International Women’s Day 2020

It’s International Women’s Day (March 8). While society in general still has some way to go towards equity for women (e.g. the recent #metoo movement) physics has some particular challenges, which I’d like to discuss.

First I thought I’d celebrate by mentioning one of my favourite physicists Emmy Noether – who also happened to be a woman. By the way, Noether is apparently pronounced NUR-tuh though I tend to pronounce the “th” similar to the word “the” – none of us are perfect!

While Emmy Noether made many contributions to mathematics (and is better described as a mathematician, than a physicist) in my biased opinion her most exciting contribution was Noether’s (first) Theorem (about physics) which links the conservation of physical quantities to symmetries. I’d write about it, but Discover Magazine already did a great article to which I haven’t anything to add, at least at the moment.

I’ll come back to Emmy later, but for now I’ll focus on some of the issues facing women in science today, and particularly, women in physics.

In the sciences while the same number of females often start out studying a subject (if not more, as in Figure 1, below), when you get to the higher levels the subject is dominated by males. The shape of the graph (as in Figure 1) of the relative participation of males and females at increasing levels of seniority is often called a “scissor graph” because of the similarity of its shape to a pair of scissors.

Figure 1 – from

The exact shape of a similar graph of progression in different parts of the world, in specific subjects, at specific institutions etc. is not the same (they might sometimes show less of an issue, other times more). But this graph is indicative of the overall challenge facing females in the sciences, and related subjects like Engineering and IT.

Physics, in particular, has an even bigger problem (with similar issues in subjects such as Maths, Engineering, and IT).

In physics the situation is similar to the graph below, which is specifically for Engineering. After a quick look, I couldn’t find one with specific numbers for physics, but I have numbers from my own experience with physics in academia, which I can’t publish, that are similar.

Figure 2 – While this graph is about Engineering, there is a similar issue in Physics.

With the scissor graph, where there is a large percentage of females entering at the degree level, one can at least focus on a relatively smaller area i.e. at the degree level and above.

In subjects such as physics, the challenge extends below the degree level.

At the university level a variety of efforts are being made to address the unequal representation between the genders. And even in physics there is a still a drop off from the small numbers at degree level to even smaller numbers at the most senior levels. These efforts are important in relation to aspects such as those at more junior levels having role models, mentors and clearly achievable goals aspire to.

However, with a relatively small cohort of female candidates to draw from this leaves universities fighting over a relatively small pool from which to try to redress the imbalance at senior levels. If the goal is equal representation of females and males, then it’s almost impossible that this could be achieved. This should not deter efforts at the university level, and in some areas, such as astronomy, there is a greater female representation, and continued efforts in this area has the potential to help lift female participation in physics more generally.

A quick aside to acknowledge that there are those who don’t come under the binary gender divide, That this post focuses on the particular challenges females face doesn’t imply the issue of non-binary physicists (or scientists in general) is not important. it’s simply that one cannot address every issue in every post. Having said that, my experience has been that some of the most effective strategies to address the issue of female equity is often to address issues of of inequity in general (for example, setting up a generic equity committee) which has benefits for all minority groups.

Anyhow, in terms of women in physics, I want to address some of the “elephants in the room”:

  1. Why does it matter?… after all, physics has progressed quite happily in the past through luminaries such as Newton, Einstein and many others.
  2. Maybe females are not as interested in physics? Maybe they don’t want to study physics as much as males?
  3. Maybe females are not as good at physics as males?

I’ll work through these in reverse order because the answers to the later questions feed into the answers to the earlier questions.

Are females as good as males at physics?

It’s also easiest (in terms of it being a simple argument) to address question (3) first. There’s no evidence that there are significant differences in the intellectual abilities of males and females that would impact their ability in physics, for example, read this article and many similar to it.

There are clearly some differences in the development of males and females (for example, there’s a noticeable difference in the relative average development of physical strength) but there are no significant differences which impact the overall relative ability of females and males to perform well in maths (a key enabler for physics) or physics itself.

Are females as interested as males in physics?

Point (2) is a little trickier because on the surface, given that students often choose their subjects at various levels (in high school, when they go to university) it would at first seem self-evident that females are not as interested in physics as males.

However, scratch just a little deeper one sees that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The surprising (to me, when I realised this) situation is that females are still told they are not as capable as males at subjects such as maths and physics and they are still told that it is not a girls subject. Such negative reinforcement not only impacts girls choices but also impacts their performance (as it does for anyone e.g. the classic blue-eyes vs brown eyes study and the similar Stanford prison experiment).

This is referenced in the article I mentioned above where it is sometimes found, for example, that “more boys than girls score at the highest levels in mathematics”. However, as it also says in that article:

“that gender gap has been closing over time. In fact, they [2009, Hyde and Janet Mertz] reported that the gap is smaller in countries with greater gender equality, suggesting that gender differences in math achievement are largely due to cultural and environmental factors”


“Spelke believes that differences in career choices are due not to differing abilities but to cultural factors, such as subtle but pervasive gender expectations that kick in during high school and college. “

As well as this being believable in terms of studies that demonstrate the impact of negative reinforcement, it’s been directly shown to be true in relation to physics in various interventions designed to address these differences, for example, one can read the extensive IOP research in this area.

To summarise, when one goes into a school and addresses the issues, the number of girls taking physics increases. What I find particularly interesting about some of the efforts of the IOP compared to, for example, some programs in Australia, is that the focus was not about going into a school and promoting physics but an effort to redress equity (and negative gender stereotypes in general) which then had an impact on physics enrolments. It’s relatively easy to continually document the imbalance in enrolments in physics. It’s also relatively easy to go into a school and, by providing short-term additional resources, expert interventions, expensive excursions etc. to see a temporary spike in enrolments in physics from a few schools. What the IOP was pointing the way towards was the potential to get the schools themselves to make a permanent cultural shift within existing resources that would see a permanent self-sustaining uplift in enrolments.

Why should we care?

If we know that there is no difference between females and males in ability, and if we are aware that the large difference in numbers is basically due to inequity in the treatment of females and males then there is a moral imperative for change.

This is the main reason why significant action is being taken at universities to correct such things as the scissor graph as well as the relatively small drop off at senior levels (due to the very small intake) in areas such as physics.

However, in areas such as physics we need to expend similar efforts below the university level if we’re ever going to see anything like equality of numbers at the senior levels.

At a practical level it also matters. Particularly in areas of modern physics where we have large international collaborations that require large amounts of money (e.g. LHC, SKA and in my local context, the Australian Synchrotron).

QUite rightly, more and more women are involved in the decisions as to , in political decisions about what we consider important, what society should focus on and where money is allocated.

For physics to thrive and survive the importance of physics needs to be embraced by all of society and not be seen as a playground for privileged white males.

This is similar to the argument for the importance of outreach and ensuring the public in general understand why we want to discover or do certain things in physics. It’s an expansion of the justifications that any researcher will be familiar in writing when trying to acquire grant funding.

One of the many drivers of universities looking to embrace equity was that grant funding is starting to be tied to whether goals in relation to equity have been met.

There is also research that shows that diversity relates to performance. Diversity of viewpoints opinions and creative ideas can benefit organisations of all types from finance to scientific research.

While science might have progressed OK in the past, how much faster might it have progressed if science had drawn on the greater pool of talent that exists.

And now I finally come back to Emmy Noether. In spite of the historically small number of females involved in areas of science and mathematics there are still those that managed to overcome the historical hurdles of being a woman as well as then managing to overcome the intellectual hurdles of pushing the boundaries of human knowledge demonstrating that women are just as capable as men.

While there are no doubt less female examples to draw upon due to the additional challenges they faced, given the additional challenges they faced we should celebrate these examples more effusively!… especially if we are going to redress the balance in the future.

So here’s to Emmy Noether, Marie Curie, Maria Goeppert-Mayer, Rosalind Franklin, and many others. Make sure you take time out to learn about them. Or feel free to post in the comments about a particular women who’s your favourite physicist.

For just a glimpse of the numerous challenges that women have faced (and still face) I would recommend watching the movie Hidden Figures. which is an entertaining, funny, insightful, sobering view into the amazing contributions of a few particular women who made major contributions to the NASA program that put the first human on the moon. And not only did they have to face the challenges of being women, they faced the additional challenges of being African American!

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