When the Physik Journal honored Nobel Laureates Donna Strickland and Gérard Mourou for their discovery

The German Physical Society’s Physik Journal reached a new low in its current issue featuring a special section on this year’s Physics Nobel prizes. Half of the prize was awarded for the method of generating high-intensity, ultra-short optical pulses, and was awareded in equal share to Donna Strickland and Gérard Mourou. However, to honor the laureates and their discovery the Physik Journal managed to publish an article portraying Mourou as the brilliant genius (e.g., “äußerst innovativen und großartig visionären Wissenschaftler”) and mentioning Strickland only on the side, in one sentence in the whole article, as the PhD student who did some measurements (article; paywall).

Among illustrations showing the physical principles, the article starts with a big photo showing not the both Nobel laureates, but instead Mourou and the article’s author, sitting in the first row at a meeting of mostly old men. At the end of the article there’s even another photo of the author, who is Science and Technology Manager at an ELI facility in the Czech Republic. ELI is a research infrastrucure that Mourou had initiated, and remember: to promote ELI, Mourou had had made a “funny” creepy sexist video showing himself in the lab decorated by undressing half-naked young women (No Mourou, this is fun — yours is just creepy).

It’s worth noting that this article appeared in the Physik Journal’s December issue, so way after the uproar on the fact that a few months before Donna Strickland was awarded the Nobel prize, a Wikipedia article was written about her but not approved by a Wikipedia moderator saying Strickland doesn’t qualify for Wikipedia.

So it’s not only that women are often neglected by the Nobel committee (e.g., Lise Meitner, Chien-Shiung Wu, Deborah Jin, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Vera Rubin) but when they are awarded they are almost entirely neglected in an article honoring them, making it sound like Donna Strickland received the prize just by mistake.

Colleagues have contacted the Physik Journal’s editorial board, but unfortunately they see no wrongdoing on their side, claiming only the author is responsible for the article.

For context: The German Physical society (DPG) claims to be the largest Physical Society in the whole world, however they are even today lacking basic programs or a division for e.g. diversity and inclusion which e.g. the US-American APS and AIP and the British IOP have installed for long time now (And here’s a symptomatic photo showing the previous, the current, and the future DPG presidents).

The society’s journal is the monthly “Physik Journal”. I had written an opinion piece on women* and queer inclusion in Physics, which after many alterations appeared in a very soft version on page 3 of the Physik Journal’s June 2018 issue. It had provoked people to leave the society, people claiming my article had no relevance at all and comparing me to the Nazis (and the Physik Journal even printed the Nazi comparison in a Letter to the Editor section of a later issue), but there is no interest by the society’s board in this topic at all.

I’m advocating for equal opportunities and women* visibility in the DPG for years now as board member of their working group on equal opportunities (AKC) but it’s so frustrating. Does anyone have any idea what to do with this? Please do write me because by now when I see such articles I start to feel like I just want to go to bed and sleep, I’m so extremely tired of all this. But this is dangerous. We as a society should not tolerate this anymore.

Survey on the perception of scientists on gender equality in earth and space sciences

Dr. Stefanie Lutz, scientist at UFZ Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, and her colleagues are calling for participation in the following survey:

The results will be presented on April 11, 2018, during the EGU General Assembly.

With this survey, we would like to find out more about the perception of scientists on gender equality in earth and space sciences. We would be glad if you might be willing to answer a few questions (of course anonymously) and also forward the survey to your colleagues.

To complete the survey, please follow the link: https://goo.gl/forms/KSZNESoLrEBgHlc62

The survey is addressed to anyone feeling broadly associated with earth and space sciences (including geosciences and environmental sciences) and should take you only five minutes to complete. The broader the spectrum of career levels, disciplines and genders of people participating, the more representative our results will be.

By taking the survey, you agree on the publication of the results in the session ‘Promoting and supporting equality of opportunities in geosciences’ at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly 2018 as well as potential further scientific publication.

Let’s all stop paying attention to Nobel Prizes!

Every year in Fall when the Nobel prizes are announced I get a little bit more angry. When I was a child and young student I was amazed and fascinated by the Nobel prize, and thought that Nobel laureates are the single most awesome scientists. When I studied Physics at the university my then-lover and I were sure that we will of course one day be awarded the prize, as we loved Physics, were curious about everything and spent most nights and days discussing and deriving and finding problems we wanted to solve. Of course we didn’t do that for some far goal of getting an award, but that award seemed like a natural logic consequence in the life of an awesome scientist.

At the university in Germany where I studied ten years ago all professors were men, literally all, of the some 40-50 professors at the Physics department. Still, when I was a student I didn’t think at all that merit or science awards have something to do with gender – or rather, that natural sciences have something to do with societal issues – because it’s about science, it only has to do with who is talented, intelligent, dedicated, and not with gender, right?
That was then.

I learned about many exciting discoveries, and with that, I learned about the scientists who made them, and some of them were women. Continuing in my studies I started getting more and more doubts about the Nobel prize, seeing my heroines being overlooked year after year.
I used to think it’s sad and unfortunate, but well, maybe next year. Now I see this in a different way, even more so since day before yesterday: it is political.

I started reading a bit about women in Physics, and many of their life stories are sad, heartbreaking and infuriating for the injustice and neglect they experienced, and the merit men got for discoveries women made.

Seven of this year’s Nobel laureates held a press conference in Stockholm day before yesterday. Apparently, to explain the lack of women among Nobel laureates they said things like “Change is coming, but there is a long delay between entering freshman and the Nobel prize.” (Kip Thorne) and “Science has been made by males, for males. It is changing, it takes time, but you will see it, they (women in science) are coming.” (Jacques Dubochet)

Reading these inconsiderate statements now made me furious. I can think of many women who did awesome and undoubtedly Nobel-prize-worthy research but were neglected, ignored, betrayed by men who got the merit and the Nobel prize for their discovery. A few who immediately come to my mind are Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, Lise Meitner, Chien-Shiung Wu, Vera Rubin and Deborah Jin.

So now it’s ultimate. The Nobel prize is a platform for ignorant unthoughtful (unreflektierte) white old men who fail to recognize their privileges to celebrate themselves, reassuring white men in general that they are superior and stabilizing the hegemonial patriarchic order of the society. This is toxic and harmful and we have to get over this.

Apart from all of this there were questionable campaigns like more than 100 Nobel laureates condemning Greenpeace publicly at the Lindau meeting in 2016. Only because someone was awarded this prize doesn’t mean that he understands every aspect of every scientific discipline, but exactly this is the widespread notion that is continuously reinforced, also by the media.

Dear nobel laureates, there is extensive research done on gender-related discrimination in science. I suggest you refer to the literature and revoke the statements you made publicly. Actually, knowing the literature on gender and diversity in science is your duty as privileged white men. But please don’t annoy women, people of color or members of underrepresented minorities by asking them about these issues. Before you do this, it is your duty to go ahead and research the literature, and not the duty of underprivileged people to explain your privileges to you.

Last year there was a public outcry, with the hashtag #NobelforVeraRubin. While last year I thought that was a good idea and also participated in it on twitter and used the hashtag, by now I think this and similar efforts go in the wrong direction. I lost all hopes for the Nobel committee and the academy. First, I thought shaming the committee would be the way. But no, now I vote for ignoring this award altogether. We can all contribute to stop the public idolatry that distorts reality.

Disclaimer:
The whole issue is of course not limited to the Nobel prize, please also check Katrin’s article on awards of the German Physical Society – Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft e.V.
And discrimination is of course not limited to gender. The white women whom I mentioned and also I myself are and were of course still privileged compared to for example people of color who could have discovered awesome things but didn’t even have the chance to work in science in the first place. The reasons of this article were the statements of the Nobel laureates on women in science, that’s why the article explicitly focusses on this.

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.

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.