A Singularly Unfeminine Profession: One Woman’s Journey in Physics, by Mary K. Gaillard

Tara Shears on the career thrills and frustrations of a female scientist who made history at Berkeley

September 10, 2015
Review: A Singularly Unfeminine Profession, by Mary K. Gaillard

You might think that an account of “one woman’s journey in physics” from the 1970s onwards could be the literary equivalent of a trip through the Channel Tunnel – dark, anonymous and rather short, unless subjected to unforeseen delays. Mary Gaillard, an American theoretical particle physicist who studied for her PhD in Europe, spent 10 years at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) at a time when the standard model was formulated. Not one to underachieve, she left for the University of California, Berkeley in 1981 and became its first female physics faculty member. So in terms of a journey, think of a heat-seeking missile zipping towards a target, rather than being marooned somewhere in Operation Stack.

Gaillard has written the story of her life to encourage others and to share the “excitement of doing science”. She has been involved in much of modern particle physics, and it’s all here in the text – symmetry, symmetry breaking, chirality, supergravity, hidden worlds. Also recounted is the hidden side of serendipitous discussions and interactions with physicist peers (some of whom are very much alive and publishing still). But what makes her story unusual is Gaillard’s gender: for much of her career she was the only woman in meetings and professional collaborations, and at a time when glass ceilings were more like knee-high trip hazards.

The world of physics in the 1970s thwarted her regularly. As a graduate student at Columbia University, she felt that “my professors didn’t take me seriously…they figured I might get married and have children”. To be fair, she did both, although neither lessened her determination. When her first husband started working at Cern, she moved there to work on her PhD thesis despite what she felt to be the “determined antifeminism” of the head of her theory group. She became sought after as a conference speaker and collaborator, worked on important papers, and started to spend time in the US, “increasingly uncomfortable with my status as a sort of ‘permanent visitor’ to CERN”. Although she later became a partially paid visitor, she didn’t get a permanent post – “CERN was simply ‘not ready to hire a woman’”. So, she moved to Berkeley and success in the US.

The flip side of a highly focused view is that sometimes other factors may lie just outside your vision. Gaillard complains that she had no students – perhaps unsurprisingly, as she didn’t work at the institute that employed her. She wasn’t awarded a Cern job when European peers were, but she doesn’t mention Cern’s policy of hiring member-state nationals where possible, which meant that others were eligible only in exceptional circumstances. She seemed happier putting up with sexism in the US than she ever was in Europe, perhaps because she didn’t consider herself blocked from making progress in America. These quibbles aren’t to detract from the unjust situations Gaillard found herself in, but merely to note that she sometimes focuses on the most hurtful part of a situation without taking a wider view.

It was clearly a hard time to be a successful theorist, and a woman, and Gaillard’s account makes for a compelling tale. She was talented, determined and tough – she made the system accommodate her. Life isn’t like that now, and we have people like her to thank for it.

Tara Shears is professor of physics, University of Liverpool.

A Singularly Unfeminine Profession: One Woman’s Journey in Physics
By Mary K. Gaillard
World Scientific Press, 200pp, £30.00, £16.00 and £12.00
ISBN 9789814644228, 4713221 and 4644242 (e-book)
Published 11 August 2015


Print headline: At Cern, no one hears you scream

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