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CERN suspends physicist for sexist presentation

October 1, 2018

Europe's nuclear research lab is famous for its groundbreaking research into fundamental particles. Now it's in the spotlight for physicist Alessandro Strumia's claim at a gender lecture that physics was "built by men."

A man counts on his hand in an instructive manner
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/zbH. Wiedl

The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) suspended Alessandro Strumia on Monday for a presentation on high energy theory and gender that sparked an outcry over its sexist content.

In a statement, CERN said that the Italian physicist from Pisa University had been dropped from all activities at Geneva-based lab "with immediate effect, pending investigation into last week's event."

In a lecture given Friday and entitled "High Energy Theory and Gender," Strumia included a slide that read, "Physics invented and built by men, it's not by invitation."

He also suggested that women take gender studies classes — an interdisciplinary field focused on gender identity and representation — only to later complain about a lack of jobs in the scientific, technological and engineering branches, or so-called STEM fields. 

In his presentation, the Italian physicist also implied through various graphics that men face discrimination in the field of physics.

Women have been historically underrepresented in STEM fields and continue to be confronted with discrimination in the scientific world.

Read more: US astronomer and dark matter pioneer Vera Rubin dies at 88

Sexist comments at a gender lecture

CERN described Strumia's statements as "highly offensive" and said "that the presentation, with its attacks on individuals, was unacceptable in any professional context and was contrary to the CERN Code of Conduct."

The nuclear research institute added that it had no prior knowledge of the content of the lecture.

A graphic showing the percentage of men and women from various countries who have won Nobel science prizes

Strumia had delivered the lecture as part of a 3-day workshop at the Geneva lab focusing on developments in high-energy physics, such as string theory and cosmology, and issues of gender equality and equal opportunity. Discussion sessions addressed topics such as how to get more women into PhD and postdoc energy studies and how to change work culture for women and minorities within scientific departments and institutions.

Read more:  As early as six years old, girls believe boys are smarter, study shows

CERN lamented that the controversy raised by Strumia "risks overshadowing the important message and achievements of the event" that included talks by 37 other presenters. It removed the link to Strumia's presentation on its website. 

A man walks below a giant particle collider
CERN is famous for its giant particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, among other thingsImage: Getty Images/AFP/R. Juillart

The nuclear research center reiterated its own commitment to equal opportunity within an inclusive environment. The organization is currently being led by a female director general for the first time, the Italian particle physicist Fabiola Gianotti. According to statistics on its website, in 2015 women accounted for only 20 percent of CERN's staff members, a rate that has barely changed over the past 10 years.

Strumia's home institution, Pisa University, also announced Monday that after examining his presentation slides, it was proceeding with an investigation on whether Strumia had violated university ethics.

cmb/msh (AP, AFP)

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