As It Happens

Scientist's claim physics was 'invented and built by men' is false: physicist

"Actually, women have contributed hugely to physics throughout the whole of history, but for an incredibly long time we haven't documented or told those stories," said Jess Wade.

Alessandro Strumia suspended from working with CERN after delivering 'highly offensive' presentation

Jess Wade is a scientist who works to raise the profile of women in STEM. (Submitted by Jess Wade)

Read Story Transcript

Not only was Alessandro Strumia being offensive when he said that physics "was invented and built by men" — he was also wrong, says physicist Jess Wade.

"Actually, women have contributed hugely to physics throughout the whole of history, but for an incredibly long time we haven't documented or told those stories," Wade told As It Happens host Carol Off.

And she would know. The Imperial College London research associate has made it her mission to write hundreds of Wikipedia entries about women in science and engineering.

Wade was in the room on Friday when Strumia, a physicist at Pisa University, made the inflammatory remarks during a gender workshop in Geneva, organized by the European nuclear research centre CERN.

CERN cut ties with Strumia after the BBC reported the content of his presentation.

"CERN, like many members of the community, considers that the presentation, with its attacks on individuals, was unacceptable in any professional context and was contrary to the CERN Code of Conduct," the organization said in a statement posted to its website.

"CERN is a culturally diverse organisation bringing together people of many different nationalities. It is a place where everyone is welcome, and all have the same opportunities, regardless of ethnicity, beliefs, gender or sexual orientation."

'Sexist against men'

In a presentation aided by slides featuring cartoon depictions of feminist advocatesStrumia argued physics has become "sexist against men," claiming women are often hired over men who have more research citations.

Alessandro Strumia of Pisa University has come under fire for a presentation e delivered at a CERN workshop in Geneva. (Pisa Theory Group)

"However, the truth does not matter because it is part of a political battle coming from outside," he reportedly said. 

The audience, Wade said, was predominantly made up of young female physicists. 

"What's really, really toxic about that is he was saying that to an audience of young women working in science and he was saying the only success you'll ever have is if people make excuses for you and, you know, make positions for you just to have a woman there," she said. 

Strumia did not respond to As It Happens' request for comment, but told the BBC: "People say that physics is sexist, physics is racist. I made some simple checks and discovered that it wasn't, that it was becoming sexist against men and said so."

This is one of the slides from former Cern scientist Alessandro Strumia's controversial talk during a workshop in Geneva on gender and high energy physics. (BBC)

But Wade said, in arguing that men with more research citations are passed over for jobs, Strumia's methodology was more than a little flawed. 

"There's bias in who you cite. And you basically, when you're writing out the scientific paper, you cite or you reference the people that you know — the people that you're familiar with, the people that you see at conferences," she said.

"And more often than not, that's men. They cite men more often. They actually also cite themselves more often than they cite women."

Woman once hired over Strumia 

In fact, Strumia used himself as a "case study" in one of his slides, claiming that he had been passed up for a job that went to a woman with fewer research citations than him.

CERN has removed the slides from its website, but a PDF of the presentation has been saved and uploaded to Google Drive.

Alessandro Strumia cited the time he was passed over for a job as evidence that physics is 'sexist against men.' (Alessandro Strumia/Cern)

While Strumia's defenders say he's been censored, Wade says giving a presentation like that at a CERN event lends undue credibility to "pseudoscience."

She expressed concern about women who are forced to self-censor in the face of comments like Strumia's.

"You're in that tricky situation where you want to have an opinion, you want to be able to say this isn't fair and this isn't right, but at the same time you know a few years down the line this guy could be making the decision about whether you get research grants or about whether you get your next job," she said. 

"The really frightening thing is that the majority of the time scientists are silenced into not speaking up, and sexism and bullying and racism goes on so often that it's really time we called it out."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Jess Wade produced by Samantha Lui. 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?