Category: Gender

Who built Physics?

Who built physics? The answer to this question given by theoretical physicist Prof. Alessandro Strumia in a recent presentation at CERN is men. Men built physics. 

In a sense Strumia is correct, but not for the reasons he presented. Strumia tried to suggest the dominance of men in the discipline is due to innate differences which make them better equipped to meet the intellectual demands of the subject. His argument depended on cherry-picking the data and ignoring the historical or sociological contexts in which physics has developed and which have conferred long-standing advantages on male physicists. 

Fortunately others have been quick to point out the deficiencies of Strumia’s case. In a short twitter thread Prof David Smith (University of York) has provided a handy summary of the evidence that counters Strumia’s polemic:

Our own Dr Jess Wade, who presented a more rigorous take on gender imbalances in physics at the same CERN meeting, has responded in typically robust fashion. A large swathe of the particle physics community has also weighed in both to express their anger at Strumia’s ill-conceived remarks and to bat away his claims with yet more evidence. The funniest skewering of Strumia came from physicist Jon Butterworth who cast the incident as CERN’s latest particle discovery:

“The Strumion. A very small particle which interacts by misleading conference organisers and insulting its audience based on shabby analysis of cherry-picked data?”

Perhaps Strumia is an outlier – one of those temporary blips that appears in the noise of atom-smashing experiments (that he himself is so keen on analysing) but vanishes once sufficient data have been gathered to generate a decent signal-to-noise ratio? Perhaps. But the episode is a reminder that the case for gender equality in STEM, however well grounded, keeps needing to be remade – by men and women.

If you’re interested in equipping yourself to make that case – should an Alessandrio Strumia one day cross your path – you could do worse that start with Angela Saini’s book, Inferior, a cool and balanced look at how scientists like Strumia have been getting women wrong all these years.



Springboard course: is it for me?

In this guest post, Anna Cupani, who is the Stakeholder Engagement Manager at Imperial’s Data Science Institute, writes about her experience of the Springboard Women’s Development Programme

Anna Cupani

I first heard about Springboard from a friend who had taken the course back in 2015. She was coming to the end of her post-doc and figuring out what to do afterwards. In our chats she mentioned how the course helped her to reconsider her career and to look at her values and strengths in a new light. So, when another colleague forwarded a reminder about the course last September, encouraging me to apply, I did not need much convincing.

Then, a week or so before the first training day, an article appeared in the Times Higher which contained some serious criticism of the course. It reported how some academics had dropped out of the training, put off by inappropriate the advice that women had to smarten up to boost their careers.

The last thing I needed was to be told that the way to a fulfilling career was paved with expensive shoes to make me look more authoritative, or a chic handbag so my manager knows that I mean business. It sounded bizarre that a development course would encourage women to conform to the most hackneyed of stereotypes. With this article at the back of my mind, I approached the first day of training with a critical mind. But I was also very curious and I hadn’t forgotten what my friend had told me. I am a scientist after all: so let’s look at the evidence!

And the evidence is that there was no significant discussion of shoes or handbags. Instead I am glad to report that the course is well worth attending! But you need to know why you’re there to make the most of it.

You will spend four days over four months in group activities with women from departments all around College – women of different ages, backgrounds and education. You will also be encouraged to undertake some activities on your own in between the training sessions, either to prepare for them or to mull over what’s been discussed during the training. How much time you dedicate to this ‘homework’ is up to you. You may set aside a few hours every week for self-reflection or just rush through the chapters of the training book the evening before because you forgot it under a pile of documents when you moved to your new flat (true story!).

If you expect Springboard to tell you how to get a tenure track job, or how to increase your success in grant applications, or how to get a pay rise, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. It’s not there to give you a precise set of instructions to complete your next project.

What the course does deliver (if you do the work) is an opportunity for reflection on your career and on your life through discussion with others in a structured way. You’ll be guided to look at your past choices, how they shaped your present situation, how they reflect your values and goals, and how to make the changes you feel you’re ready to make. You’ll practice giving and receiving advice and feedback, and you’ll get the opportunity to be a mentor and a mentee. Enacting simple real-life situations like a difficult conversation with your manager can be much more challenging than you imagine, and it’s incredible how helpful such a rehearsal can be. Half way through the course you may realise that you do not want to become an academic after all; or you may understand how to make your grant applications more impactful; or you may just go and ask for that pay rise because you can now talk more confidently about your achievements.

You will not learn the secret recipe to tackle gender inequality in the workplace, but you might come out of Springboard with a stronger determination to do something about it and a good network to help you. Which is a great starting point.

Women@Imperial Week – your comments

Women@Imperial Week is an annual opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of women staff and students. It is also an chance to renew our focus on the remaining gender inequality challenges at the College.

This year, as part of the photographic exhibition that was the centre-piece of our events programme, we included a new feature: a suggestions board inviting people to post their experiences as a woman at Imperial and asking what they would do to improve things if they could step into the President’s shoes for a day.

You can read full list of comments here. Exercises of this kind are of course no substitute for the more systematic surveys of students and staff at the College. But the comments throw a useful spotlight on a number of issues and are being taken seriously – they have been shared with the President and the Provost.

Women@Imperial week suggestion boards
Women@Imperial week suggestion boards

In this post I wanted to briefly summarise some of the issues raised and mention some of the ongoing work that is attempting to address them.

Women@Imperial week took place during the recent UCU industrial action and the pensions dispute was clearly uppermost in some people’s minds, with several commenters asking for a fair deal to end the strike. The College’s public responses and the wider consultation on pay and benefits are available for people to read. As you will have heard, there is now agreement between UCU and UUK to try to work out an acceptable and evidence-based solution. I wish them luck. 

“Thanks Imperial for giving me a platform to develop further my passion for mentorship and raising awareness of issues women face.”

Other commenters raised the broader issue of the gender pay gap, asking the College to publish its data. This work was already in hand (as required by law) and Imperial’s gender pay gap information has now been made public. Alongside the data you will find an analysis of the underlying reasons and information on measures being taken to address them. (For comparative data on other universities and employers, consult the government’s gender pay gap web-site). The root cause of the pay gap is the relative lack of women in more senior positions (an issue that was also raised on the suggestion board), and will obviously take time to address. But it is a positive move that employers now have to be open about where they are. Data transparency generates useful pressure.

“I was told to ‘think like a man’ as the sole advice from senior leadership when going for a promotion interview.”

The most upsetting comments received were those that spoke about experiences of bullying and sexual harassment. We know from surveys of staff and students that this remains a serious issue at Imperial and elsewhere in higher education, and we are determined to tackle it. In March a new working group was formed, chaired by myself, and specifically tasked with reforming our policies and procedures for dealing effectively, sensitively and credibly with any report of sexual harassment. We aim to bring our review and proposals to Provost’s board as soon as practicable for approval and implementation.

“Encourage more women to take up important positions in the university.”

Several women mentioned incidents of ‘micro-aggressions’ – remarks revealing that stereotyping is alive and well in the minds of some in our community. Women have been called weak, or asked why they are not at home with their children, or informed that they were only recruited to fill a quota. Such comments will dismay many and should be contested wherever possible. Through the developing Active Bystander program (which started in the Faculty of Engineering), we hope that those who give voice to their prejudicial assumptions will in future be more likely to encounter a robust challenge.

“I have been labelled as ‘difficult’ and ‘intimidating’, just for being a strong and charismatic woman.”

Allied to this theme, a couple of comments suggested that initiatives such as Women@Imperial week are unnecessary – or even unfair – given the equalities enshrined by law. I disagree. That view seems to me to be uninformed by the lived experience of women at the College. I hope we are progressing to the point where such initiatives will be redundant, but regrettably we are some still distance away.

To close, I simply want to quote one of the most provocative and ambitious comments: “I would build a toilet for women at the top floor of the Business School!!! Women can make it to the top as well!!!”