‘Nevertheless, she persisted’ – part 2

cern_TNAs I pointed out in my blog on 19th October, the fact that women have made so many advances in recent years is of course a great thing, but it also brings with it its own dangers. In some ways it’s become easier and more acceptable to question the need for change, simply because of the progress that’s been made.

One of the traditional objections to women playing a full role in society was that it was somehow unnatural. The Suffragettes would certainly recognise that line of argument and fought hard to overturn it and change the law. The problem is that, precisely because the law has been changed, gender differences can now be raised again in a new context. If women are still not succeeding, runs one new argument, when there is no legal obstacle, then this must indicate that there is something about them that means they are not capable of or interested in certain roles or activities. Another (related) argument is that women who are succeeding are only doing so at the expense of men, through positive discrimination (whether that is formal or informal).

An absolutely blatant example of this line of attack, and the principal reason for me coming back to this topic so soon, is the appearance of one Professor Alessandro Strumia at a recent gender equality conference at Cern. (Strumia was a professor at the University of Pisa at the time of the conference – he isn’t any more…)

‘Physics was invented and built by men’, Strumia told the audience of young people starting off in their research careers, and ‘women naturally prefer to work with people and men with things’. The underrepresentation of women in the field (still only 9% of university students in the UK taking physics) was therefore to do with these so-called natural preferences and characteristics and not because of centuries of exclusion and social engineering.

Need more evidence? How about the fact, Strumia suggested, that there have only ever been three female Nobel Prize winners for Physics since its inception (let’s give them proper credit: Marie Sklodowska in 1903, Maria Goeppert Mayer 1963 and Donna Strickland, who was awarded the prize in the same week that Strumia had his rant). Again, nothing to do with centuries of exclusion… (And in fact there is a special layer of exclusion for women when it comes to Nobel Prizes. There are many examples of this. To quote just one: Jocelyn Bell who discovered radio pulsars in 1967, when she was a PhD student at Cambridge. The Nobel Prize that recognised this landmark discovery in 1974 went to her male supervisor, Antony Hewish…)

Strumia then went on to lament the supposed discrimination against men, with women now being ‘promoted to senior positions unfairly’, given extra time in exams at Oxford University, and benefiting from free or cheaper university fees in Italy. It seems that he had personal reasons for feeling aggrieved, but that really is no excuse. And in fact, personal experience is often at the heart of this new wave of objection and challenge. Of course we need to make sure that the best candidate gets the job, but we also need to make sure that all the potential best candidates are nurtured and developed. The danger of attitudes such as those of Strumia is that they use the legal changes as a smokescreen for rebuilding the old barriers. They must not be allowed to succeed.

‘There were young women and men exchanging ideas and their experiences on how to encourage more women into the subject and to combat discrimination in their careers’, said one young woman attending the Cern conference. ‘Then this man gets up, saying all this horrible stuff’. If it can happen at a forward-thinking and prestigious organisation like Cern, I’m afraid it can still happen anywhere. And that’s why we must continue to persist with our arguments, to make sure we don’t lose the ground that’s been made, and to push ahead to a time of genuine equality.

Dr Felicia Kirk, Headmistress



CERN / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY / Universal Images Group