Physicist suspended for talk that sparks sexism concerns

GENEVA — Officials at the world's largest particle accelerator on Monday suspended an Italian physicist pending an investigation into his "highly offensive" presentation on gender issues that raised new concerns about sexism in science.

CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, said Alessandro Strumia of the University of Pisa was out of line in his talk Friday for a seminar on "High Energy Theory and Gender."

The Geneva-area center, where the subatomic particle known as the Higgs boson was confirmed in 2013, said it had no prior knowledge of the content of Strumia's presentation and cited its "attacks on individuals" as "unacceptable in any professional context."

A CERN spokesman confirmed a slide presentation on Strumia's talk found online, but said a recording was not immediately available. The slides featured charts, graphs and tables that are hard to understand out of context, but one quotation said: "Physics invented and built by men, it's not by invitation."

In a phone interview with The Associated Press, Strumia said he wanted to debunk what he insists was a misconception, and said he doesn't believe men are better than women in physics.

"This workshop was continuously telling (saying): 'men are bad, men are sexist, they discriminate against us' — lots of things like this," he said. "I did a check to see if this was true ... and the result was: That was not true."

"There is a political group that wants women, and other people, to believe that they are victims," he said. Noting the suspension, Strumia lashed out at the Geneva center, but expressed hope that it would come around to his way of thinking.

"I believe CERN is making a mistake," he said. "They suspended me because it's true ... and it's contrary to the political line. And I hope CERN will at some point understand. I hope this is just the first self-preservation instinct."

"Somebody had to speak."

Laura Covi, who studies cosmology at Georg-August University in Goettingen, Germany and was at the Friday seminar, said Strumia's comments didn't go over well.

"He was claiming that some of the positions women were getting, they're getting positions with fewer (journal) citations than men," she said. "I'm not so sure his thesis was supported by the data."

Covi acknowledged that some of the world's most eminent physicists have been men, but said that was "mostly a historical bias" since men have been able to study physics longer than women.

She also disputed that citations are an indicator of quality and said it wasn't her experience that female physicists were able to land jobs with fewer journal publications than men.

Covi said Strumia has frequently made provocative comments in the past and said after his presentation, he was challenged by many at the seminar — so much so that the chair had to abruptly end the session when it ran overtime.

"People were upset by what he was saying. And then he later started to make statements that were completely unscientific," she said, declining to elaborate.

"I don't think he represents the majority view," Covi said. "There were a few men who were there but they didn't support his view."

Dr. Julie Moote of University College London, who had spoken earlier in the seminar, said it was a "shame" that Strumia "did not engage" with evidence from other presenters — including her research with over 40,000 young people in England and interviews over time with youths aged 10 to 18.

"Findings show that young women do experience sexism in physics — from being told by a teacher that 'you need a boy brain to do physics,' to survey data showing that boys feel they are encouraged more by their physics teachers than girls — which leads to a situation where even some of the highest attaining young women were doubting that they were 'clever enough' to do physics," Moote said in an e-mail.

CERN is currently headed by a woman: Italian particle physicist Fabiola Gianotti.


Cheng reported from London.

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