Why Girls Aren’t In Physics Classes: They Don’t Feel They Belong There

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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?

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One Response to “Why Girls Aren’t In Physics Classes: They Don’t Feel They Belong There”

  1. Kathy Kitts says:

    A big and resounding “YES.” I have spent years studying this issue, observing in real time, and putting programs together to encourage girls in math and science. I firmly believe we start too late in imparting basic skills, in math especially. It factors in later when girls reach middle school, want to appeal to boys and are beginning to have trouble keeping up with math anyway. Middle school AND high school science and math curriculum need to be re-configured so ALL students interested in the subject are not prematurely turned off by not being able to take things like physics, chemistry, advanced biology, neuroscience.

    And, science (especially physics and chemistry) have to be taught with mostly hands-on experiences. Some people get abstract thinking later, but almost anyone can be brought along and taught.

    I taught Smithsonian summer camps for years–always to rave reviews by the students. We cultivated a sense of belonging by supplying fantastic opportunities to learn which was self-directed. Kids could learn and interact with any project, or table of “stuff.” Giving them this freedom allowed each girl to choose what she wanted to do. Eventually they finished with a topic and moved to another area. My co-teacher and I watched closely and listened closely to any negative talk, especially cross-gender. We would nip it in the bud by bringing out our “mom” selves. Social and emotional intelligence were constantly being developed too. So our girls felt connected and felt they belonged.

    I know this is true for high schoolers too. I had male and female friends in high school physics and chemistry class. Having male friends helped me to continue and succeed. When I hit college, physics was very hard for me, in part because I had a teacher who simply read from the book. I then tried the lower series of physics, and same thing. Tutoring was available, but I think I didn’t go because I was too embarrassed about not even knowing enough to form a question. I was a Pre-Med/Microbiology major at the time, and physics seemed like a big, tall barrier to my goal.

    I have since tutored in basic physics. There are some books out now that are great at breaking concepts down to very simple terms.

    I say all this because I know what the state of things are now, and wow–just wow. It’s such a huge problem that kids aren’t getting a good education that I think the only way to fix it ts to somehow allow access to computers and put curriculum online in bite-size pieces, on YouTube and the like. Kids choose and do what interests them. Maybe they go to school to take a proctored test.

    Anyway, there are solutions to these problems, and a lot has to do with the emotional and social development of girls, especially in their interaction with boys. No one should be allowed to make fun of others period, but especially in pre-ohysics and physics classes. Eventually all those kids in chemistry or biology can choose to go on to physics. Informal friendships need to be nurtured so mutual respect is too.

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