Gender focus in physics

Mette Marie-Louise Grage from the Danish Physical Society presents numbers on women in physics in Denmark.

Gender focus in physics

How can we promote better gender balance among researchers in the natural sciences? The GENERA project is seeking answers by holding a series of Gender in Physics Day events. NordForsk helped to organise the fourth Gender in Physics Day, held on 27 January at CERN near Geneva.

Europe has a low proportion of women professors: roughly 20 per cent overall. In the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), the percentage is even lower. The GENERA project is looking for ways to address this underrepresentation.

Gender Equality Network in the European Research Area (GENERA) is a project under Horizon 2020, the current EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation. The project’s objective is to monitor and improve the gender equality policies of European research institutions and organisations – specifically in the field of physics research. NordForsk participates in the network as an observer.

One of GENERA’s initiatives is to hold a number of Gender in Physics Day events, whose purpose is to present and assess different types of measures promoting gender equality. NordForsk, together with CERN and the European Southern Observatory (ESO), organised the fourth Gender in Physics Day, held at CERN near Geneva.

Status in the Nordic countries

On the Gender in Physics Day programme was a Nordic session where representatives of the Danish Physical Society, the Swedish Physical Society and the Norwegian Physical Society presented statistics on women in physics and examples of gender equality measures in their respective countries. Although the Nordic countries boast a high degree of gender equality in general, inequality persists in the research sphere – including in the field of physics.

In addition, Senior Adviser Lotta Strandberg gave a presentation on NordForsk’s gender research programme Gender in the Nordic Research and Innovation Area. Two recently funded Nordic Centres of Excellence under the programme will be studying how to improve gender balance in the research sector.

Professor Paula Eerola, from her perspective as Director of the Helsinki Institute of Physics, shared her personal reflections on how to address the problem of too few women researchers in physics. Her recommendations for increasing the percentage of women include: providing support at the individual level (e.g. mentor schemes), allocating funding to women’s networks and programmes, applying positive discrimination, if possible, and promoting diversity both in recruitment and in leadership positions.

Nudging rather than quotas

But what are the major European research organisations doing to narrow the gender gap among their own researchers? Representatives of four multinational research organisations – CERN, the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) – all explained that they do not operate with gender quotas. Instead, these organisations exercise awareness in their recruitment processes and consciously work to encourage women to apply for positions.

Read more about the Gender in Physics Days on the GENERA website.

Text and photo: Anne Munk Christiansen

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