Professor Prajval Shastri, astrophysicist and adjunct professor at Australia’s International Centre for Radioastronomy Research (ICRAR), is often confounded by the advice senior physicists, mostly men but also women, sometimes provide to aspiring women.
“I constantly encounter colleagues who mentor young men to ‘stick to your passion and press on’, but to women they say, ‘you need to work hard to be in physics because you will have to manage both family and research’,” she says.
“Are they implying that men of future generations will continue to abdicate their life responsibilities at the expense of the women in their families?
“I’ve even heard women being told to pick computational physics because it allows time for caregiving chores while the computer crunches through the numbers.”
Professor Shastri is based in Bengaluru, India. Before joining ICRAR she enjoyed a long and distinguished career at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics. The extreme disproportion between men and women employed in physics around the world is a product a flawed meritocracy, she says. Gender disparity is present right across physics – in academia, industry, and in outreach to lay audiences. But the problem is at its worst in the higher echelons of prestige and institutional hierarchy.
“Barriers to success for women physicists are inherent and structural,” she explains.
“When you unpack gender, many additional dimensions along which marginalisation can occur are revealed. Privilege within physics emerges along multiple pathways, but it is invisible to the privileged.”
Direct consequences of this trend are that the physics profession is not welcoming to all people, and many who enter the discipline are unable to thrive. Despite the barriers she has had to confront, Shastri is recognised as one of the leading authorities on the physics of giant black holes in distant galaxies.
Often, though, she ponders the consequences of that male-inflected career advice.
“For example, gendered mentoring as above, which really is bad mentoring, has no consequences for the mentor,” she notes, “even when there is visible attrition of mentees directly attributable to it.
“It’s not a question of fixing the women; it’s a matter of fixing the structures, which will then benefit everybody and therefore the practice of physics itself.”