The Career of Women in Physics - the Italian Case
    By Tommaso Dorigo | January 21st 2011 10:20 AM | 23 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    I am an experimental particle physicist working with the CMS experiment at CERN. In my spare time I play chess, abuse the piano, and aim my dobson...

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    I just read with interest some slides portraying the situation of male/female differences in the employment at the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics, the institute I myself work for. I do not wish to make a summary here, but just paste a graph which I find interesting. The graph compares male and female employment in the University with the one in the INFN, for corresponding levels of employment.

    I must say I do not fully understand the way the percentages are cooked up, since the first three categories should be the same for the category "university" and "INFN", while they show some minor differences. But let us forget about that part. What is interesting is to observe how the disparity between males and females grows with the level of employment. The first bin contains the M/F fraction for students obtaining a laurea degree; the second shows the fractions for the subset which obtained maximum grades; the third shows the fraction for PhD graduates; and then from the fourth to the sixth bin you can read off the male and female fractions for researchers, associate professors (tenure-track in the US, although associates in Italy are already tenured), and full professors. In the INFN, the last two are represented by "first researchers" and "research directors", which are indeed fully equivalent to the University categories.

    You can clearly see that the system preferentially selects males, and that the difference becomes stronger as the level of employment grows. While the fraction of females among excellent students (second column) is about 38% (a datum which increased slightly from 2003 to 2006) -larger than that of the overall graduates-, the recruiting system of physicists in Italian universities and INFN alike preferentially selects men: the fraction drops to 30% for university researchers, and to 8% for the final level of career. Also note that this last datum is constant -the 2003 and 2006 figures agree, showing that this very small fraction of females arriving at the highest level of employment  is not due to older and now superseded selection biases (which would likely make the 2003 M/F disparity larger than that in 2006).

    An interesting difference exists between the recruitment in university and INFN at the level of simple researchers. While women make up for 30% of physicists who are university researchers, they constitute only 23% of INFN researchers. This is a quite striking effect, well above statistical fluctuations of the base of data used for the graph, and it leaves me wondering. What drives this difference ? I know this question is only interesting to Italians, but if any of you has a tentative explanation of the phenomenon I would be happy to hear it.

    The full presentation (sorry, in Italian only)  from which I took the graph, by Alessia Bruni, is available here.


    This graph would look the same in the US if it were framed the way they do.   What the graph means is that a lot of men were not immediately killed and replaced with women, not that women are not hired now.

    In the US, researchers are living longer and continuing to do quality work and not retiring - and when they started there was a huge gender difference.   But in current (US) hiring there is no real gender difference in male and female selection for new positions that open up.  I suspect it is true for Italy also.   

    So as you go up the employment chain there are fewer jobs and old people (males) still hold them.  Over time that will even out as well.   You can't fire people here with tenure so it is just a time issue but a number of people try to make that out to be discrimination.    It would be discrimination to fire old people to make way for young women.
    Hi Hank,

    I see some preconception in your note. In fact, what I see in the rest of the data (follow the link) does not support your claim that this will "even out", actually the opposite.

    Also, in the US researchers do NOT live longer than in Italy -the opposite is true.

    I have the feeling that the study pinpoints a real issue. I know there are arguments, even well-founded ones, against affirmative action in the US. However, there is some problem to solve, regardless of whether the solution is the one suggested.

    Affirmative action has worked well stopping gender discrimination for 35 years in the US.   Now the call seems to be for mandated equality - unless it is a field where there are more women than men.

    No one is arguing for discrimination or sexism or any other -ism and my only preconception was believing before looking that the numbers showed anything except a big victory for equal rights.    At some point we have to insist that excellent people who do excellent work be rewarded and artificial quotas in each discipline prohibit that.    There is no evidence that in modern times, outside the weird actions of individuals, that there is any kind of endemic discrimination in science.   Yes, certain individuals are idiots regarding the opposite sex, but that goes for both sides.
    "There is no evidence that in modern times, outside the weird actions of individuals, that there is any kind of endemic discrimination in science."


    You know, laws are not enough to change preconceptions and daily life.

    Right, but laws are the solution to the type of people who feel that any inequality in gender numbers, regardless of capability, cannot be allowed.    I don't want to fire great teachers because they are women, or great veterinarians or doctors or anything else, just to fill a gender quota for men.    As older physicists retire, the gap will change but all sciences cannot be held to an artificial 'women must be 51% of all disciplines because they are 51% of society' standard, any more than we can mandate 12% of hockey players must be black or 13% latino.    

    We do have to make sure that none of those groups are artificially prohibited from employment, of course, but in American academia, among the most leftwing demographics in America, I have a difficult time accepting claims that they are out to oppress females, especially when the data show otherwise.
    I also agree with the tenure explanation, pointing to decades where it was a lot more difficult for women to land such a job, and I add that it's far more probable for women to quit or freeze a career in research between bins 4 and 5 because of getting a family. But I think both of these reasons account for the phenomenon less than plain old discrimination (which imho doesn't involve so much research as getting positions of responsibility).

    Interesting, Tommaso, thanks.

    Hank Campbell:

    It's not true that hiring in physics in the US shows parity between men and women.
    Where do you get the data to make this claim?

    The most recent large-scale national study (as I said in my comment, the US may be different) done found that women are more likely than men to be invited to interview for and to be offered tenure-track jobs in STEM fields.  Now, you can pick nits and say that is across the board so if just physics is less there is a discrimination problem - but then you also have to note discrimination against men in the social sciences and teaching, which are 70% women, if that is the metric.

    Citation: Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams, 'Sex Differences in Math-Intensive Fields', Current Directions in Psychological Science October 2010 19: 275-279, first published on October 4, 2010 doi:10.1177/0963721410383241
    I suspect your numbers for all of sciences are correct, but given the original post here, and the way you framed your response, you are falling into the trap that Physics is not much like the soft or bio sciences with respect to the numbers.

    There are several places to get graphs of the appropriate data; here is one in particular from a talk by Harvard professor Howard Georgi:

    Also, you are missing the point with comparing with social sciences and teaching. The problem with Physics (and it is illustrated by the INFN study as well as Georgi's figures) is not that there are more men than women at the highest levels. The problem is that the fraction of women succeeding is much smaller than the number of men succeeding, where success is defined as arriving at tenure at a University. (The APS has data showing clearly that becoming a professor is the main reason people go into physics for both sexes). Social sciences and teaching may have more women to begin with, and physics more men, but the difference is that in the one case the imbalance stays roughly constant as you look at more advanced career-stages and in the other, the imbalance gets larger.

    Also, there are many sites keeping track of who gets hired in physics for 10+ years (see: ) for one example. Looking at that data (and yes, people have analyzed it statistically rather than anecdotally), you can make a case that the number of women interviewed for faculty jobs is if anything out of proportion with the number in the field. That IS social engineering at work, and it does discriminate against qualified male candidates. BUT, the number of women actually hired is much smaller than their relative fraction. So any injustice that gets introduced
    in making a dean happy in adding a woman to the short list gets over-corrected into if anything an injustice the other way at the time of hiring.

    Again, this is only in the context of physics, where I have data. I don't know what fraction of the INFN employees are physicists, but I assume it is a relatively high fraction given that the institution's name when translated into English is roughly "National Institute of Nuclear Physics".

    I have seen a similar graph for many Western countries. Of course, the challenge is to find a few men who actually understand what it means ...

    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Ha ha, very funny!
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at
    I must say I do not fully understand the way the percentages are cooked up
    What kind of amazes me is that if anything similar to this kind of statistics (especially considering systematic bias in the stats similar to Hank's remark about sampling time dependently - many many such issues here) were ever suggested to show anything in your own field of study (Higgs anybody?) you would be the first one to alternate between fits of laughing, face palming with tears of desperation, and at times disgust and the desire to cut the responsible people's throats.

    My own post on sex discrimination in the sciences has been attacked for not having any data to support. If this is the type of data that we use for support of arguments, I believe not having data is much more scientific than having them.
    In this case systematics is exactly what is addressed by the question "so, what's the explanation for this?", and there is no statistical error, which you probably confused with systematic. One can only wonder how significant this graph is.

    "If this is the type of data that we use for support of arguments, I believe not having data is much more scientific than having them."
    Then you must be happy, since you believe that if scientists ran the world they'd be like nazis. Yes, I'm not tired of repeating it.

    Sascha, these are human sciences. Despite its shortcomings, the graph shows the "raw data", with no artificial operation on them. It is a rather dumb graph, but the message cannot be equivocated.

    It is a well known problem in most Western countries, and it is not limited to science.
    The negative specificity of Italy is just that almost nobody cares: there are many studies of the issues in the anglosaxon world (where, nevertheless, the problem is still present as well).

    Of course while I know the HEP environment well, I know little the private job world, but I remember an interesting moment when I was invited to a presentation by a major consulting firm (the event had the purpose to attract young people with a PhD in science and convince them to leave academia and join their firm):
    the big boss of the Belgian branch of this company was showing, among the other things, a few slides with the pictures of all the people in that branch, from the lowest to the highest echelon, and a young lady in the audience interrupted to ask "how comes that there is no woman at the highest level, and only one in the next-to-highest?" (and indeed, despite the small statistics of this sample, it was striking how the trend resembled what you show in this graph: women were a minority already at the lowest level, and then the fraction shrank further and further).
    The guy was clearly conscious to be in a mine field, but he had clearly also rehearsed an answer just in case this question came out. I don't remember the details, but he certainly insisted that his company was doing its best to give equal opportunities, that those percentages were anyway the same or worse for their competitors, and essentially he blamed the fact that many women value family over career.
    (Please notice that this argument, which is certainly part of the explanation, is very dangerous because it can be used to justify inequality.)
    I couldn't help noticing, during the informal drink after the the presentation, that instead all the secretaries were female, and all but one waiter were female as well (and the only male was black, while - I realized only at that point, shame on me - all the managers, male and female alike, were pure Aryans).

    As far as I remember (I've read the statistics somewhere long ago) the former-communist countries are much more balanced in male/female ratios, at least in the private jobs (I don't know about academia), as a legacy of the communist age. An important factor being the presence of better structures to help mothers with full-time jobs.
    (Please notice the connection with the "women and family" argument above: apart from the fact that ideally a civilized family should have a decent work share among the couple, but we know that it is rarely the case, any difficulty that forces people to choose between family and a better career should be addressed by society. More and better kindergartens can be a help.)
    I've also read, long ago, a cute although probably false claim that the space race helped the struggle for sex equality in the US (from where it percolated to the rest of the West): USSR had many female scientists, the US had none, and this lead the US to initiate some programs for equality in education, because they realized what a waste it was to halve the potential scientists pool.
    Although this interpretation is probably naif, it might have some pedagogical value...

    Thanks for your recollection of this interesting experience Andrea.

    Of course in Italy we are less sensitive to the issue than in other (more civilized, I would say, but let's gloss over this) countries. The big gap we are trying to fill is the common moral thinking of catholics in our country. But I do not wish to get into this issue too!

    For fairness to all arguments, there is an H-index and citation count disparity between the sexes, even when its normalized by age. So there is a productivity gap (even though it is smaller than the discrepancy indicates)

    I believe the problem occurs earlier, where there is a cultural stigma attached to having women in the maths and sciences. Since there are fewer early participants, there is consequently a stereotype threat and an emergent machismo culture that is allowed to exist for those that stay and that likely accounts for the lowered performance and the lowered interest.

    However, I don't think affirmative action is the solution, at least not at the university level.

    It's a good point, people old enough to vote and drive cars and go to college shouldn't be falling back on an 'there aren't many women in the class so I am intimidated' argument if they intend to make it in academia at the higher levels.

    So rather than mandating and gender quotas at the university level, do we need to mandate them for high schools?   The overwhelming majority of teachers are women, higher than the percentage of men in high level physics - so it again looks like if girls are being told they can't do math, it is by women teachers.
    On the upside of gender mismatches in various fields...

    Nice graph Hank. It  clearly shows that the highest-paid jobs are firmly in male hands.

    There is one bit I do not understand, though. Why must one be single to go to those happy hours ? ;-)

    " While women make up for 30% of physicists who are university researchers, they constitute only 23% of INFN researchers. "

    We see a similar pattern in Universities across the UK - women form a higher percentage of staff in Universities with more emphasis on teaching rather than on research. Presumably, this is because it is easier to balance childcare responsibilities (women are still largely the 'primary carers' of chidren) in a less competitive environment which requires less travel and that provides a better 'work-life' balance.

    Might be a reason, although I fear that women who undertake a career in Physics do not have the luxury of a choice, after their PhD. Your suggestion would imply that some 10% of them either win a University position or leave the field, even if they have a chance to win a INFN position.

    A EU study shows that in soft sciences (literature, psychology...) women are the majority in universities. While in hard sciences (physics, engineering, math...) men are the majority in universities. Women in Sweden complained about laws that impose a quota of 50% men in soft sciences.
    So the most direct interpretation is that women and men have different interests and/or different abilities.