Great news: CERN, the world’s foremost particle physics laboratory, has recently announced its first-ever female director.
Fabiola Gianotti, the highly-respected Italian physicist who coordinated the project that led to the discovery of the Higgs boson, has been elected as CERN's next director general. Gianotti will be the sixteenth person - and the first woman - to lead the European physics laboratory, based on the Swiss-French border outside Geneva. She starts on 1 January 2016 and will hold the position for five years.
The significance of this development cannot be overstated. CERN is a world-leading centre of scientific excellence, to which we are indebted for countless breakthroughs in fundamental physics, and even for the invention of the internet. In Gianotti’s words, CERN is "a source of pride and inspiration for physicists from all over the world, a cradle for technology and innovation, a fount of knowledge and education, and a shining, concrete example of worldwide scientific cooperation and peace.” About time, then, that it has an inspiring woman at its helm.
Of course the odds were stacked against her; physics is a field in which women are notoriously under-represented. In the ATLAS team (the team that discovered the Higgs boson), for example, only 20% of the scientists are women. And particle physics has a particularly bad reputation - as one of Gianotti’s colleagues put it: “If a man makes a mistake, it is just a mistake. If a woman makes a mistake, they get massacred.” And ’twas only weeks ago I lamented the lack of female Nobel laureates in Physics; unsurprisingly, though, Gianotti has been considered a strong candidate for some time.
Here’s hoping the tide is starting to turn for women in physics!
Gianotti's appointment has been welcomed by other physicists. "I think that Fabiola is an excellent choice," particle theorist John Ellis from King's College London and CERN told physicsworld.com. "She is an outstanding scientist and communicator, who has demonstrated her leadership qualities as spokesperson of the ATLAS experiment." Former CERN director-general Chris Llewellyn Smith, who was head of the lab from 1994 to 1998, says that he is "delighted" by the announcement. "She will do a great job," he adds.