On being a woman and a non-physicist at CERN
A short disclaimer: This post is about my experiences as a woman and as a non-physicist while at CERN. I feel that these are two separate issues, but I am having difficulty addressing them separately, since my experiences as a woman are so closely related to my experiences as a non-physicist in the way that people treat me here. I also want to say that these are my experiences, and others probably have had different experiences. CERN is a very large organization, with a wide variety of people. Most people I’ve met here have been awesome.
Before I came to CERN, I did not really consider myself a feminist. Of course, I believed in equal rights for men and women, but I believed that we were already most of the way towards the goal of equality and living in harmony. Having worked at CERN for several months, I no longer feel quite so optimistic.
I want to say right away that I have never really felt overtly sexually harassed while at CERN. I have not noticed any displays of blatant sexism. But I have noticed displays of subtle sexism and male privilege. There have been a lot of really awkward, uncomfortable, and sometimes creepy attempts at flirting. In social settings, I’ve never felt more constantly objectified, hit on, and creeped on than while at CERN. In the two and a half months I’ve been here, there has been only one incident that made me extraordinarily uncomfortable and angry.
But I also feel like people here, men especially, treat me like some sort of novelty item. Like because I am not a physicist, I have nothing substantive to contribute to CERN, but it’s cute that I try. I am often on the receiving end of a metaphorical condescending pat on the head when I explain that I am at CERN to do education.
I have felt objectified and dismissed outside of CERN, as well, but it feels much more prevalent here. I suspect that this is because of sheer numbers. I am very outnumbered here (both as a woman and as a non-physicist), so it makes sense that these kinds of comments are directed at me more often than they would in a setting with a more level male to female (or scientist to non-scientist) ratio. (I had a similar experience a couple of years ago when I worked at a movie theater that had a high male to female ratio.)
Roughly 20% of CERN personnel is female. That is not a very high number. But with such a low percentage of women, I’m not too surprised that CERN has a real “boys’ club” feeling. Of the 21% of the staff which are women, only about 40% are in actual physics or engineering positions. The other 60% are in office or administrative work. If I was staff (I’m only an intern), I would be part of that 60%. The vast majority of my friends and members of my social group here have a Ph.D. in physics, or will have one soon.
Most of the men that make uncomfortable or dismissive comments toward me do not seem to be aware that they are doing it. They are just being their awkward geeky selves, and honestly don’t know how to respond to the fact that I am both not male and not a physicist at the same time, while concurrently hanging out with them, at CERN of all places. Like, why would I choose to hang out with physicists when I am not one? At first, not being used to being flirted with all the time, I was flattered. Very quickly, it became exhausting. Sometimes (actually, all the time) when I’m drinking a beer and hanging out, I prefer to do so in a comfortable, safe, judgement-free environment.
I was very excited to be at CERN for the summer. I am still excited. I love it here and I wish I could work here forever. But I did not expect to be uncomfortable or creeped out on a weekly basis. I did not expect to be hit on by a large proportion of the men I saw in a social setting. I did not expect that CERN would start me on the road to being a cynical feminist, a type of person I previously dismissed, but which I now understand.
Some related links for you to peruse:
The Large Hadron Collider runs on woman power, CERN Courier, 2008
Power and prejudice: women in physics, CERN Courier, 2007
Looking at High Energy Physics from a gender studies perspective, CERN Colloquium, 2011