100th International Women’s Day Celebrated at CERN

In celebration of the 100th year of International Women’s Day on 8 March, a special colloquium looking at high energy physics from a gender studies perspective was held at CERN.


Addressing a packed conference room, Helene Goetschel, a visiting gender studies researcher from Uppsala University, gave a presentation on a subject unfamiliar to most physicists: sociology. And more specifically, on the findings of gender researchers examining the field of high energy physics. “It was heartening to see so many CERN physicists interested in hearing how sociologists and historians see their community,” said Helene. “Examining our personal issues with gender is difficult, and I applaud anyone who takes an interest in the subject.”

Helene Goetschel began her academic career in high-energy physics, but encountered a 'glass ceiling' in her work. In 1990, she decided to change the focus of her studies to the history of science – specifically looking at the role of women in the discipline she had previously devoted her life to. In her hour-long presentation at CERN, Helene cast a kind but critical eye on the work culture of a modern physics group, and then continued the discussion in a lively Q&A session.

Among the research discussed was the 1980 report by Mary Gaillard, a physicist, entitled Report on Women in Scientific Careers at CERN. The report painted a bleak picture of CERN life 30 years ago, and found that 86% of female research physicists were not paid for their full-time work. The situation for CERN's female staff has obviously improved since then, although Helene thinks more progress should be made through the international physics community: “Outside physics, I have found that women’s role in society is significantly better. Certainly, women physicists are now allowed to break away from their old-fashioned roles and can be more diverse. But when you compare the role of women in physics with other so-called ‘masculine’ disciplines, physics still lags quite far behind.”

Helene discussed many male-led ‘rites of passage’ that have become engrained into the physics community, even pointing out the 'masculine' names given to experiments (TOTEM and ATLAS, among her many examples). “Hearing an analysis of these practices from people outside the science domain could help physicists become more self-aware,” says Helene. “Just being invited to speak to CERN physicists is an important step forward in our common wish to make physics a welcoming area for both genders."

A recording of the colloquium, and its accompanying slides, are available on Indico

by Katarina Anthony