Viewpoint: Fixing gender in theory

It is high time we addressed the low representation of women in high-energy theoretical physics.

Improving the participation of under-represented groups in science is not just the right thing to do morally. Science benefits from a community that approaches problems in a variety of different ways, and there is evidence that teams with mixed perspectives increase productivity. Moreover, many countries face a skills gap that can only be addressed by training more scientists, drawing from a broader pool of talent that cannot reasonably exclude half the population.

In the high-energy theory (HET) community, where creativity and originality are so important, the problem is particularly acute. Many of the breakthroughs in theoretical physics have come from people who think “differently”, yet the community does not acknowledge that being both mostly male and white encourages groupthink and lack of originality.

The gender imbalance in physics is well documented. Data from the American Physical Society and the UK Institute of Physics indicate that around 20% of the physics-research community is female, and the situation deteriorates significantly as one looks higher on the career ladder. By contrast, the percentage of females is higher in astronomy and the number of women at senior levels in astronomy has increased quite rapidly over the last decade.

However, research into gender in science often misses issues specific to particular disciplines such as HET. While many previous studies have explored challenges faced by women in physics, theory has not specifically been targeted, even though the representation of women is anomalously low.

In 2012, a group of string theorists in Europe launched a COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology) action with a focus on gender in high-energy theory. Less than 10% of string theorists are female, and, worryingly, postdoc-application data in Europe show that the percentage of female early-career researchers has not changed significantly over the past 15 years.

The COST initiative enabled qualitative surveys and the collection of quantitative data. We found some evidence that women PhD students are less likely to continue onto postdoctoral positions than male ones, although further data are needed to confirm this point. The data also indicate that the percentage of women at senior levels (e.g. heads of institutes) is extremely low, less than 5%. Qualitative data raised issues specific to HET, including the need for mobility for many years before getting a permanent position and the long working hours, which are above average even for academics. A series of COST meetings also provided opportunities for women in string theory to network and to discuss the challenges that they face.

Following the conclusion of the COST action in 2017, women from the string theory community obtained support to continue the initiative, now broadened to the whole of the HET community. “GenHET” is a permanent working group hosted by the CERN theory department whose goals are to increase awareness of gender issues, improve the presence of women in decision-making roles, and provide networking, support and mentoring for women, particularly during their early career.

GenHET’s first workshop on high-energy theory and gender was hosted by CERN in September, bringing together physicists, social scientists and diversity professionals (see Faces and Places). Further meetings are planned, and the GenHET group is also developing a web resource that will collect research and reports on gender and science, advertise activities and jobs, and offer  advice on evidence-based practice for supporting women. GenHET aims to propose concrete actions, for example encouraging the community to implement codes of conduct at conferences, and all members of the HET community are welcome to join the group.

Diversity is about much more than gender: in the HET community, there is also under-representation of people of colour and LGBTQ+ researchers, as well as those who are disabled, carers, come from less privileged socio-economic backgrounds, and so on. GenHET will work in collaboration with networks focusing on other diversity characteristics to help improve this situation, turning the high-energy theory community into one that truly reflects all of society.

About the author

Marika Taylor is leader of the GenHET working group and is head of applied mathematics and theoretical physics at the University of Southampton, UK, with interests in string theory.