This week, the renowned particle physicist Mary K Gaillard is giving the opening speech at the 22nd German Conference of Women in Physics in Oldenburg. In 1981, she was the first female professor in physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Here, she talks about her experiences as a woman in a male dominated field and the importance of role models.
QUESTION: Prof. Gaillard, what got you interested in particle physics in the first place?
GAILLARD: I always liked math. And I studied physics in a small women's college in Virginia. Here, the physics chair, Dorothy Montgomery, got me into a Paris cosmic ray laboratory during my year abroad, and then got me to go to Brookhaven National Laboratory as a summer student. I worked with the Columbia group in particle experiments, and it was that experience that cemented my interest in particle physics.
QUESTION: In your biography “A singularly Unfeminine Profession” you describe the obstacles you met as a woman in physics – particularly in Europe. Which where the most common prejudices you had to cope with?
GAILLARD: I think that there was a perception that women either couldn't or shouldn't do physics – particularly in France: The major laboratories recruited students from two elite Parisian schools that were all male at the time. When I arrived I was given the friendly advice that I would not be accepted into the particle theory group at the Orsay campus south of Paris and that I should get a job in a lab. However, I was turned down at every one, never having been asked for my academic credentials. In the most degrading interview I experienced, I was told that I had come to France to get married and not to do physics. I was offered a low-level assistant position and told that my name would not appear on any paper. In the end I did well on the exams and was accepted into the Orsay theory group.
QUESTION: But then you moved on to the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland…
GAILLARD: Yes, by then my husband had been offered a six-year position at CERN. So I spent almost twenty years as an unpaid visitor at CERN. During those years I was promoted, commensurate with my achievements, through the French research organ CNRS. However I was never considered worthy of any position at CERN, even when my work was internationally recognized. In my book I recount some subtle and less than subtle put-downs as a woman. However I was thick-skinned enough to deal with those. What I could no longer deal with was the total lack of recognition at the place where I was doing important work. Several of my male colleagues who read my book were astonished to learn that I was not a CERN staff member.
QUESTION: Only 17.9 percent of all professors in science and mathematics were female in Germany in 2016. This number is presumably even lower in physics. In your view, why is it still hard for women to pursue a career in science?
GAILLARD: I believe that things have improved considerably since I went into physics. I was the first woman on the Berkeley physics faculty when I joined in 1981; now there are nine, or about 14 percent. In 2016 the average number of women in US physics graduate programs was 16 percent, a number that hadn't changed much since the mid 1990's. However at present we have 23 percent in our department, so perhaps things are picking up again. We still hear complaints by women graduate students about put-downs and offensive remarks–more often raised against fellow graduate students than against faculty. So in spite of a major shift in attitudes, there still seems to be a culture problem that may lead some women to give up. I think another problem is that some women may not consider physics an option until it's too late to get the necessary math background.
QUESTION: In the preface to your biography you mention how you came to realize that you were “in fact, something of a role model“. In your view, should female scientists more generally engage in supporting and encouraging students?
GAILLARD: What I have found that students appreciate most are one-on-one conversations, or in small groups where they feel free to ask questions and express their views. For example, I was recently at a conference in Cleveland celebrating 50 years of the Standard Model of Particle Physics. The graduate students were very much involved in the organization; each speaker was assigned a student "guide". During breaks small groups of women students came to speak with me (my guide among them). I have also had lunches with students at Berkeley and at other places that I visited as a speaker. The Equity and Inclusion committee in our department occasionally invites students to air their issues. There are also more formal outreach events but I think the smaller encounters are the most helpful. Of course the students also need to feel welcome to approach the potential "role model". I have sometimes learned to my consternation that people were afraid to approach me just because of my status. That needs to be addressed somehow.
QUESTON: How else should young people be encouraged to study science?
GAILLARD: I think that outreach is important. There are programs at Berkeley that make a special effort to attract women and underrepresented minorities to physics, and to give them opportunities to compensate for a background that may be less than adequate. Research opportunities, such as I had in Paris and Brookhaven, are also important. But we need better ways to communicate the excitement of the scientific research to young people of all ages. And we need to encourage them to take the high school courses that will leave a wide range of options open to them later on. Interestingly, later in October I am going to be interviewed about science in film. I think that good and entertaining portrayals of science and scientists in film and television could play an important role in this respect.
Interview: Constanze Böttcher