Freya Blekman on informal gender-bias in physics

"[At CERN] [y]ou often see a younger guy with an older guy gossiping and having coffee, but never a woman."

- Freya Blekman, quoted in Nature

Is physics an unfavorable career for women? Ex-physicist Sherry Towers certainly thinks so; not only does she claim to have been forced out of the profession over maternity leave issues, but she has recently gathered some hard stats about how young female physicists have been treated at one representative institute, Fermilab. After analyzing public data about 57 post-doctoral scientists working at one particular particle accelerator in the prestigious Illinois facility over a period of eight years, she concluded that the women did 40% more of the 'maintenance work' than their male counterparts, worked significantly harder and produced more internal reports, yet were a third less likely to be asked to give conference talks. The talks, Towers says, are decided by a panel that is more likely to be comprised of male cronies.

The sample size was small, only nine women – but the fact that only 16% of the post-doc pool were female already tells you something. (The Nature article, penned by Geoff Brumfiel, notes that women make up only 10% of faculty in America, which suggests that acquiring a larger sample size might always be a challenge.)

Although some people approached by Brumfiel doubt the report's findings, the article quotes several female physicists, including Blekman above, who believe they are disadvantaged in the field. Regardless of how endemic the problems actually are, Towers thinks that it would be straightforward, and cost-free, to take steps to make conference allocations "more transparent and balanced".

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