Why Girls Aren’t In Physics Classes: They Don’t Feel They Belong There
Why don’t more girls study physics? Some have suggested that the subject simply doesn’t interest girls. But recent research suggests there might be an underlying deterrent: a lack of belonging. Jon Cartwright explains in The Telegraph that female students may not feel that physics is a place for them:
“Take the following experiment, performed by physicist Amy Graves at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Four actors, two male and two female, play the role of physics professors for an unsuspecting class of 19-year-old students. The actors deliver identical videotaped lectures. After watching the videos, the students are asked to rate each lecturer’s performance.
When it comes to teaching, the ratings are unsurprising: the male students prefer the male lecturers, while the female students prefer the female lecturers. But when it comes to ability in the subject itself, stereotypes prevail. Male and female students think the male lecturers are more knowledgeable, are better with equipment and have a better ‘grasp’ of the subject. Graves’s study points to ‘confirmation bias': students think men are better at physics because that confirms their preconceived ideas.
Few would blame them. The best-known living physicists are male, be they eminent theorists such as Stephen Hawking or popularizers such as Brian Cox. Although female physicists do appear on television and radio, none has become a household name. The imbalance is of course a reflection of reality: in academia women make up 15 per cent of physics staff in general and a little over five per cent of professors.
The lack of female role models has a profound effect on girls choosing A-levels, says sociologist Louise Archer at King’s College London. ‘For girls in particular, physics is seen as being a very masculine subject,’ she says. ‘So the girls who like physics have to work a lot harder to balance it with that notion of normal femininity.’
Archer’s view is backed up by another US study. In 2010, a team led by neuroscientist Tiffany Ito at the University of Colorado split a class of undergraduate physics students into two sets. The researchers asked the first set to write for 15 minutes about cherished personal values—family relationships, creativity, politics and so on—and the other set to write about values that held no personal importance. Then they gave all the students a physics exam.
In the second set, the male students outperformed their female counterparts by an average score of about 10 percent. In the first set, however, this performance gap disappeared. Why? The act of writing about cherished personal values is known to psychologists as ‘values affirmation': a confidence-boosting process that counters the threat of stereotype.
Ito’s study, which is published in the journal Science, suggests girls could be welcomed into physics with routine values-affirmation exercises. More generally, it suggests that students perform better if they are encouraged to recognize the point of their efforts. Although all students benefit from such context, it is those for whom the subject is a less common choice—girls—who benefit the most.” (Read more here.)
I wrote earlier on The Brilliant Blog about the importance of belonging to learning, and described ways to cultivate that sense of belonging: read about it here.
And what do you think—are girls and women hampered in the study of science by a sense that they don’t belong?