Mind the gap: Around 13% of last authors in physics were women – a figure that is currently increasing at a rate of just 0.1% per year (courtesy: Jarmoluk on Pixabay)

Topics: Diversity in Science, Existentialism, Star Trek, STEM, Women in Science

Cultural reference in blog title: Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett (Wikipedia)

Much has been seen recently in the #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #TimesUp and subsequently, #MarchForOurLives movements. Things that are and have been systemic in our society are being questioned by those groups affected. Indignities and injustices aren't being tolerated anymore. Even the March for Science is a reaction to the adversarial relationship between science and power, as in many cases the answers research may yield not fitting well with the agreed dogma of political forces.

Many women and minorities were inspired into STEM careers due to the Roddenberry franchise, itself born of the often violent and lethal unrest in the sixties, and a hope we would resolve our differences both national and personal through rational actions and discourse, personified in the character of Spock played by the late Leonard Nimoy. Despite his alien origins, he was an outsider of two worlds: Earth and Vulcan; part of each and not fully accepted by either. What we saw was a possibility of acceptance based on merit, not blocked by gender, culture or preconceived biases.

Alas, science is not populated by dispassionate Data's devoid of emotion chips. Every single one of us comes into the field with our life experiences and conditioned prejudices of a person's worth in our particular fields. I have no doubt that part of the issue is how we're socializing our children into preassigned roles. For example, I remember my "toys" being G.I. Joe with the "Kung Fu" grip; a chemistry set, an erector sets, a microscope, a telescope and a junior construction tool kit. My female neighbor friends mostly had Barbies and teddy bears. I don't think much has changed.

We may be forcing the solution to society's most daunting problems in pigtails with dolls, rather than electronic snap kits and microscopes. The current estimate of gender parity puts us in the fictional Kirk era. That's assuming we survive as a species, daunted by current population growth, our projected population growth and a lack of starships.

Physics has one of the largest gender gaps in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) according to an analysis of more than 36 million authors of academic papers over the last two decades (PLoS Biol 16(4) e2004956). The study, carried out by researchers at the University of Melbourne in Australia, says that at current rates it will be more than two centuries until there are equal numbers of senior male and female researchers in physics.

While the proportion of women in most STEMM fields is increasing, Luke Holman and his colleagues used computational methods to estimate the speed of change. They did this by estimating the gender of 36.6 million authors on 9.7 million papers the databases PubMed and arXiv. In the latter, for example, the researchers say they were able to estimate – with 95% confidence – the gender of 1.18 million authors from 538,688 preprint published since 1991.

If we want to see 50% of physicists being women sooner we need to implement new initiatives to do this – over and above any currently-running initiatives

Luke Holman, University of Melbourne

Gender gap in physics among highest in science, Michael Allen, Physics World

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