Cern cuts ties with scientist who made “offensive” remarks about women and physics

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Moya Crockett
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Professor Alessandro Strumia has lost his position at Cern, one of the world’s leading nuclear research centres, after saying “physics was invented and built by men”.

A senior physics lecturer who made “highly offensive” comments during a workshop about gender and physics has lost his position at Cern, the European nuclear research centre.

During a presentation in 2018 to a mostly female group of scientists in Geneva, Professor Alessandro Strumia said that “physics was invented and built by men, it’s not by invitation” and argued that male scientists were being discriminated against.

After Strumia’s workshop in late September, many physicists took to social media to report their discomfort and anger. By 1 October, Cern had released a statement saying it was shocked by Strumia’s “highly offensive” and “unacceptable” remarks.

“Cern always strives to carry out its scientific mission in a peaceful and inclusive environment,” the statement read, adding that “the organisation is fully committed to promoting diversity and equality at all levels.”

Cern is where the existence of the Higgs boson particle was confirmed in 2013, via the particle detector CMS (pictured above). 

After removing slides from Strumia’s talk from its website “in line with a code of conduct that does not tolerate personal attacks and insults”, and suspending the professor, Cern has now made the decision not to extend Professor Alessandro Strumia’s status of guest professor:

“The incident was investigated in light of the internal Rules and Regulations and the Organisation’s Code of Conduct, which is based on Cern’s core values,” Cern said in a statement on 7 March.

“As a result of its own investigation and following the decision taken by the University of Pisa, Cern decided not to extend Professor Strumia’s status of Guest Professor.”

“Cern reaffirms its commitment to the paramount importance of respect and diversity in the workplace.”

However, Strumia still stands by his remarks, telling BBC News:

“Some people hated hearing about higher male variance: this idea comes from Darwin, like other offensive ideas that got observational support. Science is not about being offended when facts challenge ideas held as sacred”.

During the workshop, Strumia presented several graphs which he claimed showed that women were treated more favourably than men in physics despite their ideas not being as good. He claimed that women were often hired over men whose research was cited more by other scientists, and showed that men were progressively cited more as their careers progressed. 

He also said that he had been overlooked for a job that ended up going to a woman scientists, despite the fact that he was – allegedly – more qualified.

Physicist Dr Jess Wade, a former Stylist Woman of the Week who campaigns to raise the visibility of women in STEM, was in the audience at Strumia’s workshop.

She told BBC News that his analysis relied on ideas that had “long been discredited”, and “was really upsetting to those at the workshop”.

Wade previously told Stylist of her frustration at the ingrained sexism of much of the science world. For centuries, “scientists have been so determined to prove that men and women are different, that they’ve looked for anything in their results to say that’s so,” she said.

“What we really need to do is change the culture of science, because currently it is not ready to accept a whole bunch of fresh-faced girls,” she continued. “There are structural biases that prevent women from succeeding.” 

She welcomed the news of Cern’s latest decision, saying: “The recent statement is a powerful message for scientists all over the world; irrespective of your status, you will be held accountable for your actions.”

“Well-funded senior academics should not use their positions of power to attack colleagues or demean the work of women.”

This article was originally published on 2 October 2018 and has been updated to note that Cern has decided not to renew Professor Strumia’s contract.

Images: Getty Images 


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Moya Crockett

Moya is a freelance journalist and writer from London, and a former editor at Stylist.