Sabine Hossenfelder is a well-known theoretical physicist as well as a successful blogger. In her blog today I read a letter she sent to Time Magazine. The letter was triggered by the following sentence in a piece by Jeffrey Kluger discussing the runners-up for "person of the year":

“Physics is a male-dominated field, and the assumption is that a woman has to overcome hurdles and face down biases that men don’t. But that just isn’t so. Women in physics are familiar with this misconception and acknowledge it mostly with jokes.”
Admittedly, the writer is badly downplaying the issue. Having been in HEP for twenty years, I have witnessed cases of women who ascended to considerable heights exploiting their being women, as well as cases of women left behind for the same reason. I believe the latter far outweigh the former, and I believe the reason is indeed a good dose of gender bias, prejudice, and misconception that is present in our field as much as everywhere else I look.

However, Bee's letter to Time focuses mostly on the quite concrete, but off-target issue of family planning, which is indeed something that normally women have to deal with at a time of their life when they also need to concentrate on the task of getting a tenured position. While this is indeed an additional hindrance for women, it confuses matters. So here is the comment I left to Bee's blog today:

I believe one should distinguish between the hurdles posed to women by a biological difference with men with the hurdles caused by prejudice, misconceptions, and gender bias. If you don't do that, you end up facing the rejoinder: "If the competition for an academic position is unfair to women because women in their thirties want/need to have maternity leaves, it is at least in part due to their own life choices."

In reality, I think the most disturbing aspect of the different chances of men and women in our field is still due to the biases and the prejudice, which are omnipresent - while as you note the maternity leaves are easier somewhere and harder somewhere else.

So I would not place the accent there...

After I left the comment, I saw another reader of Bee's blog made a similar point. Here is a relevant clip:

In general, I think it is important to separate the issues a) women in physics and b) combining career and family. We have come a long way since Max Planck told Lise Meitner that she couldn't work with him because there were no women's toilets at the institute. These days, if a woman has children early on, she can often expect some understanding for not having as many papers as her competition consisting of single and/or gay men. I think you'll find that it is more difficult for a man in academia to expect any sort of understanding for having fewer papers but more children.

The same reader actually explains that in his own experience (similar to mine) he too had to choose to give birth and raise children at a time when he would have had better reasons for spending sleepless nights. And he even mentions that the implicit suggestion that men can choose to fix their careers and then go looking for younger women to marry is unhappy... I am sure that is not what Bee implied - she was just observing the evidence rather than judging it.

So, I advise anybody who wants to tackle the issue to keep the problem of family planning, with related issues of what allowance for parental leave different countries provide, well separated from that of the existing gender bias in academia selection.

And there is actually another point to make on the whole issue. If we talk about a career within a particle physics experiment (taking hint from Fabiola Gianotti being the ATLAS spokesperson at the time of the Higgs boson discovery, which won her participation in the selection for person of the year by Time Magazine as well as a 500,000 dollar prize from the russian billionaire Milner), then the issue of gender bias is quite considerably less severe than in academia. I can make the example of the CERN experiments: within a community where women are a roughly 20% minority (forgive me for being approximative here), I can see women occupying important positions as spokespersons (Gianotti, ATLAS), Collaboration Board chairs (Rodrigo, CMS), plus many organizational seats. In CMS out of 16 physics group conveners we have at present three women, which is more or less on par with the percentage of women in the experiment.