Unesimo Mtintsilana
Unesimo Mtintsilana

Women in physics: Why there’s a problem and how we can solve it

By Time of article published Sep 8, 2021

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Unesimo Mtintsilana

The lack of diversity in scientific fields, such as, Physics, is not only an issue of inequality, but it also affects the work we do and the systems we create.

For example, Joy Buolamwini, a computer scientist and researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, made a startling discovery that facial recognition technology is biased against women and people of colour due to inadequacies in the datasets.

Buolamwini’s discovery was made, in 2015, while she was a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, MA., when she realised that facial analysis software failed to detect her dark-skinned face, until she put on a white mask. Her research on the topic was later published as part of a very telling academic study which showed that even machines and systems developed by scientists can be biased.

Buolamwini’s story is a lesson that the work that we produce as scientists can be influenced by lack of transformation and inclusivity. For instance, women have been under-represented or outright neglected, in health research, which can have life threatening repercussions.

A lack of understanding of how health problems progress in women’s bodies can result in misdiagnosis of serious conditions, such as heart attacks, and incorrect doses of medicines meant to prevent or treat diseases.

As a female physicist in SA, I have seen first-hand, how the lack of proper transformation impedes inclusivity, as there are less of us women in the profession.

The most compelling reason why South Africans should care about the number of females in physics in the country, is that, we all should aspire to create a society that reflects fairness and lack of bias across all sectors. We should aim to have a system that identifies, encourages, and supports the most motivated scientists and science students, regardless of gender or race.

Part of the challenge is convincing some members of the science fraternity that gender inequality really does exist in our field. Many physicists, male and female, believe that the playing field has been level, for a while.

They regard themselves and their colleagues as completely gender-neutral in all their professional interactions with others, including students and fellow scientists. Unfortunately, this is not true. The fact is that physicists are human, and we are subject to the cultural and social influences that pervade our society.

The under-representation of women in science has serious consequences on how research is conducted and applied. Women, particularly those from marginalised backgrounds, are not afforded the opportunity to correct the biases that are incorporated into the system, which then have a direct impact on the outcomes of experiments.

This lack of representation is often attributed to the myth that girls and women are intrinsically less well suited to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). However multiple studies have debunked that idea, including a 2018 study of 1.6 million students from 268 high schools around the world.

Another issue here is systematic inequality. The “leaky pipeline model'' which is cited in more than 10,000 academic articles, is used to explain the lack of women at the top. According to the leaky-pipeline model, when the going gets tough, the women leave.

Not only does the model ignore the important role scientists have outside academia. It doesn’t tell the whole story that women are not failing at science and that instead science is failing them. The pipeline isn’t leaking. Instead, it’s littered with holes by design. While women are discriminated against in the allocation of research funding, prevalent gender stereotypes create a barrier to entry.

As, Women in Physics forum, we are calling for cultural change within academia. We have identified three key challenges to women’s progression, that include short-term funding, out-of-date metrics of success, poor academic culture, and difficulties balancing responsibilities with family life. We need to improve diversity in academic science, provide better career advice and support women physicists in developing countries.

Onesimo Mtintsilana is an executive member of Women in Physics in SA and a researcher with the ATLAS Experiment at CERN

Sunday Independent

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