Science

We Annotated That Horrible Article About How Women Don’t Like Physics

A woman works in a lab.
Hark, a woman who perhaps likes physics.
Hotaik Sung/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Last fall, physicist Alessandro Strumia was suspended from CERN, birthplace of the Higgs boson, after he gave a lecture on why his field skews so male in which he argued that it’s about inherent ability, not discrimination. He was ultimately let go this month, but now he’s back in the press, being profiled in the Sunday Times, where he talks about his theories on gender and his disgruntlement that particle physics seem to have stagnated in the post-God-particle years (the story is paywalled but available via a free trail). The piece, and Strumia’s apparent befuddlement at the fallout his lecture received, has just a few problems. In the interest of scientific discourse, let’s examine the evidence:

1. The headline of the Sunday Times piece includes the words: “the data doesn’t lie—women don’t like physics.”

If you are wondering if this is a case of an engagement editor gone rogue in search of hate-clicks, the headline that ran in print was even worse: “My Big Bang Theory Is: Women Don’t Like Physics.”

The “data” here, and throughout the article, seem to be the number of women who are in physics right now, and how often their papers are being cited right now. In the U.S., just 20 percent of undergraduate and doctoral degrees are awarded to women, according to a report released this month by the American Institute of Physics. This is like observing of a lifeless early Earth that the planet is simply fundamentally hostile to human beings, or of a pre–Niels Bohr human race that humans are simply not meant to understand the inner workings of atoms. Systems evolve.

2. Now is a good time to mention that the Times story does not quote any actual individual women.

3. As the Times reports, one of Strumia’s slides at his talk bore the words, “physics was invented and built by men.”

With guys like Strumia, I always wonder if they’re entirely unaware that sexism isn’t some in-vogue complaint, it’s been chugging away for centuries. Anyway, here are some women who did make foundational contributions to physics.

4. Strumia tells the Times reporter, Peter Conradi, that he is “no good at politics,” a good stand in for not being interested in “political correctness,” in turn a good stand-in for, “I would like to be sexist or racist or otherwise offensive, please.”

5. “A big mess happens and the institutions are no longer strong enough to protect freedom of speech,” he tells Conradi. Translation: “I want literally no consequences for my words.” (Aren’t we all pretty familiar with this one?)

6. Let’s hear from the author of the piece, Conradi, for a second. This piece has generated some justifiable backlash on Twitter, leading Conradi to ask for some help understanding where he went wrong:

Thank you so much for asking; we have complicated and highly biased expectations of what men and women are good at in our society, based on many years of imbalance in which women were systematically prevented from doing what they necessarily wanted to do. In physics, these biases seem to influence who has more access to resources like funding (men), lab space (men), and clerical support (men!) as surveys of literally thousands of physicists show. Those realities are baked into how students are treated when they arrive in a physics classroom or try to make the choice to enter one in the first place. Take, for example, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, a book that, anecdotally, is a reason many people end up in the field because of how much fun it makes the whole enterprise seem. It also refers to women as bitches. This is a fairly accurate sample of what it’s like to be a woman in an undergraduate physics department, speaking from experience.

7. Strumia claims that papers by women are cited less often; moreover, women write fewer papers than men.

As Particles for Justice, a website that issued a statement in response to Strumia’s initial lecture, signed by thousands of physicists, points out (and to be fair, Conradi cites the statement), not only are citations not an accurate proxy for quality, there’s a trove of research suggesting that women are cited less due to unconscious bias rather than anything inherent about their work. For example, men tend to cite their own papers more than women do, and faculty in general tend to favor male students.

8. Strumia referred to himself as a “great gender expert,” and, per Conradi, feels that he should definitely be allowed to venture into social science.

I guess we have to give him the benefit of the doubt here and assume that he would have been totally OK with someone from gender studies butting in on his work at CERN.

9. “It is not as if they send limousines to pick up boys wanting to study physics and build walls to keep out the women,” Strumia tells Conradi.

I would encourage our budding Gender Expert to take his own words and consider them as a metaphor. Cultural forces, while not visible, still act to effectively shuttle some people into certain roles and barricade others out. In the case of physics, a tough subject, it seems true enough that no one is being escorted in via limo. Nonetheless, it’s better to have a bumpy ride into a field than to be left to scale a barrier, on foot.

10. “When you work hard to remove these social pressures, what happens is the differences increase rather than decrease. The percentage of people doing physics is roughly twice as high in countries such as India, Iran or Algeria than in Sweden.”

I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t exactly sound like a perfectly well-controlled experiment comparing apples to apples to me—all this really tells me is that participation in physics is complicated and maybe can’t be fixed with a few country-specific policy measures.

11. Strumia has apparently turned his lecture into a paper, which he hopes to have a peer-reviewed journal publish. “Whether he finds one ready to brave the inevitable backlash remains to be seen,” writes Conradi.

What if the paper is … simply bad?

12. “If Cern had made more big discoveries in physics, I would have remained silent and focused on physics,” Strumia tells Conradi.

Here, finally, we get to the heart of the problem. To me, it seems Strumia is blaming the stagnation of particle physics and the failure of CERN to discover much beyond the Higgs boson, not on the very underpinnings of the universe, which determine ultimately which tools will work well for discovering things, but on: women.