Female representation in physics: Can we fix it?

Despite increased attention and attempts to raise the visibility and numbers of women in Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) , women still suffer from structural inequality when it comes to physics.

Spurred by a personal experience at a CERN workshop on gender equality – during which a male colleague suggested that physics was “invented and built by men” and that male scientists produced better research than females  – a report published in the journal Communications Physics sought to understand how and why women were still being discriminated against.

By examining a dataset provided by the American Physical Society, Dr Fariba Karimi, a physicist leading a team in computation social science at the Complexity Science Hub Vienna (CSH) was able to draw out some important information.

Young girl studying physics
Structural barriers create the illusion that physics is not for women. Credit: GCShutter/Getty Images

Firstly, the dataset confirmed that women were under-represented in the physical sciences.

Secondly, and crucially, Karimi found that much of the gender gap stemmed from a ‘first-mover’ advantage, leading to women having lower visibility in physics overall. “At a macro level, this structural barrier resulted in a physics community with more senior privileged white men, thus creating an illusion that physics is not for women,” says Karimi.

This is not necessarily a deliberate action, but rather stems from the historical disparity in participation between men and women in physics, setting up a structural inequality that is proving difficult to circumvent.

Read more: The review on women in STEM: a physicist’s perspective

“The participation of men in physics has historically been disproportionately higher than that of women. It also means that the entry barrier for women into physics was higher – due to sexism and societal expectations of women – and therefore they could not enter the physics community as early as men,” explains Karimi.

Karimi was also keen to investigate any inequalities in recognition for similar work published around the same time. By screening their dataset (of more than 541,000 articles published between 1893 and 2010) using image and name-recognition techniques to infer gender, the researchers found 9,947 women and 60,886 men primary authors.

Young man and woman walking towards white ladders
Men benefit from a a ‘first mover’ advantage in physics (and other STEM fields) resulting in structural barriers to women’s equal participation. Credit: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

Although publishing first tends to result in more citations (where authors of subsequent papers refer to a previous paper in their research), male authors generally received more citations when they published first as compared to women authors. Not only did men tend to publish first more often, “a male author gets more citations when he publishes first compared to a female author,” says Samuel Martin-Gutierrez, co-author of the paper and a postdoc at CSH.

Karimi and the team hope that their research will add weight to the notion that “structural inequality continues to affect women’s participation for generations to come, and it should be addressed through appropriate interventions”.

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