Male Physicist Claims Women Are Worse At Physics At CERN Gender Bias Talk

A server farm at the CERN Computer/Data Center in Switzerland. (Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos, Getty Images)

This weekend, a prominent Italian physicist, Alessandro Strumia, lectured fledgling female scientists at CERN about the dangers of gender equality and “cultural Marxism” within science, argued that women can’t be as good at physics as men, and complained that the actual victims of gender discrimination are male scientists, including himself, who are passed over for jobs that instead go to less-experienced women.

The speech took place at a workshop hosted by CERN, the research organisation in charge of the Large Hadron Collider. The workshop was meant to highlight gender issues within the world of high-energy physics, and Strumia was one of 38 scientists invited by CERN to speak.

During Strumia’s allotted time on Saturday afternoon local time (his workshop was titled "Bibliometrics data about gender issues in fundamental theory"), he gave a presentation arguing against the very idea that female scientists experience sexism.

One of the slides in Strumia’s presentation. (Image: Alessandro Strumia, CERN)

Among the highlights of Strumia’s slides (which have since taken down by CERN):

  • He called the idea of documented widespread gender bias against women scientists “cultural Marxism”. He also wrote about the “PC Thought Police”.
  • After claiming that “physics was invented and built by men”, he wrote that brilliant female scientists such as Marie Curie are “welcomed” by their fellow physicists after having shown “what they can do”. In reality, Curie was rejected by the French Academy of Sciences in 1911, even after she had already discovered two elements and won a Nobel Prize.
  • He used himself as a case study for his theory that female scientists get hired for top positions in the field despite having less merit and skill than men. He included a slide showing that he has been cited more times than women who were hired for the type of roles he presumably felt he deserved.
  • He lamented the treatment of men who have argued that gender bias within the science and tech world is overestimated or naturally ordained, referencing incidents involving peopl such as James Damore and Lawrence Summers.
Image: Alessandro Strumia, CERN

One of Strumia’s arguments — that women get cited less in research papers because they’re less capable at physics — falls apart under the lightest of scrutiny, according to Jessica Wade, a physicist who also presented at the workshop.

“Citations are not a good metric for ability. They rely on peer review, which is biased against women and non-Westerners, and scientists reading, respecting and citing your work, which is again biased against women,” Wade told Gizmodo via email, referencing a wealth of research.

Wade wasn’t present at Strumia’s talk, but she was one of many scientists understandably angry about the situation on Twitter.

“It’s unsettling that he lied to conference organisers about the contents of his presentation, felt it was OK to make these remarks to a room full of early career women, and feared no repercussion,” she said. “His opinion won’t only impact them but the generation of scientists he trains and supervises.”

Image: Alessandro Strumia, CERN

Strumia primarily works at the University of Pisa in Italy, and part of his research there is funded through a grant from the European Research Council, which was conducted at CERN. This affiliation was enough to earn Strumia his own profile on the CERN webpage, and it appears he was one of the research centre's many visiting scientists.

Soon after criticism of Strumia’s talk began circulating online, however, CERN pulled the slides from an online database of the day’s presentations, calling them “highly offensive”. Today, in a press statement, the organisation announced that it was suspending him from “any activity at CERN with immediate effect, pending investigation into last week’s event”.

The European Research Council also said on Monday that it would be contacting CERN about the incident, while the University of Pisa announced that its ethics committee would investigate Strumia’s actions.

CERN has said that it wasn’t aware of the contents of Strumia’s talk beforehand, and one scientist affiliated with CERN claimed on Twitter that Strumia lied to organisers about what his planned presentation was going to be.

But according to Marika Taylor, a theoretical physicist at the University of Southampton in the UK and part of the organising committee for the CERN workshop, there was some suspicion of Strumia’s motivations before his talk.

“Gender bias in citations is an important issue and thus we agreed to his presentation. We were prepared that he might argue that the data analysis implies women are weaker but we were ready to discuss this interpretation in a professional manner,” she told Gizmodo via email.

“The actual presentation was not uploaded ahead of time. The content and delivery was unprofessional and violated codes of conduct.”

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical physicist at the University of Washington at Seattle who has spoken out about racism and sexism within the field, believes the more pressing question is why Strumia was allowed there in the first place.

“I would be interested to find out how it was determined that he was an appropriate speaker and whether his level of expertise on women in high-energy physics was factored in,” she told Gizmodo.

Prescod-Weinstein was similarly puzzled at why knowledgeable US experts who have studied and written about gender and racial bias were seemingly given short shrift in speaking slots at the workshop.

“The numbers for Black women in European high-energy physics are even worse than in the US, and one would hope that they’d recognise that our growing intersectional discourse has something to offer them,” she said.

“To me there is a fundamental question of whether anyone thought an engagement with feminist theory was valuable or required expertise, and if not, why not?” she added.

Taylor noted that CERN and associated organisations have quickly taken action and started to investigate Strumia’s actions.

Strumia, reached at both his university and CERN email addresses, has not responded to a request for comment.

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