Excellence and Gender Inequality in Science - Comparative Perspective
The standards of excellence, based on Western norms of meritocracy and understood as a synonym of the highest achievement, may appear to be measured by objective, neutral indicators. This belief is also based on the Mertonian norm of universalism, according to which “the acceptance or rejection of claims entering the lists of science is not to depend on the personal or social attributes of their protagonist; his race, nationality, religion, class, and personal qualities are as such irrelevant” (Merton 1973: 270). However, a number of studies on the elements of academic excellence – such as journal rankings, citation indexes, peer review systems and grant applications revealed that an idea of excellence as a universal and neutral standard of merit is a myth: it reproduces structures of inequality, including those based on gender.
In this context our article focuses on specificity of defining excellence in physics and its implications for underrepresentation of women in this particular discipline. By comparing qualitative data from different cultural contexts (Poland, Spain, Germany, Italy, France, Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, Romania), we will aim at answering three basic questions: how is excellence defined in physics? How different ideals of “an excellent researcher” affect women’s career in physics? What actions should be undertaken to overcome gender inequalities connected with measures that define excellence?
The data used are 87 semi-structured interviews conducted in twelve institutions in nine countries with both female and male physicists occupying various academic positions (from postdoctoral researchers and research assistants to full professors in physics) and specializing in many sub-disciplines of physics.