Home'Racism Without Racists’: Physics Is Not For Women

‘Racism Without Racists’: Physics Is Not For Women

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Fariba Karimi, a physicist, and her colleagues at the Complexity Science Hub Vienna examined and analyzed the assertions made by a ‘sexist’ senior scientist, who claimed, among other things, that women were less capable of physics than men.

Physics professor Fariba Karimi recalls being horrified and outraged by comments made by a well-known male scientist at a presentation at Cern, the European Nuclear Research Center, in Geneva, in the year 2018.

Karimi, who is the leader of a team working on computational social science at the Complexity Science Hub (CSH) in Vienna, says, “It was just unbelievable”.

During a gender equality workshop at Cern, a professor from Pisa University said that men “invented and built” physics and that male scientists did better research than female scientists.

Karimi was inspired by the issue to undertake a study to find out why women are discriminated against in physics. Karimi has long been interested in the causes of gender inequality in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) sectors.

Her findings are reported in the most recent issue of Communications Physics.

First-mover benefit

The study, which relied on a one-of-a-kind dataset provided by the American Physical Society, confirmed that women continue to be disproportionately underrepresented in this discipline.

However, the findings show that, while articles produced by women have a lower visibility, the gender disparity is due to men having a first-mover advantage in physics.

This indicates that historically, men have participated in physics at a proportionately higher rate than women. The entry barrier for women entering physics was also higher because of sexism and societal expectations of women, which prevented them from joining the field as early as men, says Karimi.

The CSH researcher adds, “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.”

Similar-work recognition

The dataset included article metadata, author information, and citations and more than 541,000 academic articles published between 1893 and 2010.

Using a method that combines name and image recognition, the researchers were able to figure out that 9,947 of the papers were written by women and 60,886 were written by men.

Instead of simply comparing men and women in physics in terms of publications and citations, the study’s author explains, “I wanted to see whether they receive different recognition for similar work published around the same time.”

Therefore, the group chose similar papers on the same topic that were authored by men and women.

Then, they worked out the difference between how many times each paper was cited.

“The main goal was to compare pairs of similar papers in an unbiased fashion,” adds co-author Hyunsik Kong.

When the researchers looked at citations,” they found a difference.

“It’s not huge, but it’s definitely there”, adds co-author Samuel Martin-Gutierrez. “And we found that the temporal aspect of scientific production was very important to explain this citation disparity.”

Men continue to enjoy an advantage over women

The data revealed that, regardless of gender, the person who published first tended to garner the majority of the scientific community’s attention.

“This explains part of this disparity, but not all. There are differences in how men and women get the first-mover advantage and men still have the edge over women,” adds Martin-Gutierrez.

In other words, men tended to publish earlier than women more frequently. Men also continued to benefit from publishing first, giving them an edge over women.

According to Martin-Gutierrez, “a male author gets more citations when he publishes first compared to a female author.”

There were no statistically significant variations in the number of citations for men and women after the CSH team corrected for the timing of publication.

The authors believe that the overall gap in the citation network is the product of accumulated advantages and the first-mover effect enjoyed by males in physics.

“From a broader perspective, the entry barriers for women due to historical disadvantages and sexism create a so-called ‘structural inequality’ or what sociologists call ‘racism without racists’. As a result, structural inequality continues to affect women’s participation for generations to come, and it should be addressed through appropriate interventions,” points out Karimi.

Source: 10.1038/s42005-022-00997-x

Image Credit: Getty

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