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Not Just Marie Curie!

October 13, 2016

Top particle physicist Rohini Godbole explains why we must stop undervaluing women in physics and maths

"I'm a woman in Physics. This is a hat I have to wear." Rohini Godbole (who has been working in theoretical particle physics for the last 40+ years) told a hall packed with both men and women physicists and mathematicians at ICTP in her video streamed talk on the 12th of October 2016. Indeed, outstanding women in science are not always talked about because of their science - but more often because of their gender. And often, the provenance of their excellent research is put in doubt ("Could she really have done that work all on her own? Surely her husband/supervisor/ father must have done the work for her”). Godbole took us through a history of women who have pushed against all the barriers to take their places in the physics/ mathematics hall of fame  - Marie Curie (of course!), Sophie Germain (who?), Mary Sommerville, Carline Herschel, Ada Lovelace (yes, I recognise her!), Sofia Koralevskya, C.S. Wu, 'Mrs. Pileou' - this last designated 'Mrs' by a very disgruntled Robert McArthur who wanted to put her down after she had discovered errors in his famous mathematical theory of ecology. Godbole gave us interesting insights into the prejudices these women faced and how they managed to overcome them - always through vision and persistence, but too often also through luck and privileged circumstance. Germain's parents took away her candles so she couldn't study at night but eventually a professor (Lagrange) was impressed by the report she submitted under a man's name and she went on to do important work on Fermat's Last Theorem; Herschel was invited to 'assist' her husband, the royal astronomer and ended up receiving a gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society for her contribution; Kovalevskya married her friend so she could move to Europe and study mathematics and became the first woman professor in Europe at the University of Uppsala. Marie Curie got her position only after her husband Pierre died in an accident. And it certainly was not Ada Lovelace's famous father Lord Byron who encouraged her to follow her passion for binary numbers - but her less celebrated mother.

All of these women come from privileged backgrounds - but still they struggled. And still today, even though they have have made outstanding contributions to their fields, few of these women would be recognised by the general public. Imagine the situation then for women who want to pursue their passion for mathematics or physics who live in least developed countries, where following a science career for anyone, let alone a woman is not usually an option. Where are the laboratories to carry out the experiments, where are the technicians trained to use the equipment; where are the cutting-edge articles with the latest solutions?; where is the professor who has worked with others on the very topic you are interested in and can guide you to further contacts? All these crucial resources are hard to find for men who live in the poorest countries of the world - and twice as hard for women, who face ideological, cultural and practical barriers.

As Rohine Godbole asked her audience. Does it matter that the number of women doing mathematics and physics - and the numbers of women recognised for the work they have done in these fields - are always globally so inferior to the numbers of men? The answer is a resounding yes. Just as Supreme Chief Justice Roberts asked in 2015, "What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?" so we must always encourage the greatest variety of researchers to bring their own questions and contexts into every calculation and theorem - in order to have the widest possible range of solutions - that will, in turn, one day, be relevant to the widest possible audience.

The Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (based at ICTP) is working very hard every day to make sure that more women from developing countries take up the call to become scientists.

Check out our PhD fellowships programme and our awards scheme.

By Tonya Blowers