Women in Physics, unite!

Last month I participated in the International Conference on Women in Physics as a delegate of the German Physical Society. Among all fields in the natural sciences, Physics is one with the lowest participation of women. Many organizations today recognize this and support programs to enhance women participation in Physics, some at a national level, and most often these were initiated by women themselves.
With the Working Group on Women in Physics in the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) this issue is brought to the international level, and since 2002 women in Physics meet internationally every three years on alternating continents. This conference is made possible by the personal commitment of women who in addition to organizing a professional academic conference also raised funds for more than 50 travel grants to enable women in Physics from developing countries attend the conference, which deeply impressed me.

The conference itself is special in a way that it combines talks and poster sessions on research in Physics, research on social sciences aspects of Physics and research organizations and reports from the participating countries with workshops in which we worked on ways to make the environment in academic organizations in Physics more inclusive. These workshops were really unique. Each workshop brought together approx. 20-30 women in Physics from different countries, different social backgrounds and different career levels.

I participated in the workshop on gender and intersectionality. Over three days we first reflected on our own identities and how different aspects combine to foster discrimination or privilege. In many aspects we realized that the problem is really not simple and it is hardly possible to bring down discrimination to single, isolated issues (e.g., being a woman) as we all have many parts of our identities which intersect. Many of us also realized that we are not aware of some parts of our identities, especially those which give us privileges. In input presentations we learned about ways of discrimination in other countries which don’t exist in our own cultural background but could be present in our institutions when we work with people from different cultural backgrounds.

We then developed guidelines for ourselves and our country teams and team leaders which all of us bring home to our national organizations. But we also drafted demands to our national organizations as well as to the IUPAP. These demands were later discussed in a plenary discussion with all participants, as were the demands of the other workshops, and were boiled down to a set of a few realistic demands to the IUPAP. I was a bit disappointed by that, because some of our initial demands were rejected by the plenum as being to progressive and unrealistic. I realize that I’m probably to naive and impatient and have no idea about global science policy. But on the other side I won’t give up my impatience because otherwise we will not change much in our lifetimes.

To be honest I must say that that participation in the workshops was quite embarrassing for the national Physical Society of Germany. While in many other countries the diversity issue is well recognized in all levels of the organizations and the work for inclusion is institutionalized, in Germany in the Physical Society the work to mitigate gender discrimination still solely relies on a few women doing volunteer work in their free time, who then often even get discouraged from campaigning for diversity as it might harm their personal careers. While I myself was hesitant to get involved when I first started a few years ago, I now find it ridiculous.

During all this it was awesome and so enriching that the Canadian team had brought a sociologist who participated in and partly led our workshop. This was very hard to manage for them as the IUPAP actually only provides participation in the conference to physicists. We included it in our demands that this policy needs to be changed.
Also in Germany I experienced it so often that we as physicists want to change something in our own organizations, and we meet with physicists from other institutions at conferences, sometimes even with particularly women in Physics, but far too often we are lacking knowledge of the actual reasons for the less diversity in organizations and the best ways to improve it, and here I also vote for much more exchange with the social sciences. In our bill we included the demand that all IUPAP conferences must provide a session on inclusion, resp. diversity aspects in Physics. I’m curious to see its implementation and the further developments.

Congratulations: You are … a man!

When it comes to visibility of women in natural science there is not only a lack in the occupation of high job positions and the promotion of women – also female researchers often get less honored and awarded for their work. The German Physical Society (DPG) – the biggest physical society world wide – has several prizes which they award every year. The two most import and most honourable ones are the Max-Planck-Medal for outstanding theoretical work and the Stern-Gerlach-Medal for outstanding experimental work. Beside that, there are for example prizes especially for young researchers, for good interdisciplinary research and didactic, for technical centered research or for pupils. One prize, the Hertha-Sponer-Prize, is especially for young female researchers (initiated by the working group on equal opportunities of the DPG: AKC). The names of all awardees can be found online on the website of the DPG.

Looking at the numbers of female prize winners, I found somehow alarming*. In total there are 543 awarded persons, and only 48 of them are women. This is just 8.8 %. If one does not take into account the all-female winners of the Hertha-Sponer-Prize, we reach 528 awarded persons from which are 33 women (6.3 %). If  additionally the awardees of the pupils prize (11,0 % female) are omitted, from 355 laureates there are only 14 women left (3.9 %).

There are also prizes without a single women ever awarded. These are 3 out of 11, meaning 27.3 %. One of this three prizes is the honourable Sern-Gerlach Medal (since 1988). Note: The pendant for theoretical physics has exactly one awarded women since 1929: Lise Meitner!

Ok, now some people say the field of physics was long time a full men dominated field but it all changed and there is no discrimination nowadays – let’s have a look on some numbers of prize winners only since 2000:

The total number of awarded persons is 326. From this 45 are female, which means a rise to 13.8 %. If we look at numbers without the Herta-Sponer-Prize, it is 30 women out of 311 (9.6 %), and without taking into account the pupils prize (11,0 %), we end up again with only 8.0 % (11 women out of 138).

Interestingly is the last number mentioned before for all years: prizes without a single women. Looking only at prize winners since 2000 there are 5 instead of 3 awards (out of 11) without a single female laureate – including both the Max-Planck-Medal and the Stern-Gerlach-Medal! These are 45.5 % awards without honoring one single women since 2000 in the biggest physical society worldwide. Wow!

To be recognized in research, to get promoted, to get permanent positions, and a professorship, visibility and publicity is of high importance. And this can be reached for example by getting awarded for your outstanding work. I want to encourage all people who think that these numbers should be changed to take action! There are several prizes and fellowships where you can apply yourself – just try it! For example there is the Emmy-Noether-Program for experienced young researchers (which just changed their regulations to make the program more family friendly) or the Heisenberg-Program for people who head for a professorship (both DFG) .

If you don’t want to apply yourself – then nominate someone else! To mention just a few possibitities here:

The online portal academics is looking in the moment for the “Young researcher of the year” (Deadline for 2017 call: 30th of September 2017). For all mentioned DPG prizes you can nominate persons (unfortunately the deadline for 2018 has already passed, but stay tuned for the 2019 call). And also the GDCh (German Chemical Society) has a list of awards, where you can nominate people for (Deadline for 2018 call: 29th of September 2017).

Are there other awards you have in mind where people can apply for or one can nominate people? Write us here or on our facebook page and get more women awarded!


*The following prizes where taken into account:

Max-Planck-Medal, Stern-Gerlach-Medal, Walter-Schottky-Prize, Gustav-Hertz-Prize, Robert-Wichard-Pohl-Prize, Medal for Natural Science Publishing, Hertha-Sponer-Prize, Georg-Simon-Ohm-Prize, Georg-Kerschensteiner-Prize, The DPG Prize for excellent physics-teaching at schools, School Students’ Prize

The years in which prizes where not awarded to persons are not counted (e.g. Medal for Natural Science Publishing, 2008: “Die Sendung mit der Maus”). The numbers of female / male award winners was counted based on their names. Persons with names which where not directly associated with a male or female person and the respective prize winner could not be found online by further research (7 persons from the School Students’ Prize), were excluded from the numbers.

Sexism in academia

A few days ago an article was published in Science on sexism in academia, written by a postdoc about her abusive supervisor.

Whenever I read such stories they deeply move me. I, too, have experienced similar situations, at different universities, in different countries, on different continents; as the affected person and as a friend or colleague, and with both male and female professors.

Apart from the article content itself the fact that it had to be published anonymously to protect the author concerns me. In our society and in academia in particular the victims (or survivors) of misbehaving supervisors are punished when going public while professors usually don’t have to worry about any consequences.

While writing this post I started describing my own experiences but stopped as it  created a feeling of extreme paralyzation and helplessness in me, while at the same time this is mixed with anger and rage.

Articles on personal experiences of sexism are important as they reveal that sexism in academia is not a personal private problem but a structural one.

When people grow up in a patriachal society and then get the privileges and power of professorship with students who are completely dependent on them, and often even have to leave the country if they have to leave the university (unless they find a legal alien or citizen to marry them) is toxic.

I believe we are now at a point that we have to ask ourselves: do we really want to live in such a society? And is this an environment in which creative and innovative research can thrive?

All sexist and discriminatory behaviour must become socially ostracized!

Here you can find the article in Science which I referred to.

Another interesting recent article is this from CNNtech.

Bibi Blocksberg vs. Wickie

Original title: Audio-visual Diversity? – Gender representation in movies and television in Germany

Authors: Prof. Dr. Elizabeth Prommer, Dr. Christine Linke


Television and movies portrait a gender equal society, right?

I actually never actively thought about this but if anyone would have asked me that question a couple of months ago, I would have said: “Sure.”

The talk by Anke-Domscheidt Berg at the I, Scientist conference in May 2017 (I, Scientist 2017) got me wondering about the real situation in movies and television in Germany by shocking me with numbers like: Only 57% of german movies or movies produced with German cooperation pass the Bechdel-test, whereas 87% of them pass the reversed Bechdel-test. Meaning that only about every second movie has a plot that allows to answer the following four questions with ‘yes’:

– Are there at least two women?

– Do they have identifyable names?

– Do they speak to each other?

– About something else than men or relationships?

That is not only sad, it is a serious deficit that should be obvious and known to everyone. That this is not the case, shows even stronger how much we are influenced by media and used to the pictures we are presented with.

But the shocking numbers go much further than that. With Audio-visual Diversity? the University of Rostock conducted a study looking into the representation of gender in movies and television in Germany. The basis for their study was over 3000 hours of german TV program from 2016 and over 800 german-language movies from the past 6 years (Audiovisuelle_Diversitaet.pdf).

What they found was not only the sad number of movies that pass the Bechdel-test, but they also looked at the absolut number of female and male main characters appearing in german television and the roles of female and male characters in documentaries, series and kids TV-programs. Bad enough that the distribution of female (33%) and male (67%) main characters in television does not represent the real life distribution of the sexes of 50/50, the worst ratio of male to female main characters is found in kids television programs with 28% (female) to 72% (male)! Animal figures are in 87% of the cases male, humans 62%. What the hell?!!!

But not just the protagonists in kids television are mostly male, outside of fiction kids are presented with male experts and moderators from a very early age on. Only every third moderator is female. “Men explain the world”, that seems to be something that runs through the presentation of information throughout the age range. For adults that seems to get even worse leaving us with 79% male experts in TV – information.

As a young girl, where are my role models? As a kid in general, what is the picutre of the world that is presented to me? Experts, the people presented at the top, are male. Apperently even when it comes to fantasy where everything is possible and kids can imagine themselves as whatever they want, that world is dominated by male figures. What do I learn, uncounsiously, from as young as a few years old? Women stay in the shadows. They are not important enough to be displayed for a wide audience, asked for their opinion or independent enough to experience adventures over a wide range of settings (not just pony farm). What does that potentially leave me with as a girl: Being insecure about myself, about what I can do and where I can go. Having uncounsiously accepted men to be the ones to get to the top, to be better than me.

What does that teach me as a boy? It does not reflect the reality of the 50/50 ratio of women and men. Which means it shows me that both sexes do not seem to be considered equally important. It does not bring women into the picutre as knowledgeable, strong, independent and adventurous persons.

And we are asking ourselves where the insecurities of girls and women about what they can do come from….

If we start with programs for girls, to strenghen their selfesteem, help them aim for great things, in Highschool or University, we are fighting windmills. We have to start at the roots and the roots are we, all people alive at the moment, because we are those who shape the world with our perceptions for the next generation. If we don’t start to realize how we are shaped and influenced by the people and things surrounding us, we cannot reach a world or even only a Germany with real equality.



for the details and results of the Rostock University study (German).