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Diversity? It’s an issue for the majority

Professor Sijbrand de Jong talks about the Gender in Physics day held at the Globe on 27 February


On 27 January, I spent much of the day in the Globe, where I took part in the Gender in Physics day organised as part of the EU’s Gender Equality Network in the European Research Area (GENERA). Two weeks later, it was a pleasure to see some of the many events organised around the world as part of UNESCO’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

On both of these occasions, however, one thing was very evident: most of the participants were women. It’s true that after CERN Director-General Fabiola Gianotti’s opening speech, in which she stressed her commitment to diversity in all its facets and described the actions CERN is taking to promote diversity, we heard from ESO Director-General Tim de Zeeuw, but overall only about 20% of the speakers were men, and as a man in the audience I was very much in the minority. This, I think, is where the challenge lies.

Whenever we look at diversity issues, it is far too easy for those in the majority to think “this is not for me”, whereas actually it very much is. Diversity is always an issue for the majority, and in science, where there are still many more men than women, it is just as important for the men to enable women to progress as it is for the women to make their way.

At my university, this is something that I actively strive to do, and for very good reason. In my experience, women make excellent scientists. This should not surprise anyone, yet there’s still an ingrained prejudice in society that some subjects are better suited for men and others for women. Even among scientists, who should know better, and who do know better if it is made explicit, this sentiment still holds some sway. As scientists, we should know that human ability in all areas follows a spectrum, and excellence can be found anywhere.

An example from an unexpected angle is that women are often asked how they combine raising children with their career. As a male single parent, I have never been asked this question. It just does not occur to people, be it female or male, to perceive this as a possible problem for a male. But why would it then be an issue for a female?

So what can we do? Much has been said about the importance of female role models, and in my experience they certainly help. It is great, therefore, to see women rising to positions of authority in science. Strong female role models are not just important for aspirational young girls: they are also important for young boys, if we are to break the pattern of ingrained prejudice. It’s important for everyone to see women succeed in science and elsewhere.

I thoroughly enjoyed my day in the Globe discussing and learning about issues of gender in physics. One thing both men and women in science can do is engage more with such initiatives. There’s one more opportunity coming up to do so very soon with International Women’s day on 8 March. Find out what’s happening around you and get involved. You’ll be enriched by the experience, and science will be better for it.