Where Particles Collide, Sexism Is Rampant, Study Finds

April 24, 2008

A study of postdoctoral researchers involved in a major particle-physics experiment reveals pervasive gender discrimination there, according to a physicist who formerly worked on the experiment at the Fermi National Acceleratory Laboratory, known as Fermilab.

The study, which was conducted by Sherry Towers, looked at the work output of 57 postdoctoral physicists associated with Fermilab’s DZero collaboration, an experiment that includes some 700 physicists around the world. Her review documented how many internal papers each postdoctoral researcher had written and compared that figure with the number of times that each was allowed by the collaboration to make presentations at academic conferences. Such presentations help advance the careers of young physicists.

Fermilab data suggest that female postdocs had to be three times as productive as male postdocs in order to be granted the opportunity to present work at academic conferences, according to Ms. Towers.

Ms. Towers is pursuing a master’s degree in statistics at Purdue University and has a statistical consulting service. She formerly worked on DZero at Fermilab as a postdoctoral researcher in particle physics at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She left the field of physics in 2005 because, she says, her supervisor and Stony Brook engaged in gender discrimination against her following the birth of her second child. Ms. Towers is currently suing the university, as detailed in a 2005 article in The Chronicle.

An article about her new study appeared this week in Nature. —Richard Monastersky