Physics

Science doesn’t belong to men. Here’s the proof | Afua Hirsch | Opinion


If anywhere were to be immune from our planetary post-fact plague, you’d think it would be the realm of nuclear physics. Cern – the nuclear research centre in Geneva, currently at the centre of a sexism row – spends a billion dollars a year looking for evidence of a particle, for goodness sake. These guys deal in facts like no one else. That didn’t stop the male physicist Alessandro Strumia using a speech at the centre to make the totally nonsensical claims that women have made no contribution to physics and now enjoy so much support to enter science that men have become victims of discrimination.

I can only assume Strumia is following the well-rehearsed technique of making some essentialist comment that has no basis in fact, and then when hit by a backlash – Strumia has already been suspended by the University of Pisa – becoming a martyr, falling nobly on one’s sword at the hands of the militant politically correct.

Only the politically correct, presumably, would get distracted by a history of women who have made fundamental contributions to physics, although many were denied the same recognition as their male contemporaries because, like Sophie Germain, who pioneered Napoleon-era findings on elasticity, they were shunned because of their sex; or, like Rosalind Franklin, who discovered the inner structures of DNA, they died young; or, as in the case of Hypatia, they were murdered by male zealots. And don’t dwell too much on contemporary statistics about women in science, which show that last year women made up less than a quarter of the UK scientific workforce. The global figure for women in scientific research and development roles is just under a third.

I’m not sure how much Strumia elaborated – his comments have been removed from the website of Cern – which is led, incidentally, by Fabiola Gianotti, one of the most prominent women in physics. Perhaps he agreed with Tim Hunt, the University College London physicist who said in 2015 that the trouble with allowing “girls” into laboratories was that “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry”.

These scientists could be isolated misogynists. But I suspect there is something deeper going on. We live in a society guided by a set of highly gendered cultural beliefs about essential skills. Men, we are encouraged to believe – not least by a litany of self-help books – are rational, status oriented, competitive and, it’s probably reasonable to assume, good at nuclear physics. Women are empathetic, emotional, and good at communication and intimacy. Claims that women utter 13,000 more words a day than men, though regularly debunked by academics, help condition us into believing women really are much better at people skills.

These ideas have always been problematic in themselves, but they are also loaded with an entirely new ideology. In the UK, for example, globalisation has created many more job opportunities in the service sector than in manufacturing. And these jobs – particularly when they involve direct contact with customers – place a premium on language and communication skills. Researchers have found that managers of call centres, for example, have internalised the beliefs about female verbal superiority, creating hiring biases in their favour.

The result is a kind of lose-lose bind. Working-class male anxiety may well be linked to a sense – conscious or not – that men are fundamentally ill equipped for the employment of the future, while women continue to experience sexist stereotyping and crowding into lower-wage, lower-status roles. Because while having good emotional literacy helps with working in call centres, it is not a route to the kinds of highly paid leadership roles still dominated by men. It certainly does nothing to dissolve ancient biases against the capacity of women to work in science and technology.

I can’t help wonder whether Strumia is performing a kind of territorial ritual. To borrow another outdated stereotype about typical male behaviour: if women are going to get the other sectors, then science, more than ever, should belong to men. Whatever men are doing, it’s certainly working. Until the physics Nobel prize was awarded to Donna Strickland this week, it had been 55 years since the last female recipient – there is not a single other living female physics Nobel laureate.

The cause of these problems goes deeper than any words one man, or indeed all men, could utter. But language does influence behaviour. Academic language is so gendered I hope one day we will look back and laugh. We study for our “bachelor’s” degree, and then our “master’s”, and even if we are not in an institution of learning, we try to “master” life in general. I opened this column talking about “these guys”, which I must stop using, it’s hardly a neutral phrase. Less helpful self-help advice women lower their pitch, phrase commands like questions, and “approximate the popular linguistic stereotype of a man”. I’m not bossy, I’m the boss, the #banbossy movement tells us – correctly identifying the harmful effects of gendered language, but wrongly thinking that since the word “boss” is usually used for men, it must be better. And women who follow that advice are rarely described approvingly for “being in touch with their masculine side”, whereas men are highly praised for demonstrating sensitivity or emotion.

It’s irksome in politics – where female leaders endure all kinds of backward behaviour. But in science, directly leading us into the dawn of evidence-based progress, it’s utter rubbish.

Afua Hirsch is a Guardian columnist



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