CERN Events Encourage Next Generation of Women in Science

In physics, as in many other branches of science, there is often a huge gap between the number of men and women. At CERN, for example, only 20 percent of the community are women. In an attempt to encourage and attract more women to choose science—and particularly physics—as a career, CERN recently held events supporting both Gender in Physics Day and the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

In early February, 35 women from the facility commemorated the latter with a visit to local schools, inspiring the next generation of women in science with stories from their careers as physicists, engineers and computer scientists. The women first introduced the students to CERN and then explained their everyday work and how they became a part of the community. And most importantly, according to CERN, the women described what first interested them about the field.

“My motivation to participate in this program comes from the fact I am the mother of a 7-year-old girl, my sister works in education and I myself love interacting with kids,” says Marta Bajko, a researcher at CERN. “I personally love to talk about science and hope that I can capture their attention. I had the chance as a kid to be influenced by my mother to choose a scientific career; now it is my turn.”

From “Naturally I’m a Scientist”

“At the age of 16, I wanted to be a journalist; at 17, an architect, and at 18, I visited CERN and immediately knew that I wanted to work here,” says Manuela Cirilli. “I felt that the scientists here were leaving their mark on the history of humankind, by transforming our understanding of the universe.”

“I come from a modest family in a tiny village, and now I’m working in this huge laboratory,” says Jennifer Mertens. “I’d like to spread this message: whatever you want to do, you can do it if you stay focused on your goal. We can achieve gender equality by giving everyone the same opportunities.”

“It’s really important to talk to girls to show them that they can choose subjects that go against the usual societal stereotypes,” says Denia Bouhired-Ferrag. “For the Fête de l’Escalade*, my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter dressed up as a dinosaur rather than a princess. I was proud of her independent spirit and I’d like to keep encouraging it.”

“There are more and more female students, and that’s a good thing,” says Stéphanie Beauceron, “but the ‘leaky pipeline’ problem still exists. The number of women decreases with age and level of responsibility. One of the reasons for this is that it’s difficult to juggle a career in research with starting a family.”

Jennifer Mertens, a German accelerator physicist, works in the Technology department at CERN. Image: Sophia Bennett/CERN

Jennifer Mertens, a German accelerator physicist, works in the Technology department at CERN. Image: Sophia Bennett/CERN

Several of the speakers also shared both their experiences of building a career in science and opinions about how women are perceived in their discipline in a series of articles called “Naturally I’m a Scientist” posted on CERN’s website.

For Gender in Physics Day, held in late January, over 100 participants gathered at an event co-organized by CERN, ESO and Nordforsk, as part of the GENERA project (Gender Equality Networks in the ERA). The day involved a variety of talks, personal insights, a panel discussion and workshops on promoting gender equality and creating solid networks in the field of physics.

The directors-general of both CERN and ESO, as well as a representative for Nordforsk’s director, opened the event, which was attended by directors and participants from other EIRO organizations and from a range of institutes and projects.

“We are very proud that the event could bring together so many different institutes and organizations that face similar challenges in different contexts,” says Genevieve Guinot, head of the Diversity Program at CERN and the driving force behind the organization of the event. “Participants gave us the feedback that the event was inspirational, with a great opportunity to network and discuss ideas. CERN was perceived as a role model for building collaboration in the field of gender equality.”