IUPAP Conference: Woman in Physics Paris 2002

Article commioned by Erophysics News and to be published in the May/June Issue

At international conferences the delegates are there because of real interest in their subject. This is not stated explicitly - it is there in the excitement of the new results and the many hours of labour that have been dedicated to the work reported. Some delegates at international conferences are women and in this environment the women discuss the area of physics that most interest them and personal lives are kept private. I guess most of us always felt that to raise women's issues would mean that we were labelled as eccentric and not taken seriously as physicists.

The Paris conference was a great contrast - a new experience for all of us. About 300 women physicists mostly from academia but with a few from industry and a small number of men met to discuss how conditions might change to enable more women to make contributions to the subject. If anything the men present were more anxious to promote real changes. There was a substantial fraction of younger women present: some as part of their countries delegation and others as part of an EU initiative to fund young researchers to attend. Altogether there were 67 countries represented from both the developed and developing worlds. The Europeans were well represented comprising approximately half of the conference. Passion for physics that had sustained these women shone through the meeting. Women who told of their experiences in discussion spoke of their determination, single-mindedness or stubborn nature.

Some life histories of the older delegates were awesome. The majority and probably nearly 100% of those from the developing world had children. Almost none of them had taken a career break; one of the US delegation remarked that she had taken one weekend maternity leave for each of her two children! The overwhelming view that is was certainly extremely hard work combining kids with 'physics in the fast-lane' but the rewards of success made it well worth-while. One life history was very memorable for me because it is so often remarked that it is wise to delay children until after obtaining a permanent position. Catherine Cesarsky became pregnant during her PhD and combined a happy family life with a very distinguished career as an astronomer - she now directs the European Southern Observatory. Not all were so fortunate and told of a much less happy lifestyle, enforced childlessness or divorce. The view was that life was equally tough for the unmarried women. Some women stated that they had chosen this lifestyle so that they could compete with men only to find themselves left behind because of the operation of an old boys network. If married a supportive husband was deemed essential. Those of us who can choose our own husband were advised to choose a man who would respect and encourage us. So many women physicists are married to male physicists that the problems of managing dual careers for couples, 'the two-body problem', was much discussed and recommendations were made that this should be made easier because it is usually the woman who suffers if there is only one position.

The obvious problem for women physicists wanting an academic career in Europe is the long apprenticeship served on a succession of short-term contracts involving frequently changing institutions and often national boundaries often continuing until age 35 or even 40. This period coincides with the time when many women are establishing long term relationships which seriously restrict their mobility and is also a time for pregnancy. However, France is different. Young scientists move straight from PhD into a permanent CNRS or University post after a short (1 or 2 years) post-doc period and the percentage of women hired on permanent position at university or CNRS roughly corresponds to that of women's Ph.Ds. The situation is summarised in the figure, although it should be realised that the averaging is over different periods 3-5 years for students, circa 30 years for faculty and that faculty or professors mean different things in different countries.

There were other areas of disquiet. In MIT the women professors had assumed that any problems they might have were due to ill-luck or even their own shortcomings. However, when a committee was empowered to look at the working conditions of all the women faculty they found that the women had been excluded from the power structure and were very seriously disadvantaged in space, research funds and access to information compared with their male colleagues. The President of MIT commented at the start of the report(1) 'I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception. True, but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance.' There was the Swedish study that showed that women scientists suffered substantial discrimination in the award of research grants(2). These two examples made delegates very uneasy. It seemed that wherever, one looked carefully at data for bias against women it had been found. Where else might it be?

The reaction of the conference was to call strongly for full transparency in all areas. Too much power was believed to be in the hands of establishment male figures who networked effectively among themselves to the exclusion of women. Within academic institutions clear guidelines for permanent appointments should be made and all jobs should be advertised and criteria for promotion should be known. Women should be involved, if possible, on appointment and promotion panels. The peer review process should be clearer and women should be involved (the EU has a target of 40% female representation on its committees and comes close to meeting this even in physics). Affirmative action was discussed, of course, but most delegates rejected it. Instead the conference delegates were strongly in favour of much more transparency and real equality of opportunity. It was felt that it was essential to have more women involved in the decision making bodies of universities and funding councils.

There was a need for more reliable data so that the effects of any initiative could be monitored. It was also clear that education systems varied widely between countries and so comparing one country with another was neither easy or really instructive. However, it was important to do monitoring as a function of time within any given country. In Japan there had been extensive studies over a period of time and kinks in the curves where clearly identified with social or legal changes. Each country produced a two page summary in advance of the conference. Reading those from Europe gives indication of a strong correlation between the number of active women physicists and the availability of good state organised child-care.

The EU commissioned the very widely acclaimed ETAN(3) report. In its development of human resource programmes it has been concerned with moving post docs over national boundaries. Physicists who work in laboratories in another EU country gain enormously. My personal view is that women are less likely to be able to benefit from a scheme to go abroad in their early 30's than one to allow them to study for at least part of their PhD abroad in their 20's. Funding students to work abroad would be a way of increasing the European experience of women physicists. Another imaginative scheme would be one that allowed mature scientists to travel for periods of say up to one year or two years if they had been prevented from travelling abroad earlier either because of responsibilities of care or because they came from one of the candidate countries where foreign travel had been impossible in their youth. At least as far as the women are concerned I believe that there is a great release of time and energy after children have become independent and that short enrichment experiences for these women would pay dividends in terms of their future productivity. I hope that the EU will introduce such a scheme in the future.

The EU funded a number of young researchers to attend. One of them told me 'I had a chance to meet many successful women physicists, and it was heartening to realise that it can be done. I also had a chance to discuss many of the concerns I've had - until now - about the possible course my career

might take, especially those which are taboo in a male environment'

Another one commented 'It was wonderful to meet all these women from so many places. The conference clearly showed that the lack of women physicists is a global phenomenon across diverse countries (true even within Europe).'

Almost all women worked in environments where there were very few female colleagues. This was what gave the conference a real feeling of euphoria - suddenly we were not alone but met really inspiring women from widely varying backgrounds. We determined to establish links between our physics societies, an enduring Women in Physics web site and a proposal has gone to the EPS council to establish a European Woman in Physics Group. This will allow more mentoring and networking and also facilitate academic visits across Europe

The conference passed resolutions and more detailed recommendations directed at various types of organisation. These can be read in detail on the web(4). The delegation from each country was limited to 3-5 with a recommendation that one male delegate be included. This meant that there were rather few men in the Paris conference although those who were present were very supportive. Now is the time for the whole community to be involved as many of the structural changes can only occur with the good will of all active physicists as well as organisational bodies.

  1. http://web.mit.edu/fnl/women/women.html

  2. C Wenneras and A Wold Nature, 387, 341-343 (1997)

  3. ftp://ftp.cordis.lu/pub/improving/docs/g_wo_etan_en_200101.pdf

  4. http://www.if.ufrgs.br/%7Ebarbosa/conference.html

Figure Caption: Data collected for the conference and analysed by K Wiesner Karoline.wiesner@fysik.uu.se

Gillian Gehring 22 March 2002