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When it comes to women in physics, Canada is roughly on par with its peers, which is to say that women are in the minority at all levels of physics. Look at socio-economic and racial diversity, and the results are even more bleak.
In her new appointment as Perimeter’s first Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Specialist, Shohini Ghose wants to use data and discussion to tackle what is proving to be a pernicious challenge. Ghose, who is also a professor of Physics and Computer Science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the director of the Laurier Centre for Women in Science, sat down with Inside the Perimeter to discuss this new role.
Inside the Perimeter: You want to bring conversations about diversity into the open. Why?
Shohini Ghose: I want to make it as normal as going to a blackboard and writing some equations. Let’s go to a blackboard and look at the latest data on inclusion. We know that diversity helps with improving performance across the board in many cases; physics is no exception. If there are people who don’t feel like they are able to perform at the level they could, or if they feel like there are some stressors to deal with, that hurts physics. The goal is to find a way where everybody’s performance is at the max. The bigger question is whether people are aware of those challenges. I think there is a broad assumption that things are fine and women have equal rights: if they choose to do physics they can. Perhaps there is not enough appreciation for the fact that it’s not a level playing field.
Inside: How do you explain that to someone who hasn’t experienced such challenges?
SG: My role is not to explain anything to anybody! It’s about facilitating conversations and building an open environment where you are able to come to it on your own. Different people come to these kinds of difficult discussions in different ways. Real change happens when the question itself becomes normalized.
Inside: Your appointment coincides with a broader Canadian push to explore diversity in science. NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada), for example, is looking at starting a version of the Athena SWAN program (a gender-equality charter for UK universities) here. How does Canada currently compare to other countries in terms of diversity in physics?
SG: I’ve seen research showing it’s on par with a lot of other English-speaking western nations. The most recent numbers I saw put the faculty proportion around 18 percent, which is low. There’s been a slow increase over the years, but there’s basically a flat line when it comes to women who are not white. It’s a little bit discouraging.
Different countries have different cultural contexts. We have to think about the Canadian context and figure out what is the environment for women, not just when they reach institutions like PI but well before that, when they start in school, why are they choosing certain majors and not others. It’s hard because we don’t usually collect these numbers in a broad way. That’s part of what Canada has to do better, I think: get numbers and understand the context better and see what is specific to Canada.
Inside: I was recently watching a talk by Jocelyn Bell Burnell and she said it’s time to stop inclusion efforts for women and instead bring science to women. Where are we on that spectrum between “fix the women” and “fix the system”?
SG: Things like our maternal leave policies are aimed at fixing the system; policies around training for unconscious bias, conversations around gender equity and harassment policies, these are about fixing the system rather than trying to make the women adapt to a broken system. But let’s be clear, those are top-down policies coming from the leadership. The “fix the women” piece is definitely big in terms of mentoring workshops and outreach to girls. I do agree with Jocelyn Bell Burnell: long-term, this is actually more damaging than it is helpful.
Can we just stop all the mentoring and stop all the support? No way. We need the Band-Aid until it is no longer necessary and we can actually address the health of the entire body. We need the Band-Aids for now. There’s also got to be bottom-up initiatives around conversations and speaker series and one-on-one sessions. That’s sort of a missing piece, that cultural conversation.
Inside: Doesn’t it get exhausting for under-represented people to always be explaining why they’re under-represented?
SG: Yes it is. It’s a double whammy: on one hand you’re under-represented and on the other hand the burden of fixing the problem is on you. It’s like going to hospital with an injury where you have to do all of the surgery and the healing. But a lot of social science research shows that real social change happens not when everybody buys in, but when a certain minimum number do. You reach a critical mass, kind of like physics, and suddenly there is a chain reaction. It typically is around maybe 25 percent to 30 percent of the population.
Inside: Really? Is that all?
SG: Yeah, that’s why I’m hopeful: 25 to 30 percent is kind of doable. Doesn’t that make you happy? This is how you convince people it’s not that impossible. Think about the LGBTQ movement. It’s possible to shift perceptions. This gives me hope.
Inside: Do you expect physicists to be open to exploring these issues?
SG: I think that the great strength of physicists is they tend to be open to new ideas. You have to be as a physicist. We all have our initial unconscious bias reactions and we like the familiar and we don’t necessarily like change; but if anybody can change I think it’s physicists. They’re always adapting to new ideas anyway. Here’s a new idea, go look at the data, test presumptions, be skeptical, if you don’t believe it, prove it wrong; but at least engage with it. This is an issue that has been around for decades, so I’m not claiming that we’re going to fix this in a couple of years. It’s a starting point. PI could be a leader in this area. PI is uniquely situated because it’s not quite a university, it’s not an industry: it’s a non-profit. It’s got this unique position to be able to use its very high profile as an institution to build change that works and be that shining example.
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Get your fill of pi (videos) to celebrate Pi Day, including great short videos from Hank Green, James Grime, Veritasium and Physics Girl, Matt Parker, and (of course) Perimeter Institute.