Cern physicist suspended over 'highly offensive' presentation on sexism in science

Professor Alessandro Strumia claims men in physics are discriminated against

Tom Embury-Dennis
Tuesday 02 October 2018 08:54 BST
Alessandro Strumia suspended by Cern due to 'highly offensive' presentation on gender issues
Alessandro Strumia suspended by Cern due to 'highly offensive' presentation on gender issues

A senior scientist at Cern has been suspended over a "highly offensive" presentation in which he claimed physics was "built by men".

During a seminar on gender issues in physics, and in front of a mostly female audience, professor Alessandro Strumia claimed men in the field were being discriminated against.

On Monday, officials at Cern, the world's largest particle accelerator, announced the suspension of the Italian scientist with "immediate effect", pending an investigation.

The Geneva-based centre, where the subatomic particle known as the Higgs boson was confirmed in 2013, said it had no prior knowledge of the content of Mr Strumia's presentation on "High Energy Theory and Gender".

A statement cited "attacks on individuals" as "unacceptable in any professional context".

Mr Strumia, of Pisa University, told the audience that female scientists in Italy tended to benefit from "free or cheaper university" education, and that Oxford University extends exam times "for women's benefit".

A spokesperson for Cern confirmed there was a slide presentation on Mr Strumia's talk online, but said a recording was not immediately available. The slides were later removed from the Geneva-based centre's website.

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The slides featured charts, graphs and tables that are hard to understand out of context, but one quotation said: "Physics [was] invented and built by men, it's not by invitation."

In a phone interview, Mr Strumia said he wanted to debunk what he insists was a misconception, and said he does not believe men are better than women in physics.

"This workshop was continuously telling (saying), 'men are bad, men are sexist, they discriminate against us' – lots of things like this," he said.

"I did a check to see if this was true ... and the result was, that was not true. There is a political group that wants women, and other people, to believe that they are victims."

Noting the suspension, Mr Strumia lashed out at the Geneva centre, but expressed hope that it would come around to his way of thinking.

"I believe Cern is making a mistake," he said. "They suspended me because it's true ... and it's contrary to the political line. And I hope Cern will at some point understand. I hope this is just the first self-preservation instinct.

"Somebody had to speak."

Laura Covi, who studies cosmology at Georg-August University in Goettingen, Germany, and was at the Friday seminar, said Mr Strumia's comments did not go down well.

"He was claiming that some of the positions women were getting, they're getting positions with fewer (journal) citations than men," she said. "I'm not so sure his thesis was supported by the data."

She acknowledged that some of the world's most eminent physicists have been men, but said that was "mostly a historical bias" since men have been able to study physics longer than women.

She also disputed that citations are an indicator of quality and said it was not her experience that female physicists landed jobs with fewer journal publications than men.

Ms Covi said Mr Strumia has frequently made provocative comments in the past and said after his presentation that he was challenged by many at the seminar – so much so that the chair had to abruptly end the session when it ran over.

"People were upset by what he was saying. And then he later started to make statements that were completely unscientific," she said.

"I don't think he represents the majority view. There were a few men who were there but they didn't support his view."

Dr Julie Moote of University College London, who had spoken earlier in the seminar, said it was a "shame" Mr Strumia "did not engage" with evidence from other presenters – including her research with more than 40,000 young people in England and interviews over time with youths aged 10 to 18.

"Findings show that young women do experience sexism in physics – from being told by a teacher that 'you need a boy brain to do physics', to survey data showing that boys feel they are encouraged more by their physics teachers than girls – which leads to a situation where even some of the highest attaining young women were doubting that they were 'clever enough' to do physics," Dr Moote said.

Cern is currently headed by a woman, Italian particle physicist Fabiola Gianotti.

Additional reporting by AP

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