African Physics Newsletter

Results and recommendations of the Global Approach to the Gender Gap study in science

The numbers of respondents in the Global Survey by country. Source:

A physics oriented report of a worldwide gender gap survey initiative.

We know that the experiences of men and women in science can be different, and we observe that the numbers of women in physics around the world are relatively low. But what facts do we have to work on? When choosing initiatives to empower women and girls, how do we decide?

A three-year project funded by the International Science Council on "The Gender Gap in Mathematical, Computing, and Natural Sciences: How to Measure It, How to Reduce It?" has just delivered its final report, which is available on the web. This was a remarkable collaboration of eight Scientific Unions (Maths – leader, Chemistry – co-leader, Physics, Astronomy, Biology, Industrial and Applied Mathematics, Computing, and History and Philosophy of Science) and three global organizations (UNESCO, GenderInSITE and OWSD).

Each partner contributed financially. All were driven by the same common goals: to find facts and propose solutions.

A large survey

There are three parts to this project.

First, we surveyed scientists and science students across the globe, in seven languages including English, French, and Arabic. There were 32,346 respondents from 159 countries, about half men and half women. The results of the survey, unfortunately, confirm that the Gender Gap in Science is very real, across all regions and all disciplines.

A snowball sampling method

The questions were drawn up with the input from three meetings of scientists in Africa, Asia, and Latin America in 2017 (see the first issue of African Physics Newsletter, February 2019). Because there is no “list of scientists” worldwide, the survey was carried out using the snowball sampling method: the questionnaire was sent out by the partner organizations and distributed further by every participant. For this reason, the survey does not provide percentages of women in the sciences, but it does provide insight into women’s experiences in science.

The survey and analysis were undertaken by social scientists at the American Institute of Physics. Preserving confidentiality was a top priority throughout the survey project, from the design of the questionnaire to the publication of the results.

Putting apart side factors

The social scientists paid particular attention to error analysis and to determining which results were statistically significant and which were not. They explored potential explanatory factors including age (as a proxy for career progress), discipline, geographic region, employment sector, and level of human development.

Even after accounting for these factors, they found that women were more likely to report lower pay compared to colleagues with similar qualifications, and women reported less access to career-advancing resources and opportunities than men.

Sexual harassment

Across the world and across all disciplines, more than a quarter of the women respondents reported encountering sexual harassment. For Africa, these figures across disciplines are 22% for women and 4% for men.

For physics across all regions the results are 29% for women and 2% for men, and there is no one discipline in which the likelihood is lower for women than any other discipline. The report covers what sexual harassment means, and makes recommendations that clear policies and lines of action are needed.

Personal determination

It is not surprising to find that women were more likely than men to say that they relied on their personal determination, will power, and hard work for their success in science. They were also more likely than men to report being encouraged during their university studies by their spouse or partner, parents, and other family members.

The second task was a bibliometric survey, which analyzed just over 3 million papers in the zbMATH database, Astronomy Data System, and arXiv. Automated Gender Recognition was used to tag names as “male", "female" or “unknown”, using well-researched methodologies.

Women authorship on the rise

In physics papers in arXiv, the proportion of women among authors of scientific papers has increased steadily, growing from about 7% in 1992 cohorts to about 20% now, and it is interesting that the proportion of authorships by women in astrophysics is about double that in any other physics sub-field on arXiv.

The third task was the assembly of the Database of Good Practices for girls and young women, parents, and organizations. There is a large landscape of interventions that are possible to foster the participation of women in science, but very few have been evaluated for their success – these were the ones that we were interested in.

Validation of good practices

As well as global projects, five validated initiatives in Africa were found for inclusion in the database: they were carried out in Ethiopia, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, and South Africa. There is certainly a global trend towards checking that initiatives really do work.

The most fundamental action, in the view of the authors, is to make environments that are safe and encouraging for all people, where complaints can be addressed without reprisal, and where physicists can do their work with joy and dedication.

Igle Gledhill (South Africa), Marie-Francoise Roy (France), Mei-Hung Chiu (Taiwan), Silvina Ponce-Dawson (Argentina)

This article has first been published in the African Physics Newsletter. ©American Physical Society, 2020

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