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.