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Physicist Mary Gaillard Has Spent Over Three Decades Fighting For Women in Science

She was Berkeley's first tenured female physics professor, and she's still fighting for equality.

Humans of the Year

On a plane miles above the Atlantic Ocean sat Mary K. Gaillard. It was 1981, and the then 42-year-old physicist was on her way to the University of California Berkeley, where she would become the first female tenured physics professor in the school's history. After 17 years as a visiting scientist at CERN, the epicenter of particle physics, she couldn't put up with what she describes as CERN's refusal to hire and promote women anymore.

A year earlier, she'd produced a report on women in scientific careers at CERN, which pointed out that only 3 percent of staff was female. But the problems she encountered were not unique to CERN, and continue to affect women in science and tech today.

"It took me a long time to realize I was better than a lot of people who were getting hired. Once it sunk in, then I started getting very frustrated," she told me.

Even today, women make up only about 24 percent of the STEM workforce (that's short for science, tech, engineering and math) in the US—yet they form about half of the workforce overall. Gaillard has experienced some of this firsthand. In an interview with Motherboard, she recalled working as a visitor at CERN while her husband had a staff position, accepting a salary that was abysmal in comparison to male peers, and seeing men who were less qualified than her shoot up the ladder.

"It took me a long time to realize I was better than a lot of people who were getting hired. Once it sunk in, then I started getting very frustrated."

She detailed these experiences in her 2015 book, A Singularly Unfeminine Profession.

The now 77-year-old theoretical physicist is still at Berkeley. Her most notable work in the '70s looked into the properties of the six types of quarks (elementary particles that make up hadrons, which make up protons and neutrons, which make up atoms). "We also predicted the mass of the bottom quark. We did a lot of work on the properties of charm particles and bottom particles," Gaillard added.

Read More:  You Can't Close the Gender Gap in Science and Tech Without Equal Pay

Since then, her research has spanned antimatter, the Higgs boson, weak interactions, supersymmetry, and supergravity—all concepts that physicists are still grappling with.

In 1975, working with Benjamin Lee and Jonathan Rosner, she predicted the mass of the charm quark, one of the six quarks that make up the matter that forms our world. It was actually discovered three months later, a blink of an eye in physics. "It was a very exciting time," she told me.

In quick succession in the late 70s, she worked on papers that looked into the properties of the Higgs boson (which wouldn't be observed until 2012), collaborated on exploring three-jet events in the search for gluons (which glue quarks together), and analyzed CP violations.

Particle theory was a natural path for her. Even though she'd heard over and over again that physics was a male-dominated field, she liked it too much to give up, she said. "I was always good at math. I like things that are quantitative and well-defined."

"It was a long story with a lot of ups and downs. It turned out fine," Gaillard told me. "It wasn't until recent years when people come up to me and I realize I'm some kind of role model."

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