Exploring and celebrating diversity in science.

Female Physicists Worldwide Fight Sexist Stereotypes

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 P?tronille 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.
P?tronille 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 Cer?n Loayza, Peru

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

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