Accelerating gender equality

17 March 2017

When I started working at CERN in 1976, women were a relatively rare sight. The few women who did work here generally held administrative roles, many having started with the incongruous job title of “scanning girls”, regardless of the age at which they had been recruited. Back then it was quite normal to walk into a workshop and find pictures of naked females on the walls, and everyday sexism was common. I recall once being told that women couldn’t possibly do night shifts in the control room. The reason, a male colleague explained, was to avoid mysterious calls in the middle of the night: “What if there was a problem and she has to call a physicist? What would his wife think?”

Such attitudes were not just true of CERN, of course, and things have changed significantly since then. Even as recently as 1995, less than three per cent of CERN research and applied physicists were female, whereas today that number is around 18 per cent. Similar increases have been seen across engineering and technician roles, and CERN now has its first female Director-General.   

It was in 1996 that CERN launched its equal opportunities (EO) programme. I was appointed as the first EO officer, and the following year an EO advisory panel was created. Many a meeting was taken up by educating male colleagues about the lasting effects of sexist behaviour through the personal experiences of their female counterparts. The EO programme adopted a four-pronged strategy focusing on recruitment, career development, work environment and harassment. On recruitment we took a firm stand against quotas, recommending instead thorough monitoring that would ensure reasonable proportions of qualified women were shortlisted for interview.

Equitable recruitment practices that we take for granted today were then the subject of much debate. The multicultural nature of CERN brought added complexity, as people’s notions of acceptable behaviour varied greatly. We were often accused of exaggerating the need for gender-neutral language or reproached for no longer having a sense of humour. Although some women colleagues found themselves in the uncomfortable situation of wishing to support EO initiatives while not wishing to risk the perception of tokenism or positive discrimination, many became vital allies in moving the EO agenda forward. Whether it was a question of work–life balance or simply accepting women in all job categories, a great deal of effort was invested to overcome resistance born of years of habit. It has only been over time that the proportion of female scientists at CERN has risen to match the numbers in society, as reflected by our world-wide user community.

CERN’s EO programme itself has also evolved into today’s diversity programme, which was launched in 2010 together with a newly created ombudsperson function and a formal harassment investigation panel. The CERN code of conduct was also produced at this time. The growing numbers of female colleagues in all fields at CERN is living proof that we have come a long way in the last two decades. But gender equality means more than just gender parity. While continuing our efforts to encourage female students to pursue science and to employ our colleagues through equitable recruitment practices, we should ask if we are doing everything possible to promote a mindset that enables all our colleagues to contribute as equals.

The last six years have seen approximately equal numbers of male and female visitors to the ombud office. However, when mapped against the corresponding staff-member populations, there are proportionally three-to-four times more women than men consulting the ombudsperson. A similar pattern is seen in other international organisations where women are a minority, and is mirrored by the proportionally higher number of females who participate in CERN’s “diversity in action” workshops. Although the issues raised by women are essentially the same as those faced by their male colleagues, a closer examination reveals examples of stereotyping and unconscious bias that suggests ours is not yet a completely level playing field.

Not only is it difficult for the majority to recognise the insidious barriers of organisational culture faced by minority groups, it is sometimes equally difficult for those within the minority to bring these aspects to light. If we are to ensure that our work environment is equally supportive to all, the experience of women needs to be shared with a wider audience including their male colleagues. We all need to join forces to assure CERN’s ongoing commitment to diversity.

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