At a recent workshop held by CERN, a European organization for nuclear research, senior scientist Professor Alessandro Strumia made several comments stating his belief that physics ‘was invented and built by men’. This statement was made to an audience of predominantly female physicists, who had to listen to Strumia present his outdated beliefs. Strumia based his theory around the belief that male scientists in physics were being ‘discriminated against due to ideology rather than merit’, while arguing that outside forces were unfairly presenting physics as pro-male. The comments sparked outrage and led to the immediate suspension of the scientist. CERN swiftly addressed that they ‘strive to carry out its scientific mission in a peaceful and inclusive environment’; Strumia has since argued that he was only ‘presenting the facts’.

Women in STEM are under-represented at their professional level, specifically women in physics. This is demonstrated by the fact that only three women ever have won the Nobel Prize for physics, even including this year’s winner Donna Strickland – the first female winner of the award for 55 years. As fellow female scientist Christina Wiedemann stated, while expressing her happiness for Strickland’s success ‘I have a hard time imagining there haven’t been women worthy of the prize in those 55 years’. This is not to discredit men within STEM, but to understand the lack of representation that women still receive for their hard work and research in the field, despite the fact that both male and female physicists would have had highly similar experiences and studies in making a career.

Donna Strickland’s success in the Physics Nobel Prize was a big step forward for women in science – but it was the first Nobel Prize win in the field for a woman in 55 years.

For years, women in the STEM have faced discrimination in the workplace and amongst the science community. Sexism in science is unfortunately nothing new, and even in a time where gender equality is most evident, individuals with beliefs such as Strumia’s can be damaging. Even though those that carry the same beliefs as the CERN scientists are few, it still has an impact when these individuals are allowed to attend such large conferences and express these views. This may extend to younger impressionable audiences and have a negative effect on their outlook, especially women wanting to get into the field.

The University of Kent’s own Dr. Silvia Ramos, lecturer in Material Physics, has also expressed her views on Strumia’s comments, as well as women in STEM fields in general. She stated that ‘We fortunately have reached a point in which the analysis of how discrimination might affect individuals in different aspects of their lives is monitored and assessed in a less casual way than the comments by Prof. Strumia suggest’. She further emphasised her point by expressing that ‘discrimination, often in the form of unconscious bias, affects, amongst others, women in science, and duly Prof. Strumia’s do not deserve any attention.’

From her own personal experience as a woman in science these comments do not necessarily surprise her, as she has ‘encountered unhelpful attitudes and have not allowed them to stop us’ and views herself as not a ’woman in science, but a scientist’ who has ‘little patience’ for those who might see her otherwise. Dr Ramos extends on this stating these attitudes are ‘tremendously frustrating’ due the effect they can have on the next generation who should be able to ‘choose what they want to learn, study and do a job according to what they like and are good at, rather than choosing due to prejudice’. She concluded by stating that ‘A lot of effort is being made by organisations like our University or the Institute of Physics to remedy this situation. But every time a Professor in Physics says something like this and it is widely reported in the media, we take a step back dealing with this conscious or unconscious bias.’

Women remain a minority in STEM, and the masculine environment of the industry can make things difficult for those few that do carry the torch.

It is evident that there is still discrimination towards women in STEM, and although times are improving, work still needs to be done to ensure that women are equally represented. Strumia’s comments, although untrue and offensive, still show the underlying issues of the sexism women face, and something still needs to be done to stop these people having a platform to express these opinions.