Nobel Laureate Donna Strickland: Yes, Women Are Joining Physics. But We’ve Got Work to Do
Donna Strickland made headlines in October for becoming only the third woman in 117 years to win a Nobel Prize for physics, for her work with high-intensity laser pulses that “smack the electrons right off the atoms.” (She shared the award with American physicist Arthur Ashkin and Gérard Mourou of France.) But, appearing at the 2018 Fortune Global Forum in Toronto, she says she’s far from satisfied with women’s progress in the field.
Of the 844 people who have won Nobel Prizes, fewer than 50 are women. Of those, just 20 are in scientific fields. And at the University of Waterloo, where she serves as associate professor, there are seven female professors in her physics and astronomy department of 42.
“I do think it’s changing,” she told Fortune editor-in-chief Clifton Leaf. “I was the first full-time female professor in physics. We had a half-time woman in astrophysics there, and she had to fight to get the job. She brought her own money to start with.”
The Nobel laureate offered the story of her own hiring as evidence for the persistent gender imbalance in the field.
“I know how few women they actually interviewed,” Strickland said. “We go for lunch. Gretchen Harris was on the committee to help hire me. Another [male] colleague said, ‘Come with me and we’ll take the coat into the coat room at the university club. And Gretchen said, ‘No, she’s not going to follow you, she’s going to follow me.’ They had this whole argument. And when I finally followed Gretchen—which I could tell that was what I was supposed to do—then I realized that it was the women’s’ room. And when John comes out, he goes, ‘It’s good that you didn’t follow me. I never noticed it was the men’s room.’ And so I went, ‘Boy, you’ve obviously brought a lot of women here before.'”
Since her hire, Strickland said she’s worked to bring more women into her department. Ocular expert Melanie Campbell joined from the university’s optometry department. Kostadinka “Dina” Bizheva, who specializes in optical imaging, and Zoya Leonenko, who specializes in biomedical nanotechnology, also joined.
“So really, it’s now almost every year, we’re bringing on another female [professor],” Strickland said.
But that’s far from sufficient, Strickland said: “We still only have less than 30% women, even as undergraduates. It’s very hard to get too far along in getting more than that. In Canada, [physics] is about 17% women right across Canada. And that’s probably what it is in the United States, I would guess.”
But change is afoot, even in Strickland’s own home: Her daughter Hannah is a graduate student in astrophysics at the University of Toronto. The dynamic harkens to another mother-daughter physics duo: Marie and Irène Curie, who each won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
“People have said to Hannah, ‘Well now you have a role model,'” Strickland said, chuckling. “And I’m like, ‘Well let’s put some pressure on the girl.'”
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