Make physics more gender inclusive: analysis
It only takes a short walk around the city to see that gender equality in our society is, until now, a distant goal. Should we worry about gender inequality in the microcosm of physics? In fact, we should. Despite the fact that the Supreme Court has criticized the patriarchal notions of the Indian army around the competence of women, we, in a privileged and supposedly “objective” science, are still knotting ourselves. Our policies to mitigate gender inequality are still driven by stereotyped notions of gender: that only women need scientific and special leadership training, or raise awareness about gender inequality, or additional childcare leave, or even schedules Flexible working for cooking and cleaning. There is still great resistance to the idea of the balance between work and personal life as something for everyone. Worse, there is little reflection on what the evidence talks about the whole story.
The gender gap in physics is large, globally and in India. The fraction of women with doctorates in physics working in tertiary education nationwide is 20%, much less than, for example, in biology. Worse yet, that fraction plummets to single digits in elite research institutions, in leadership positions, and on honor rolls. How do we understand this trend?
Research that has compared scientific competence and productivity of researchers of all genders has not found a systematic deficit among female scientists. There is also no evidence of a lack of interest in physics among girls: girls earn 50% of government scientific scholarships for physics. Discriminatory family responsibilities, the much-publicized cause of the gender gap in the workforce, may not be weighing more heavily on physical women than on biologists, and therefore this cannot be the full story. Clearly, there is a strong gender bias within the profession. In fact, when a selection process in, for example, leadership positions or lists of honor, reduces the gender fraction, that is a clear sign of bias in the process.
Of course, there are no obvious restrictions against women who practice physics at any level, unlike, for example, in the Indian army. However, patriarchy lurks beneath the surface. Micro-aggressions driven by misogyny and toxic masculinity often raise their heads in scientific forums and in conversations in the corridor. There are still hidden rules, such as not hiring the creditable spouse of a scientist, especially among older elite public institutions. Sexual misconduct is still perceived as part of the “children will be children” syndrome rather than as scientific misconduct.
Clearly, the profession of physics needs to go beyond the limits of its discipline to understand and address its gender bias. The Gender Physics Working Group of the Physics Association of India at the University of Hyderabad organized an interdisciplinary conference, first of its kind, in 2019. Around 240 physicists, social scientists, educators and diversity professionals deliberated on Social processes in physics. practice.
Several key recommendations emerged from the conference. First, that work-life balance policies, including childcare permits, support for professional rest, and mobility schemes that facilitate the geographical proximity of jobs for couples, should be available to all the genders. While not at all detrimental to women, such gender-neutral policies would encourage broader cultural change. In addition, the possibility of stigmatizing women as “favored” in some way would be eliminated.
Second, recruitment and promotion policies should be based solely on transparent merit criteria, explicitly formulated beforehand and free from hidden rules. The rule of not hiring spouses is blatantly unsustainable, as institutions will never be able to fire a scientist for marrying a colleague. An older bar is often imposed, discriminating against women who have taken professional breaks. The spouse of a woman who works in a different place is often held against her. Diversity officers were strongly recommended as observers on the selection committees and editorial committees.
Third, a mandatory course for sociologists on the impact of social processes on the practice of science was recommended for the graduate curriculum in physics. This is expected to partially address the lack of rigorous exposure of educated physicists in India to any discipline that studies human behavior.
Fourth, institutions must invest in solid mentoring mechanisms for academics in the early stages of the career, so that they do not have to rely on external socialization, beer nights and things like that, or voluntary goodwill and the time of senior academics. In general, men have access to the first, while even privileged women have to resort to the second. Diversity measures can trigger more hostile behavior towards women. One way to mitigate hostility is by creating safe spaces for dialogue through gender and power divisions, even by using non-traditional immersive and experimental methodologies derived from theater.
Other long-standing recommendations, such as mandatory child care facilities in institutions and conferences, gender audit of staff at different levels on institutional websites, mandatory self-declaration of previous allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct in all teacher requests and nominations for prestigious positions, as well as the gender balance of textbooks and scientific communication materials was reiterated. . These recommendations have been gathered in the “Hyderabad Charter for gender equity in physics” on the occasion of Women’s Day, and have received more than 100 endorsements from physicists, including senior researchers, leaders and early career professionals .
Physicists need to stop “fixing our women” because there is no evidence that they need to fix them. Instead, we must correct the defective meritocracy, so that we build a more enriching learning environment.
Prajval Shastri is an astrophysicist from Bangalore and president of the Gender Physics Working Group of the Indian Physics Association.
The opinions expressed are personal.