It is well-documented that women are underrepresented in STEM, particularly in physics and quantum, although thankfully it is to a lesser degree today than it was many years ago. In the 1930s and 1940s, some people believed that women didn’t have the proper brain structure for scientific investigation. Those opinions and other gender prejudices must have made it difficult for a little-known scientist named Margareth Arst to obtain her doctorate in physics in 1947 at the University of Vienna in Austria. According to NSF data, Dr. Arst was one of about twenty women who earned a Ph.D. in physics that year.
Women are not only underrepresented, they are also notably under-recognized for their achievements—particularly when it comes to the Nobel prize in physics. In 2018, Donna Strickland was awarded a Nobel prize in physics. She was the first woman to receive the award in 55 years. Since 1901, only two other women have won the Nobel physics award. Marie Curie won it (with her husband) in 1903 for the study of spontaneous radiation. Maria Goeppert won it in 1963 for her shell model of the atomic nucleus.
Compared to men, women are underrepresented at all stages of their careers (bachelor’s, doctorate, postdoc, and professor) across nearly every STEM discipline. As shown in the above chart, women are only above parity at the bachelor’s and doctorate levels for biological sciences, but below parity at more advanced levels.
Even though women are making progress, the fundamental issue causing the imbalance remains. The American Physical Society conducted a survey in 2019 that revealed physics is the most male-dominated of all STEM fields. One thing is for sure, in 1947, there were no support groups or formal mentor programs to encourage female scientists like Dr. Arst to pursue their intellectual passions. It was a matter of self-determination and personal courage if a woman wanted a Ph.D. at that time.
After she obtained her Ph.D. in 1947, Dr. Arst would have been surprised to learn that 70 years in the future, she would serve as the inspiration for her yet unborn daughter to start a support group for women working in the highly technical field of quantum information technology.
Today, at the age of 96, Dr. Arst is still a role model for her daughter, Denise Ruffner, the founder of Women in Quantum (WIQ). Ruffner previously worked for IBM Quantum, Cambridge Quantum Computing, and she is currently employed by IonQ. ” I think my comfort of being a woman in science and working in a man’s world comes from the fact that my mother was my role model,” Ruffner said. “She’s 96, and for Christmas, I give her physics textbooks, and she loves it. She’s still a complete nerd, and it’s really cute.”
There were additional reasons Ruffner founded Women in Quantum. She felt that women needed a vehicle to highlight their contributions in quantum. She also wanted to give women access to resources that would amplify their voices in the quantum community. WIQ also offers opportunities to collaborate and have fun with fellow female quantum academics, students, entrepreneurs, investors and government representatives.
I asked Ruffner what first gave her the idea for WIQ. She told me two occurrences made her realize that a group like Women in Quantum was necessary. “I was attending an IBM event several years ago and realized I was the only woman there. IBM believes diversity is important, so afterward, it gave me a mission to actively recruit more women. Later, I also noticed that leadership photos on many company websites were only men. That bothered me, so I decided to do something about it.”
Ruffner also sought the advice of her friend, André König, founder of OneQuantum, the parent organization of WIQ, who said, “I believe that it is vital to democratize Quantum Tech and make it accessible to anyone – no matter their age, gender, ethnicity, education or otherwise.”
There are several other support groups for women scientists besides WIQ. For example, IBM sponsors a group called the Watson Women’s Network, a community of technical staff, primarily based at the T.J. Watson Research Center. The group encourages a workplace environment that advances the professional effectiveness, individual growth, recognition and advancement of all women at IBM Research. The WWN also partners with senior management, human resources, and other diversity network groups to promote mentoring, networking, diversity, knowledge-sharing and recruiting.
Details of the upcoming Women in Quantum Summit III
The Women in Quantum Summit III is a virtual event scheduled for December 14-16. You can register for free here.
Women in Quantum is a chapter of OneQuantum, an organization focused on promoting quantum research and the quantum ecosystem and dedicated to helping quantum gain acceptance and importance in the scientific and business communities. It’s important to point out that men are also welcome to join the organization or register for Summit III.
Honeywell Inc., a multinational conglomerate and developer of quantum computing hardware, is the sponsor for the OneQuantum chapter of Women in Quantum. IonQ, also a major developer of quantum computing hardware, is the sponsor for the upcoming Women in Quantum Summit III, along with Women in Technology International (WITI) as a co-sponsor.
WIQ Summit III features high profile women speakers, including founders of prominent quantum technology companies, government representatives, investors and leading academics working in various fields of quantum information science. Summit III will end each day with a virtual cocktail hour to connect attendees with each other on a one-on-one basis for discussion and relationship building.
Ruffner said the cocktail hour allows you to meet people you wouldn’t otherwise get to know and it provides a way to expand your network. “It’s also fun because you are randomly matched with people. Your bio comes up with your picture and their bio also pops up and you talk to each other for five minutes. After that, you are sent to a queue where you are matched to someone else.”
Summit III will also feature Anisha Musti, a 15-year-old New York City high school student. Anisha Musti is the CEO and founder of a quantum company called Q-munity. Her company is a 501c3 nonprofit striving to connect and teach young people about quantum computing.
The Summit III keynote speakers are:
- Sarah Kreikemeier, an IonQ mechanical Engineer who will discuss building quantum computers
- Carolyn Goerner, CEO of Practical Paradigms, an expert on the psychological feeling of inadequacy called the Imposter Syndrome
- Carolyn Chin-Parry, named Asian IT Woman of the Year and a PwC Digital Innovation Leader
Denise Ruffner provides more information about the upcoming Women in Quantum Summit III in a discussion with Patrick Moorhead and me on the Moor Insights & Strategy YouTube Channel—you can find the link here if interested.