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Working Towards Gender Equity, One Workshop at a Time

Fifth Career Development Workshop for Women in Physics

Working Towards Gender Equity, One Workshop at a Time
Working Towards Gender Equity, One Workshop at a Time

15/11/2019 - Trieste

When distinguished physicist Shobhana Narasimhan was attending the International Conference on Women in Physics in Stellenbosch, South Africa, in 2011, she heard a physicist tell the story of how, when she asked for the maternity leave that she was entitled to at her university, she was instead promptly fired. The physicist stood up to say she had been thinking of leaving science, of giving up on her career in the face of such impediments. Scientist after scientist, all women, stood up to tell her: “Sister, fight, do not give up! We will support you!”

Moved by this incident, and remembering her own experiences of isolation as a woman in science, Narasimhan started comparing notes with Elizabeth H. Simmons, another conference participant who had been a fellow graduate student in physics at Harvard. “We would regularly catch up with news about our graduate school cohort, and we found that many of us were facing common challenges as women in physics,” says Narasimhan. “We encountered hostile colleagues, active discrimination, and lack of mentoring, networking, and support. Most of us were among the few women in our departments.” All of this gave Simmons and Narasimhan the idea for a Career Development Workshop for Women in Physics, to counteract isolation, to help young scientists develop skills necessary to succeed in science, to share experiences, and to support each other.

The fifth such workshop was recently held at ICTP, hosting more than 50 participants from 42 countries. The workshop was co-directed by Simmons, who is now Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University of California-San Diego, Narasimhan, who is Professor of Theoretical Sciences at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Nicola Spaldin, Professor of Materials Theory at ETH Zurich, and Erika Coppola, a member of the Earth System Physics section at ICTP.

ICTP is proud to have supported these activities, as it is very much in line with the institution's mission of removing barriers for those interested in contributing to science. Gender equity is one of the main issues facing communities that wish to build scientific capacity locally. Past iterations of the workshop have welcomed talks from many distinguished scientists, and participants are in all stages of their careers, with many early career scientists.

One of the youngest participants, Dindara Galvao, came from São Paulo, Brazil, and she brought a short film she wrote and directed about the experiences of women in science. From casual remarks to explicit discrimination, to classroom dynamics and hiring biases, the film explores the many explicit and subtle barriers individuals, institutions, and societies place for women in science as they attempt to do research. “I am in my last year of my bachelor’s degree in physics, and with each year, there have been fewer and fewer women in the programme. I had access to interviews with women in science further in their careers, but I wanted to include the experiences of undergraduates as well, because there are difficulties at all levels,” says Galvao.

“I made the video with help from friends who are actors,” says Galvao, “and one of them told me, this video is about science, but it isn’t just about science – it represents her experience too.” The film places its audience in the center of each situation, surrounding the viewer in virtual reality. “I chose to make it in 360 degrees, because virtual reality is a powerful tool for sparking empathy,” she says. “When wearing the virtual reality goggles it’s harder for people to ignore the film and its message.” Galvao hopes the film will be screened several times a year in her home institution and city, to spark discussion and hopefully policy changes, for audiences of both men and women interested in science.

"For a week I shared spaces and experiences with amazing physicists, inspiring women, from such different cultures and at the same time with similar challenges. Seeing each one of them, within their own reality, feeling represented by my work is indescribable," says Galvao.

Not only can experiences for women in science be difficult, disheartening, or even traumatic, inequality can also deprive women of several types of support, mentorship, and education through exclusion from informal networks of male scientists. “I know of a scientist who was the only woman in her department," says Narasimhan, "whose colleagues would frequently socialize together and never invite her. She asked if she could accompany them, and they told her no. When asked why not, they responded that ‘no decent woman would go where we are going,’“ Narasimhan remembers, a comment that demonstrates at least two levels of discrimination and behavior policing. Most career advice tends passed through colleagial networks, through socializing: informal mentoring, quiet advice on how to write grant proposals and how to referee papers, how to deal with difficult colleagues, and how to negotiate for resources. “Because women tend to have less access to such networks," says Simmons, "the Career Development Workshop held at ICTP is designed to help participants develop this set of skills.”

Workshop participants frequently speak of how inspired they were by their fellow participants and speakers. Stories shared include escaping war-torn countries through tunnels, starting a career after raising six children, and dealing with scant resources, all with the goal of being scientists. "One participant shared that the workshop was the first conference of any kind that her husband had allowed her to attend," remembers Narasimhan,"and that was because he thought only women would be present, he wouldn’t let her attend conferences if men were going to be there. Little did he know this was perhaps a much more subversive activity than a normal physics conference would be!"

The Career Development Workshop for Women in Physics at ICTP grew from one specific experience of the importance of a supporting network, and now seeks to connect scientists from all over the world into this network. Participants this year reported they were leaving the conference with new-found confidence, new friends, a renewed sense of self worth, and renewed confidence in their ability to do physics. "I now know I am not alone," said one participant, "I have all of these amazing women with me." The comradery of scientists and women, who have also faced and survived the specific hurdles women have to deal with, helps women remain and succeed in science. "We hope that this workshop can both provide vital skills and be an antidote to the feeling of being alone," says Narasimhan. 


----- Kelsey Calhoun