By Shobhana Narasimhan
“But what do you do in a workshop like this?”
“Tell me, do you really think that there is a need for a workshop like this?”
“I completely disapprove of activities that are segregated by gender.”
“I think it is wrong for ICTP to be involved in such workshops. ICTP is for scientific activities.”
“I am very curious to know what you women discuss…tell me, you sit there and criticize men, huh?”
These are some of the more puzzled or hostile reactions I have received (mostly from men in physics) about the two “Career Development Workshops for Women in Physics” that I have helped organize at ICTP, together with Liz Simmons and Erika Coppola.
Sometimes, I feel that the fact that I am interested in organizing activities for women in physics is like having a fondness for romance novels by Georgette Heyer, or actually liking Pizza Hut pizza …it is to be kept a dark secret, suggesting I am not to be taken entirely seriously as a physicist, and may even be…ai ai ai…a FEMINIST!
Liz and I had the idea for these workshops five years ago. We knew each other from grad school at Harvard, where both of us were in classes that were overwhelmingly male, and had helped start a women in physics group. After grad school and postdocs, we went on to pursue roughly parallel careers at opposite ends of the globe. Both of us continued to be involved in issues related to women in science, and we would meet once every three years at the International Conference for Women in Physics. It was great fun to catch up, but also thought provoking: as we exchanged news about our Harvard cohort, we couldn’t help but notice how many of our female peers seemed to be struggling with their careers, had trouble with their colleagues, and sometimes even dropped out of science. If all these super-smart women, with PhDs from Harvard, were having such a tough time, was something wrong? And could one do something about it?
My personal epiphany occurred during a post-talk discussion at the conference, when a physicist shared her story: she had applied for maternity leave, only to be promptly fired from her job. Discouraged and depressed, she planned to quit physics.
Spontaneously, other women in the audience stood up one by one and urged her to stay on in physics: “Sister,” they said,”you must fight! We will all support you!” I was intensely moved by this experience, it filled me with the urge to DO something to help women in such situations. I was suddenly filled with the light of revelation: Liz and I had to organize a workshop for physics, and it had to be at ICTP! Fortunately, Liz was equally enthusiastic, and thus were these workshops born.
In these workshops, first, we wish to give women in physics a space to share their experiences and stories. Most participants have felt terribly isolated in the past, some are even the only woman physicist in their whole country. Some of their personal stories are truly jaw-dropping: raising six children (two of them with serious health problems) while doing a bachelor’s, master’s and PhD; escaping from a war zone by crawling through a tunnel so that she could study physics in another country; braving barbed-wire fences and armed military guards at check posts to get to work every day; dropping out of her PhD because of severe sexual harassment, and then going back many years later to complete it when the advisor was “allowed to resign with full benefits”…. We also discovered that for some participants, this was the first conference — of any kind — that they had attended; their husbands had allowed them to attend this one because only women would be present!
We have also heard from successful women scientists: Jocelyn Bell-Burnell told us to remember that “well-behaved women rarely make history.” Setsuko Tajima told us how, after marriage and children, she worked (for free) in the lab once a week out of pure love of physics, never dreaming that it would result in a PhD and professorship and stellar career.
We have also aimed to to make up for the absence of an old boys’ network for women! It seems like there is always someone around to advise male physicists about how to reply to a referee report, ask for more lab space, polish up their grant proposal, or get their paper through in Nature…For the typically more isolated woman scientist, there is no one to fill this role, so we have conducted workshops that aim to teach some of these vital skills.
Participants have told us that the workshops have been “transformative” and “life changing”. Even some of the initial sceptics (names withheld) are slowly beginning to change their minds and joining the ranks of the converted; we couldn’t ask for more!
Shobhana Narasimhan is a Professor of Theoretical Sciences and Dean of Academic Affairs at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore, India, and has taught at and attended many conferences at ICTP.