One scientist’s baffling attempt to prove that physics isn’t sexist

Fabiola Gianotti, CERN’s Director general, looks on.
Fabiola Gianotti, CERN’s Director general, looks on.
Image: Reuters/Denis Balibouse
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Scientists are all about evidence. They collect data and interpret it by using rigorous criteria, all while allowing for the limitations of their research, and do their best to eschew any personal biases. And so it’s all the more surprising that one Italian physicist set out to “prove” his field isn’t sexist toward women.

The BBC reports that Alessando Strumia, a professor at the University of Pisa in Italy, used a workshop at Cern, the European nuclear research center in Geneva, Switzerland, to deliver a lecture dedicated to the idea that it is men—not women—who are discriminated against in physics. “Physics was invented and built by men, it’s not by invitation,” he said in a concluding slide.

The task Strumia had set himself was a tough one. How does one find conclusive proof of an absence, especially the absence of something as nebulous and experience-based as sexism (or racism, or any other form of discrimination)? It’s a question scientists have long grappled with. “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” according to a phrase attributed to British astronomer Martin Rees (pdf), often cited in discussions of when science can, and cannot, be said to have provided a conclusive answer to a question.

Given the difficulty of this challenge, the “proof” that Strumia presented was thin. He conducted a data analysis of papers published in an online library. He then concluded from some of the findings that women were hired more despite having published work that was cited less by other authors. He suggested female and male authors were cited equally early in their careers, but that citations of women’s work dropped away later in their careers, the suggestion being that this pointed to lower-quality work over a lifetime.

But it’s easy enough to find another way to interpret this evidence. It’s well-documented that women, who give birth to children and tend to bear the larger share of the burden of raising them, suffer a “childcare penalty” after having kids. Their salaries are lower than those of women without children, and lower than those of men at the same point in their careers. (Salary, it should be noted, is just one indicator of the ways in which women’s careers may slow down during what might otherwise be years of peak performance.) Strumia’s conclusion is the result of seeking evidence to prove an already-held belief, and seeing that proof without considering any alternatives.

Strumia also alluded to genetic differences between men and women to support his theory that women prefer more people-oriented fields than do men, including a study in which very young male babies preferred looking at a mobile, while female babies preferred looking at a face. This theory, too, is much debated. Gender differences between girls and boys have been discovered in some studies, but many academics in the field say the theory of “natural” differences keeps being rehashed to explain structural problems. And even if Strumia proved with certainty a female-brain bias toward people over things, it wouldn’t follow that women finding good jobs in physics weren’t excellent physicists, or that they were less deserving than men.

His audience, largely made up of young female physicists, would have had an easy time spotting the problems with this analysis. Jessica Wade, a physicist at Imperial College London who was in attendance, told the BBC that Strumia’s analysis was based on ideas that have “long been discredited.”

Cern called the talk “highly offensive” in a statement, saying the organization hadn’t know what Strumia was planning to discuss, and removed his slides from the site. Later, Cern said that it was also suspending Strumia from his work at the center. Quartz emailed Strumia for comment and will update this story if he responds.

What Strumia’s deck communicates most strongly is not proof, but anger. His slides conclude with a postscript: “P.S. many told me ‘don’t speak, it’s dangerous.’ As a student, I wrote that weak-scale SUSY is not right, and I survived.” This is an apparent reference to the professor’s early-career work on weak-scale supersymmetry, an aspect of particle physics.

The difference here, perhaps, is that the professor’s presentation suggests an animating belief that he, and men like him, are being marginalized. He set out to prove the absence of sexism, but his own words indicate that he has a vested interest in that being the case. (He also mentioned during his talk that he had been personally passed over at work in favor of a female colleague.) Any scientist can tell you that when you’re set on finding a particular outcome, you’re bound to skew the results.