A senior Italian scientist has been suspended after he sparked fury during a presentation at Cern, the European nuclear research center in Geneva when he said physics was “invented and built by men, it’s not by invitation”.
Prof Alessandro Strumia of Pisa University claimed during a seminar on gender issues in physics that male scientists were being discriminated against because of ideology.
Cern issued a statement on Monday suspending Strumia with immediate effect pending an investigation for his “unacceptable” presentation, which was “contrary to the Cern code of conduct”.
“Cern always strives to carry out its scientific mission in a peaceful and inclusive environment,” it said. However, attendees questioned why he was allowed to speak at all, given that his views are widely known.
Strumia told the audience, mostly comprising female physicists, those female researchers in Italy tended to benefit from either “free or cheaper university” education, while Oxford University in England “extends exam times for women’s benefit”.
Strumia defended his comments, telling the Guardian that his detractors were “trying to paint me as a monster who discriminates against women” and that his presentation of “facts” was in response to statements made about men discriminating against women.
He said data showed male and female scientists were equally cited in presentations, and that women were favored when it came to hiring. “This is not the message they wanted [to hear] at this conference,” he said.
Strumia, who regularly works at Cern, said claims by a participant at the event that the sphere of physics was second only to the military for sexual abuse were “totally absurd”.
He said: “These people are so worried about problems that don’t exist. What I actually said has a good purpose. We are not discriminating, women have been helped for years.”
Cern, whose director general is the Italian physicist Fabiola Gianotti, described Strumia’s presentation as highly offensive and removed the slides used in his talk from its website.
It said: “The organisers from Cern and several collaborating universities were not aware of the content of the talk prior to the workshop. Diversity is a strong reality at Cern and is also one of the core values underpinning our code of conduct. The organisation is fully committed to promoting diversity and equality at all levels.”
However, the slideshow was circulated online, with one sentence saying that prominent female physicists, such as Marie Curie, were “welcomed only after showing what they can do, got Nobels … ”
Strumia claimed he had been overlooked for a role in favour of a woman and that anyone who spoke out was attacked, censored or risked losing their job. “I like physics and science because everyone can do what they want. I don’t like it when there’s social engineering to decide how many men, women and categories there should be,” he said.
Dr Jessica Wade, a physicist from Imperial College London who attended the event, said Strumia’s presentation was terrifying and simplistic, and that she felt awful for “every young high-energy physicist in that room” who would have had “all of their enthusiasm sucked away”.
“Only those who have done an academic presentation can understand the sense of terror, and then absolute joy, that you get presenting your research to a field of experts,” she said.
“It’s such a rush, [especially when] you realise that you’ve done a cutting-edge piece of science that no one’s ever done. But to have all of that enthusiasm sucked away because someone tells you that you are only there because you are a woman is the most horrible feeling in the entire world.”
She added that he drew upon discredited research and that it was unjust to refer to somebody’s number of citations as a metric for ability given that the whole process of peer reviewing is biased against women and non-westerners in the first instance.
“I have no personal vendetta against this man, I just don’t like the toxic and incorrect messages he propagates,” she said after it emerged Sturmia had been suspended. “I’d rather he had some training in unconscious, or rather conscious, bias and read Angela Saini’s Inferior.”
Profe Anne-Christine Davis of Cambridge University, who was in Geneva for the event but left a day before his presentation, said: “His comments were absolutely outrageous. They are the sort of comments that people may have made decades ago but, coming in this day and age, I just don’t know what planet he lives on.”
Davis said “there’s an unconscious bias going on all the time”, and that women often lose out on roles.
In response to his comments on sexual harassment, Davis, who was a victim of it at the early stage of her career, said: “He’s clearly someone who’s never been on the receiving end of sexual harassment, but actually quite a lot of female physicists have been.”
Gianotti became the first woman to hold the five-year mandate as director general of Cern in 2016. She said in an interview earlier this year that “fundamental sciences are still male-dominated”, but that she never personally felt discrimination.
However, Gianotti, who led Atlas, one of Cern’s two main detector projects that pinpointed the Higgs Boson particle, added that while her role “demonstrated there is no prejudice against women in those positions, some of my female colleagues had a much harder time than I did”.