Gender Gap in Global Physics

Physics Without Frontiers co-founder Kate Shaw discusses the barriers to women in global science
Gender Gap in Global Physics
Kate Shaw teaching at a Physics Without Frontiers event in Algeria
Charlotte Phillips

Why are there fewer women than men working in physics, and what can be done to change this? These questions pop up in almost any discussion of gender equality in science, and the data is unambiguous. Female scientists have shorter, less well-paid careers, and only 12% of the members of national science academies are women, according to the UN Chronicle [The Lack of Gender Equality in Science Is Everyone’s Problem | United Nations]. For women from scientifically disadvantaged countries, the situation is harsher still.

ICTP researchers Kate Shaw and Bobby Acharya are working to address the issue. As members of ICTP's High Energy, Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics section as well as CERN's ATLAS experiment, the two co-founded Physics Without Frontiers (PWF) with a view to break down boundaries in physics to make it more accessible to all. Shaw talks about the science gender imbalance in the global south.  

How would you address the scientific gender imbalance in emerging economies?

There’s so much to do. From the PWF volunteer network perspective, I would love us to do more awareness and communication work, which can be very impactful. It also helps the women we focus on by highlighting them, which can be useful for their careers. Communication could also be really important for fundraising, as support is needed in funding PhDs that are more flexible for women.

The Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) run some really fantastic projects that support women so they can apply to do a PhD in another global south country. That's fantastic. However, I work in lots of least-developed countries, where there are no master’s programs. To get to the point where they can do a PhD, students there have to leave their country. 

How does having to study abroad affect women from least-developed countries?

In general, it's much easier for men to travel abroad for their master’s if there's an opportunity. Often, men will be able to take the opportunities if they want to, but for women, this may mean a very long discussion with their family. Sometimes their family supports it, but often they don’t. It breaks your heart that these very capable women aren't able to go forward because of the constraints of society, and without more flexible study or career options. However, if we could help countries develop their own master’s courses that would be good.  

That’s something we're trying to promote, and we've supported before in countries such as Afghanistan and Palestine; helping universities with curriculum design. We're now doing this with Bhutan, for undergraduate and master’s programs. Women who have children should be able to continue studying, but it's often difficult then to travel abroad. So, to support more women in science, we should support the creation of more university master courses, this would really provide an option for many to continue their studies. That would really help.

Does PWF have a program focused on gender disparity?

At the moment, we’re running quite a lot of projects. We have done some projects specifically working to support women in science, for example in Nepal, South Africa, Palestine and Pakistan. We do a lot of work in the Middle East, and I did some studies on women in physics there. I spent six months living in West Bank, Palestine, where I was able to work with UNESCO and the UN Women's Center. We have also been working a lot with Afghanistan, but of course, women have now been excluded from all education there.

How did this affect PWF in Afghanistan?

We worked there and ran annual physics training schools in 2018 and 2019, and it went really well. We supported and helped fund about 18 to 20 students to go and study in Iran, as there’s no MSc in Afghanistan. Some of them were female, which was great. We also helped support others who wanted to go on to further study elsewhere abroad. But now, we're very stuck with how to support women there. I mean, it's just devastating. It's really hard to talk about it without bursting into tears. They can't really get a job or get educated.

We’re thinking about various options to see if there's anything we can do to support Afghan women. It's just such a shame. The country was still at war when we went to visit, and they still had a lot of problems. But the people we met there were just incredible. There would be bombs at the university. It was a complicated place, but they said, “we're going to push on, and let's set up studying physics and getting into research.” It's just been really devastating that even though they were working so hard, it's now going in the opposite direction.

What could be done to address gender disparity in science?

There needs to be much better education everywhere. There's always a lot of resistance in an academic setting when it comes to social issues. It’s the same when it comes to supporting LGBTQ; people say that it’s not for us to discuss these social aspects. You get resistance often, but there's so little education provided that people just don't really think about it. A key part of what we do at PWF is that it's not just about giving people an opportunity, and not shutting people out, it’s that if you want to do good science, you have to have the best people. You're not going to get the best people if you're only taking from a particular pool.

In science, we talk all the time about complicated problems, and that we're not getting any further. Maybe we've got too many people in the same echo chamber. We have to diversify, and we actually need to put effort in to making that happen. Rather than just saying we need to do it and continuing to employ and support people who are the same as us.  

How do you think gender equality would affect physics?

I think it would really affect researchers, not just talking about gender, but from a general diversity point of view. If you're going to solve complex problems, you need different voices and different skill sets and people from different backgrounds. The wonderful thing about international science is that you have people from everywhere. And it's also not just about helping science by having different voices. Having a gender balance also supports young people. 

The main issue in physics is that some fields are very male-dominated – theoretical physics for example has one of the fewest proportions of women. There’s an amplification effect. If there are more men than women, it's very difficult to get women in because they are less attracted to that environment. This makes it hard to change the status quo. As soon as we have 50–50, both sexes feel included and you just have a much more inclusive environment. The environment itself becomes more balanced.

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