Gender and unconscious bias in quantum science

As the start of our new series on humans in physics, I would like to give a personal opinion on the lack of (gender) diversity in the natural sciences and its connection to the very human phenomenon of “unconscious bias”. I wrote this article for celebrating “Diversity Day” in the quantum science research cluster in Munich.

Focusing on the gender aspect of diversity, my field (condensed matter theory) is very male dominated, even compared to the Physics community as a whole. Most specialized conferences I have been to had less than 5% female attendance, often with only one or two female speakers. This trend even persists into the age of video conferences: at a recent video talk by one of the founders of the field, only two out of one hundred attendees were women. Moreover, of the twenty-odd collaborators he showed to have been involved in his work, all were men.

As this is not a phenomenon restricted to specific countries or universities, it begs the question of why the field attracts so few young female students. Is it a pronounced “genius cult”, that women fight shy of, where only individuals can be awarded a professorship or the Nobel prize, and group efforts are often left unrewarded? Is it because collaboration is not rewarded as it could be and too often becomes competitive? Or maybe is it that men find the strong programming component more gripping? Maybe it is none of these, but simply a case of unconscious bias and self-replication. We (subconsciously) select those who are most like us, and as professors choose their PhD students and professors choose their future peers, male dominance is perpetuated until, conscious of the bias, efforts are made to affect change.

Being part of some of the selection committees at the Munich Centre for Quantum Science and Technology (MCQST, a recently funded excellence cluster bringing ~60 Mio. € of research funding to the Munich area) as a Phd representative, I feel that such biases are increasingly considered. In the last committee, the presence of a diversity coordinator meant that concerns around subconscious preferences were raised more often by all members of the committee — not only the ones around gender, but also origin and cultural differences were mentioned. This lead (in my view) to a more diverse and fair selection — without resorting to positive discrimination. Making unconscious bias conscious as well as actively encouraging underrepresented groups in science to apply to high-level funding opportunities seem to be some of the cheapest and most efficient ways to increase diversity in science (as Tomas Brage, one of the authors of the EUs diversity in science study, shared with us at one of the MCQST conferences) — and I hope MCQST continues to implement them in the years to come.

This post appeared on http://www.manybodyphysics.com, our blog revolving around everything involving the science of many (quantum) things interacting with each other. Currently, we are starting a new series on “Humans in Physics”, discussing how life as a scientist is actually like. Contact us if you want to join our collective!

Trying to make sense of quantum physics with the help of green tea.