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The Cern sexism row shows that even scientists can’t talk about gender

1 October 2018

5:02 PM

1 October 2018

5:02 PM

The great Quentin Blake, who illustrated the Roald Dahl books, has come up with some charming new illustrations for Matilda, the child prodigy who was so brainy she could make things move by sheer mind-power. For the 30th anniversary of the book, he speculates on what she might have become: there’s Matilda, world traveller, chief executive of the British Library, astrophysicist.

Or maybe not. Alessandro Strumia at the university of Pisa has cast doubt on that last one. In an address at Cern, the European nuclear energy body, to an audience of women – grown up Matildas, all of them – he declared that the reason men are so over-represented in physics is because they are “over-performing” and that physics was “invented and built by men”. And in case they missed the point, he declared that women have been “allocated too much funding” and been “promoted into positions of power unfairly”. He concluded that “physics is not sexist against women. However truth does not matter.”

Well! The prof’s talk went down with these women, beginning their physics careers at Cern, precisely as you might have expected; viz, like a plate of sick. You won’t, alas, be able to catch up on it on the Cern website because the slides were taken down pronto. Cern issued a very stern rebuke, saying that the prof’s address was contrary to the Cern code of conduct and “risks overshadowing the important message and achievement of the event”. Well, I dunno. At least we’ve now heard about it.

Now, I don’t, alas, know the prof but I do know a few physicists and there’s a stubborn willingness among some of them – males mostly – to tell it like it is, or at least how they see it. If your training tells you to follow the empirical evidence wherever it leads, sometimes you risk doing it outside your safe space of high energy theory of whatever. In other words, some scientists don’t mind treading on current susceptibilities in an area where no dissent is allowable.

There’s not much doubt about the particular bee in Prof Strumia’s bonnet. He used a slideshow to illustrate the discrimination that men have faced, with examples including female Stem students receiving free or cheaper university fees in Italy.

He also explained – and this is the crucial bit – how he believed that he should have been hired by the National Institute of Nuclear Physics over Anna Ceresole, the professor who was eventually chosen for the position that he’d applied for, as he had more citations than her. I think we have, here the nub of the problem.

And he went on to cite the case of Larry Summers who resigned as president of Harvard university 12 years ago for suggesting that the dearth of women in science and engineering was because of the “different availability of aptitude at the high end”. Obviously, he had to go. The same went for Tim Hunt, Nobel prizewinner, driven out of UCL because of his off message remarks about female scientists, though these were intended simply to be humorous.

Put aside for a moment Prof Strumia’s contention that he was the victim of gender discrimination for a job. What no one is suggesting is that there aren’t distinguished women scientists; the issue is why there are fewer of them than men. If you’re really interested you could do worse than read the reflections of Prof Athene Donald, a distinguished physicist, on Science and Gender in Academica, which discusses the subject at some length:

What bothers me isn’t whether Prof Strumia is right or wrong, it’s that it’s not permissible to raise the subject as he has done at all. The reaction of Cern has been to declare the Prof persona non grata; it can only be a matter of time before his university is asked to discipline him. He comes across as angry, exasperated even, but rather than hustling him out of the room and making sure he’s never invited again, wouldn’t it be better to ask him to spell out what he means, and then engage with his observations and the evidence? Was he unfairly passed over for promotion?

Everyone involved in this is meant to be a scientist, right? Except at Cern they seem no more immune than anyone else from the censorious mentality that says that, to any question about gender and achievement, there is only one acceptable answer.


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