Keeping women in physics is more than a number game

Physics 15, 78

Women still feel out of place in the introductory physics class, which involves more women than men. This means that we need to do more to feel the physics classroom comprehensively.

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Women tend to feel more out of place in the physics classroom than men, even when they make up the majority.

Despite decades of attempts, US universities have barely moved their needles to the proportion of women who have studied physics and made it their career. According to the latest data from the National Science Foundation, 21 percent of 2018 Physics Physics was awarded to women, an increase of only 2 percentage points from 2008 figures. Studies also show that women are more likely to feel out of place in physics lessons than men. This is directly related to this underestimation.

All of these previous studies considered physics lessons in which men dominate the lecture room, leaving the question of whether the results could differ if women make up the majority (Figure 1). .. To investigate the problem accurately, Sonja Cwik and Chandralekha Singh of the University of Pittsburgh surveyed students in two essential introductory physics courses in the Department of Biological Sciences. About two-thirds of the participants were women. [1, 2].. They found the same result. Women tended to feel that they did not belong to the room, and instructors did not think they should be there.

Researchers say that the main reason women feel like “scammers” is the perpetuation of negative social stereotypes about female physicists by instructors through their educational style. .. “Physics departments and physics instructors are unaware of their role in perpetuating the gender gap,” says Shin. However, the duo believes the problem can be easily fixed. “We need to create a comprehensive culture where it’s clear that everyone belongs,” says Shin.

For their research, Cwik and Singh conducted two studies. The first survey was completed by 814 students (64% of women) who examined their affiliations and took introductory physics classes. The second survey was conducted in another class of 827 students (67% women) who were asked about perceived perceptions. Students asked if others thought they could succeed in physics. In both cases, students were surveyed at the beginning and end of the course. Cwik and Singh also conducted one-on-one interviews with students to access the student’s high school grades (GPA), which is a common measure of academic performance, and the final grades in the introductory physics class.

Analyzing first-class data, Cwik and Singh found that women there reported less attribution than men. This sense of belonging predicted lower final grades for women than for men, even though women have an average high school GPA. Also, from the beginning to the end of the class, men’s sense of belonging increased, but women’s sense of belonging did not change. “I’m a little worried that women are getting better throughout high school, but worse in this physics course,” says Cwik. “Clearly there are some disconnections.”

The duo found the same disconnect in another class. In that case, the perceptual perception of women was significantly lower. This perceived perception diminished during the course of the class, with a larger gender gap at the end than at the beginning. Again, the woman got a lower grade but had a high school GPA. These results clearly show that physical identity “has little to do with the numerical representation of different groups of people in the class,” says Shin.

So what is the cause? Both Cwik and Singh state that one major factor is the learning environment. Studies have shown that students with marginalized backgrounds are more likely to feel unsafe or judged if the learning environment is perceived as exclusive and unfair. “It makes them less likely to fully participate in what’s happening,” says Shin. “They feel like outsiders.”

One solution to this problem is to create a comprehensive learning environment that helps all students to excel. To that end, the instructor can open a course with a letter of recommendation from a past student or physics department and can make it clear to the student that it is normal to suffer from a problem. People at all stages of their physics career face unanswered questions. Customer feedback normalizes adversity and shows that it is a stepping stone to a learning journey, she adds. Cwik and Singh have seen that such efforts increase the sense of belonging and grades of female students. “Such short activities really help reduce the gender gap,” says Shin.

Other specific actions may avoid words such as “easy” or “trivial” to describe the exercise and keep students away from those who find the problem difficult. Also, ensure that all students are asked to answer questions equally. “If an instructor always asks John, Jason, Steve to answer a question, someone who doesn’t look like John, Jason, Steve feels he doesn’t belong, he doesn’t have what he needs. It’s possible. It’s excellent, “says Shin. She adds that this is the exact opposite of what the Faculty of Physics is trying to achieve. “We want all students to feel recognized and think they belong to.”

– Katharine Wright

Katharine Wright is Deputy Editor-in-Chief Physics..


  1. S.Cwik and C.Singh, “The senses of students enrolled in an introductory physics course in the Department of Biological Sciences predict their performance.” Physics Physics Pastor Education.resolution 18 18010139 (2022).
  2. S.Cwik and C.Singh, “Not being recognized as a physicist by instructors and teaching assistants correlates with the lower grades of female students.” Physics Physics Pastor Education.resolution 18 18010138 (2022).

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