When CERN was founded in 1954, no women worked there, except for a couple of secretaries. The first women physicists were not hired until the late 1970s, and the rise in the number of women researchers at CERN has been quite slow ever since.
“The situation of the women physicists at CERN is characterized primarily by their position as a very small minority at all levels. For instance, there are no women in CERN’s top management. The Director General (DG) is, and always has been, a man,” says Camilla Røstvik, a researcher of art history and the history of science.
She describes the male dominance at the laboratory as overwhelming.
In 2012, less than seven percent of the physicists in senior researcher positions were women. Of all the academic employees at the laboratory today, only about 17 percent are women.
Røstvik’s doctoral thesis was actually supposed to look at the situation of CERN’s artists, but gradually she became more concerned with the women physicists and their challenges
“It took a while before I realized how extremely male dominated this large, international organization really is. I didn’t think I could ignore this. In fact, I have changed my project so I could also study the situation of the women physicists as the minority and outsiders at CERN,” says Røstvik.
“The world’s most important physics organization is managed exclusively by a single, homogenous group: white men from the richer countries in Europe. Of course this has consequences! I’m convinced that who we are affects which questions we ask, and thus also the direction our research takes,” Røstvik asserts.
She thinks it is striking how little the women physicists themselves at CERN are concerned about this.
According to Røstvik, one important factor keeping the percentage of women low is that CERN does little to create an environment in which researchers can combine their careers with family life and children.
“As soon as women begin to have children, we see that most of them leave. It seems that very many women around the age of 30 think they have to quit,” she notes.
There are no pre-schools at CERN, and that the pre-schools in the towns around the laboratory are expensive and mostly for those who are well off. Røstvik tells that work hours and meetings are not set up for employees with parental responsibilities. The women researchers once tried to open a pre-school at CERN, but the project was not continued, in part because CERN covers such a large area that travel from the pre-school to the office took too much time.
It is also a challenge to find a good work-life balance because most of the researchers work and live at one of the European universities, but spend several months a year at the particle physics laboratory.
“I see that the main responsibility for the children almost always falls on the women, who usually must bring their children with them when they work at CERN,” says Røstvik.
The child’s father often has a higher position or better income, and his job get priority if it conflicts with childcare and family life.
“I have asked the women if the fathers can’t help more, but it seems like they don’t see this as a real possibility,” she says.
She says it is striking that the father’s role is seldom discussed at CERN, even though fatherhood and gender equality are discussed in many European countries.
Pregnancy can also be a problem at CERN. A pregnant physicist will find that she cannot perform some of the work duties, and many places in the laboratory are off limits to her during pregnancy due to the risk of radiation.
In addition, because women are away from work for many months in the pre- and post-natal period, women lag behind their male colleagues in terms of their career development.
The women physicists Røstvik interviewed really love their jobs, but the ones with families are constantly juggling work and family life.
“It therefore surprises me that they say they are not used to talking with their colleagues about their families and children – or about combining children and work in the future,” she says.
“This is very different from the academic environments I’m familiar with in Norway,” she adds
She believes this kind of conversation is necessary and must take place if change is to occur.
In Røstvik’s experience, the researchers she interviewed were not very familiar with feminist theory, nor did they recognize the feminist writings she showed them as a basis for some of the interview.
“They lack the feminist and political language they need to change the situation.”
“It seems that the women’s movement we have seen generally in Europe has not reached the physics field,” says the historian.
She asks whether the European women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s did not include the natural sciences. At the same time, she emphasizes that there have always been women in science and that they want the same things as male researchers: to advance in their careers and to find a balance between work and family life.
Røstvik was surprised that the women physicists said they do not talk about topics like clothes, make-up, sex, their bodies or their families at the work. The norm is to talk only about their scientific field and their jobs.
“I think the reason is that they are in a male environment as well as in a very intellectual environment.”
According to Røstvik, there is no reason to doubt that CERN wants more women, as well as homosexuals and ethnic minorities, on their staff.
“But you are not allowed to talk negatively about what it means to be a woman, homosexual or ethnic minority at CERN. This is an organization that does not welcome criticism. You are not met with open hostility, but they stop the conversation and freeze you out. You notice it when you are suddenly no longer treated warmly.”
“I have experienced some of this myself when I come as a researcher from the outside and begin to ask ‘unpleasant’ questions about women and gender equality,” she says.
She thinks the negative attitude towards criticism also makes it much more difficult to bring about change for the women at CERN. And as long as no major changes are made to adapt the workplace to the fact that women give birth to children, Røstvik does not anticipate that the low percentage of women in scientific positions will increase very much.
“A revolution of sorts is needed to bring about change at CERN. A feminist revolution,” says Røstvik.