bombs. We’re trying to explain to young women that there actually are good things that physics has done. You wouldn’t have an MRI machine, you wouldn’t have lasers, without physics.
Cherrill Spencer, United States of America

There are about 100 female physicists in Nigeria. But in a population of 150 million, that’s not a lot. When I became a faculty member I was the only woman for a long, long time until I supervised another female, who also got a PhD and got employed, so then we were two. There aren’t enough women role models. The younger girls can’t figure a woman being a physicist. They feel it’s a male-dominated field.

I would say that the situation is improving. The Working Group on Women in Physics is trying to do a lot. Now we have a lot of mentoring. We also have the National Conference of Women in Physics, and we have more women attending and participating at the meetings.
Ibiyinka Fuwape, Nigeria

For female graduate students, the number is steadily increasing, it’s about 13 to 17 percent. For faculty members it’s around 11 percent, steady. However the funding for female principal investigators is increasing. It’s good news, but the number is still low compared with other science fields. We have a lot more needed to be done.

I think the problem is cultural. Girls think physics and mathematics is hard, and people think it’s hard for women to do it. But I think we are getting better, the society is becoming more open.
Shih-ying Hsu, Taiwan

We still have a small number of female physicists, but it is increasing. The reason for this is social and cultural barriers, and the opportunity for jobs. In Tanzania there are very few places where you can apply physics. Students will not go for something where you cannot find a career. Sometimes it’s difficult for girls to get tuition; they live far from school.
We still have only two female PhDs in physics, but the number of women students is increasing. Now we have six [master’s students] qualified, and they will have to do their PhDs.
Najat Kassim Mohammed, Tanzania

The participation of women in physics is very low. There are only seven female professors. There are many more male physicists. Peru is a macho society. Physics and mathematics are seen as male. Chemistry, biology are seen as more female.
Maria Luisa Cerón Loayza, Peru

Clara Moskowitz About the Author: Clara Moskowitz is Scientific American's associate editor covering space and physics. Follow on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. garyonthenet 8:27 am 09/4/2014

    Ok, however politically incorrect this inquiry may be, could it be that the cultural norms actually track the average innate propensity of women’s interest in physics, not the other way around?
    Furthermore, it is well established that although average IQs of women is very close to men, there are far more male geniuses than female geniuses.
    This disparity would also be a disproportionate cause of there being far more male physicists than female ones, since the M/F ratio of the genders at high IQ samples is that much greater than lower IQ samples.
    So, before we start guilt mongering society for “excluding” women from these fields, we might first consider analyzing PC dangerous data indicating this is a bottom-up problem, not top-down.
    Of course this view is so occupationally dangerous for academics, that prominent university officials have been effectively fired for even considering it out loud.

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  2. 2. Clara Moskowitz 11:27 am 09/4/2014

    Hi garyonthenet. Thanks for your comment. You talk about there being far more male geniuses than female geniuses, but if your measure is geniuses who’ve produced the most talked about work, won the most prestigious awards, been given posts at the top research institutions, etc., then this is a symptom of the problem rather than its cause. Historically men have been given far more encouragement and opportunities in this field. You also mention women’s “innate” interest in physics, but evidence has shown us that young children of all genders have an equal interest in science on average, and that interest in science is socialized out of many girls and women by society and schooling over time.

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  3. 3. Edgod1 9:47 pm 09/5/2014

    This article brings various things to my mind. First of all, didn’t Watson and Crick steal the ideas and credit from a female scientist? Who was one of the greatest physicists? Marie Curie! Use her as your inspiration. As for office politics, sexual and otherwise, it is not restricted to just physics. Where I used to work the women had an information network in the ladies’ toilet, the men went down to the pub. But as I wasn’t a drinker, I was excluded from both of these. Also, some people don’t want to pay their dues but expect to get their jobs handed to them on a silver platter. At university women tend to choose the social science rather than the hard sciences. If you want those physicist jobs, go into that field, don’t take the easy choices! Now to echo Ruskin, although Kate Millet might not like it. Another reason to get into these fields is marriage. There is a higher probability of having good marriages the more the couple have common interests they can share in. They understand more the demands of each other’s work and thus are more supportive than undermining. Even when a person doesn’t like their job, they still seek to be effective and take pride in their work, which requires commitment. There is nothing much worse for domestic bliss than having a stressful job and coming home to a spouse who is also giving you stress.

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  4. 4. Adrian Morgan 8:03 am 09/6/2014

    Definitely surprised by (the 2nd paragraph of) the response from Finland.

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  5. 5. Lilly1357 9:14 am 09/6/2014

    Brilliant women have many tough choices to make. Many feel their biological imperative and an urge to nurture as much as their love of math or science. Often these school age girls/teens just don’t see the two life tracks as compatible, therefore steering away from them in higher education toward things they perceive as more family friendly careers. High level math and science careers do not have a reputation for being very family friendly and the women who choose these careers and have families are often full of guilt over not being there for their families as much as they feel they should be. Conversely, the ones who choose to raise children often live with a great deal of internal tension over the other work they feel they should be doing. Unless these careers become a great deal more mom friendly, little is likely to change, and the unique perspective that women bring will continue to be lost in these fields.

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  6. 6. CWavefunction 1:07 am 09/8/2014

    There are two issues here which should not be conflated. The first one is trying to get more women into physics, which should be encouraged irrespective of what the literature on innate differences – the second issue – says. As for the “more male geniuses” comment, it’s also worth noting that there are also likely to be more male dunces; this would be consistent with the greater variance in many male traits relative to female ones. It’s also worth noting that the majority of science is not done by geniuses. Another point is that this is not an either/or debate; for instance you could have both discrimination and a lack of encouragement in having more women in science as well as differential interests. There is in fact some evidence that young girls are more interested in living objects rather than inanimate things, and this might be consistent with the greater proportion of women in the life sciences compared to the physical ones (this has been documented for instance by Steven Pinker in his debate with Elizabeth Spelke). There’s also some interesting subtle differences between scientific abilities in young boys vs girls, and while there is no difference in general intelligence and aptitude for the science, there seem to be more specialized differences; for instance women might be better at visual memory and men may be better at 3D manipulation of mathematical objects. There is undoubtedly a great deal of interesting information that will result from further research in these areas; one of the best and most balanced volumes on this debate is “Why Aren’t More Women in Science?” edited by Stephen Ceci (2007) that carefully considers both sides. However none of these facts refute the lack of encouragement that women face in studying disciplines like physics so conferences like this one should always be promoted.

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  7. 7. SJCrum 6:35 pm 09/9/2014

    One thing that is TOTALLY ABSURD, for a foundation of the ignorant stupidity of males thinking they have somehow accomplished something in physics that is proportional to igniting the universe, is that they FACTUALLY have done soooooooo much damage to the REAL SCIENCE of PHYSICS, that it’s TOTALLY LAUGHABLE.

    IN TRUTH, their good-ol’-boy club mentality, that saunaized in that one northern country, is LAUGHABLY a factual reason why present-day physics is TOTALLT TRAPPED IN THE DEAD END ALLEY that it is. NO KIDDING! The trash theories that they spew by the oil-tanker-barge-fulls is nothing but a joke, and the real science situation is ENTIRELY, that the ONLY thing they can do TRUTHFULLY, is to acknowledge that they have totrally failed and then to turn around in that no-end alley and go backwards to where they so cluelessly went all to blooey.

    And, do you want to know what else? (hee, hee) Females in all of these positions, HONESTLY, are far more detailed and intelligent in the ways they work and analyze everything that they would have FACTUALLY out-performed every single one of the males. HONESTLY. And, do you want to know why even more. Because, while females are made to be far more practical and analytical, males are made to quickly defend females. And, the “quickly” thing, while being important for DEFENSE, and the often need for speed, it also means that males jump into things FAR FASTER, and VERY OFTEN without really reading the details involved.

    So, they are giving females static, are they? What a JOKE. By the way, 95 percent of present-day physics is totally WRONG and also CLUELESS. And, the males in this world don’t have a single THING AT ALL to be arrogant about. NOTHING! And, THAT’S REALITY and FACT.

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  8. 8. SJCrum 6:43 pm 09/9/2014

    By the way, for information, God made males and females with EQUAL intelligence, and there is no difference at all in the average male and female. The females, though, USE theirs far better more than 80 percent of the time. (83 1/2 percent) Noooooooo Kiddddding.

    So, now you know why the males can never stop for directions either, huh? YUP.

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  9. 9. garyonthenet 11:11 am 09/16/2014

    The Gender Equality Paradox
    Are there innate differences in male vs female brains?
    (in Norwegian, with English subtitles):

    Link to this

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