Rich, white men at the top of CERN

Women physicists at CERN are locked in a structure and culture that is highly male dominated at all levels. The women’s movement and gender equality have not reached the physics fields, according to a history of science researcher.

On the one hand, it may seem that CERN wants more women researchers, but on the other it “forgets” that researchers also have children. Many places are off limits to a pregnant physicist due to the risk of radiation. There are no pre-schools either, and work hours and meetings are often not adapted for employees with parental responsibility. (Photo: CERN)

At CERN, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, only about 10 percent of the physicists on the permanent staff are women (see statistics).

“CERN is an organization that is founded, developed, maintained, organized and operated by and for men. Women have come on board at a later time,” says Camilla Røstvik, a researcher of art history and the history of science.

She describes the male dominance at the laboratory as overwhelming.

“In 2012, less than seven percent of the physicists in senior researcher positions were women. Of all the academic employees at the laboratory today, only about 17 percent are women,” she says.

Her doctoral thesis was actually supposed to look at the situation of CERN’s artists, but gradually she became more concerned with the women physicists and their challenges.

“It took a while before I realized how extremely male dominated this large, international organization really is. I didn’t think I could ignore this. In fact, I have changed my project so I could also study the situation of the women physicists as the minority and outsiders at CERN,” says Røstvik.

The director is a man, the women are secretaries

When CERN was founded in 1954, no women worked there, except for a couple of secretaries. The first women physicists were not hired until the late 1970s, and the rise in the number of women researchers at CERN has been quite slow ever since. According to Røstvik, the percentage of women physicists has increased very little in recent decades.

“The situation of the women physicists at CERN is characterized primarily by their position as a very small minority at all levels. For instance, there are no women in CERN’s top management. The Director General (DG) is, and always has been, a man,” notes Røstvik.

She says there is a standing joke at CERN that “the Director General (DG) is God”. In her currently unpublished doctoral thesis, she reflects:

It’s difficult enough to practice female empowerment in the world outside, where leaders are men and God might be. But in an organization where the DG/God has always been male, one can presume that the angels, missionaries, followers and apostles also are. If man is god, woman cannot be. If god is power, woman has none.

“The world’s most important physics organization – which Norwegian taxpayers also pay for – is managed exclusively by a single, homogenous group: white men from the richer countries in Europe. Of course this has consequences! I’m convinced that who we are affects which questions we ask, and thus also the direction our research takes.”

“And why don’t we ask more about why women are so poorly represented in physics – not only at CERN, but in general and throughout history?” asks the historian.

She thinks it is striking how little the women physicists themselves at CERN are concerned about this.

Leave when they have children

According to Røstvik, one important factor keeping the percentage of women low is that CERN does little to create an environment in which researchers can combine their careers with family life and children.

Doctoral research fellow Camilla Mørk Røstvik does not think that the percentage of women at CERN will increase until there are better opportunities to combine work and family life. (Photo: private)

“As soon as women begin to have children, we see that most of them leave. It seems that very many women around the age of 30 think they have to quit,” she notes.

Røstvik says that there are no pre-schools at CERN either and that the pre-schools in the towns around the laboratory are expensive and mostly for those who are well off. Work hours and meetings are not set up for employees with parental responsibilities. The women researchers tried to open a pre-school at CERN, but the project was not continued, in part because CERN covers such a large area that travel from the pre-school to the office took too much time.

It is also a challenge to find a good work-life balance because most of the researchers work and live at one of the European universities, but spend several months a year at the particle physics laboratory.

What about the fathers?

“I see that the main responsibility for the children almost always falls on the women, who usually must bring their children with them when they work at CERN,” says Røstvik.

The child’s father often has a higher position or better income, and his job get priority if it conflicts with childcare and family life.

“I have asked the women if the fathers can’t help more, but it seems like they don’t see this as a real possibility, even though they often tell personal anecdotes about acquaintances with stay-at-home husbands,” she adds.

She says it is striking that the father’s role is seldom discussed at CERN, even though fatherhood and gender equality are discussed in many European countries.

Pregnancy a problem

Pregnancy can also be a problem at CERN. A pregnant physicist will find that she cannot perform some of the work duties, and many places in the laboratory are off limits to her during pregnancy due to the risk of radiation.

In addition, because women are away from work for many months in the pre- and post-natal period, women lag behind their male colleagues in terms of their career development.

“The women physicists I interviewed really love their jobs, but the ones with families are constantly juggling work and family life. So it surprises me that they say they are not used to talking with their colleagues about their families and children – or about combining children and work in the future. This is very different from the academic environments I’m familiar with in Norway.”

“I believe this kind of conversation is necessary and must take place if change is to occur. But it’s not happening here,” she says.

Lacks a language for change

In Røstvik’s experience, the researchers she interviewed were not very familiar with feminist theory, nor did they recognize the feminist writings Røstvik showed them as a basis for some of the interview.

“They lack the feminist and political language they need to change the situation.”

“It seems that the women’s movement we have seen generally in Europe has not reached the physics field,” says the historian. 

She asks whether the European women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s did not include the natural sciences. At the same time, she emphasizes that there have always been women in science and that they want the same things as male researchers: to advance in their careers and to find a balance between work and family life.

Røstvik was surprised that the women physicists said they do not talk about topics like clothes, make-up, sex, their bodies or their families at the work. The norm is to talk only about their scientific field and their jobs.

“I think the reason is that they are in a male environment as well as in a very intellectual environment.”

Adapt themselves to a man’s world

According to Røstvik, the women in scientific positions at CERN go far in adapting themselves to their male colleagues with regard to topics of conversation and aesthetics. She notes that theoreticians such as Sharon Traweek (Beamtimes and Lifetimes) have made similar findings. Røstvik thinks that by adapting in this way, the researchers lose some of their identity as women.

“They must either reflect the male environment in the way they behave and dress or choose to stick out as women and thus be ‘different’ from the majority. Most of the women adopt a kind of uniform; they show little skin, wear pants instead of skirts, and have short hair. This is often explained as being the most practical choice, but during my in-depth interviews, it came out that some women are nervous about sticking out.”

She writes:

If gender is a performance, women who want success at CERN are performing masculinity through clothing, speech, attitudes, values, haircuts, choice of work and social life. But once these women become pregnant, menopausal or in any way clearly step into the realm of womanliness, lines are drawn firmly in the sand.

Røstvik emphasizes that she does not necessarily have a bad impression of the men who work at CERN.

“It has more to do with gender balance. It’s about almost always being the only woman in a meeting, the only one who has to go home early, the only one who can’t take part in social activities. The only one who is pregnant.”

Røstvik also says that the researchers lack a formal women’s network. What little women’s advocacy work there is takes places in small, informal groups. The women are not effective as a pressure group, and their activities are not recorded in the institution’s archives, and thus will be invisible to posterity.

“In this regard, we historians have a huge responsibility to conduct our research in a way that does not make the visibility problem worse.”

Wants a feminist revolution

According to Røstvik, there is no reason to doubt that CERN wants more women, as well as homosexuals and ethnic minorities, on their staff.

“But you are not allowed to talk negatively about what it means to be a woman, homosexual or ethnic minority at CERN. This is an organization that does not welcome criticism. You are not met with open hostility, but they stop the conversation and freeze you out. You notice it when you are suddenly no longer treated warmly.”

“I have experienced some of this myself when I come as a researcher from the outside and begin to ask ‘unpleasant’ questions about women and gender equality,” she says.

She thinks the negative attitude towards criticism also makes it much more difficult to bring about change for the women at CERN. And as long as no major changes are made to adapt the workplace to the fact that women give birth to children, Røstvik does not anticipate that the low percentage of women in scientific positions will increase very much.

“A revolution of sorts is needed to bring about change at CERN. A feminist revolution,” says Røstvik.

Translated by Connie Stultz.


CERN, Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, is the world’s largest particle physics laboratory. The organization is a collaboration of 20 European countries, including Norway. The purpose of CERN is to support scientific cooperation between the European countries on research in the fields of elementary particle physics, nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry.

According to the research news website, Norway has paid NOK 150–180 million per year in membership fees to CERN in recent years. 

Established in 1954, CERN is located on the Swiss-French border near Geneva. From the outset the organization’s bylaws have stipulated that the research results are not to be used for military purposes and that they must be made available to the public. The World Wide Web was developed by a researcher at CERN.

CERN is headed by a director general who is appointed for a five-year term and a steering committee with two representatives from each of the member countries. All of CERN’s directors general have been men.

The first women researchers were hired in the 1970s. Figures for 2013 show that women comprise about 10 percent of the permanently employed physicists (“research physicists”). Of all the physicists in scientific positions – permanently employed, temporarily employed or associated with CERN – about 17 percent are women.

The overall gender distribution for the entire CERN organization is slightly more than 82 percent men and slightly less than 18 percent women.

The only official women’s organization at CERN is the CERN Women’s Club, which was founded by and for the wives of CERN’s employees. The club focuses on activities such as cooking, recreational walks and language courses.

The researcher

Camilla Mørk Røstvik is a PhD researcher in Art History & Visual Studies and The Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Technology at the University of Manchester.