APS News

What Makes a Physicist?

By Shannon Palus

APS March Meeting 2015 – How do you spot the physicists at a cocktail party? What do they wear to work, and what do they do when they get home? To a packed room at the March Meeting — some attendees in jeans, some in dresses, some in heels, some with thick-framed glasses and blunt stylish bangs, and many crowding in the back, standing — three researchers painted a picture of what it means to be a “physics person” with surveys, interviews, and an anthropological study of a physics department.

They each repeated the same observation: Physics largely seems stuck in a state of maleness. Each year, just 20 percent of all physics bachelor’s and doctoral degrees are awarded to women. The field is very white, too: There are fewer than 75 African American and Hispanic female physics and astronomy faculty in the entire United States. A feeling of belonging is what often separates talent that stays in physics from talent that stays out, recent research underscores. And it goes beyond those who end up pursuing a physics career: Skills learned from taking even just a handful of college physics courses are highly useful in a number of fields.

In a survey of 6,772 undergraduate students from all majors, Florida International University researcher Geoff Potvin quantified the underpinnings of the “physics identity,” and connected it to the likelihood that a student will pick physics as a career. He explored three main factors: performance, interest, and recognition.

As expected, interest in physics is correlated with a strong physics identity. But for women, competence in physics was slightly negatively associated with the identity. “Just doing well is not enough,” Potvin explains.

A student’s feeling of belonging — an example of what Potvin calls “recognition beliefs” — was the number one predictor to whether or not a student, of any gender, would go on to study physics. Recognition can come from teachers or peers; it can be as simple as an acknowledgement of a strong performance in a lab or on an exam.

That praise needs to accumulate to translate to a strong sense of belonging, said Michigan State University physics education researcher Vashti Sawtelle. “It is insufficient to have one positive experience.” Sawtelle offered the session’s refrain: “The data that I have is sad.”

To look at the specifics of what might alter the physics identity for students and faculty of different genders, McGill University education researcher Allison Gonsalves spent seven months in 2007 embedded in a physics department at a large North American university for her doctoral dissertation. She published some of that work in her 2014 paper, “‘Physics and the girly girl—there is a contradiction somewhere: doctoral students’ positioning around discourses of gender and competence in physics.”

For her research, Gonsalves asked graduate students to keep photo diaries of what it meant to them to be a physicist. They brought her snapshots of tea and cookies from department meetings, and of machines. One woman took a picture of her toilet, and explained that she had fixed it. A physicist, she explained, can fix things. “Being a good physicist entails performing physics,” says Gonsalves, “just in the same way that gender involves repeatedly performing things that signal our gender.”

The way that gender wraps into that identity came in her interactions and interviews with graduate students. After a tour of the scanning tunneling microscope, one told her that women rarely use the machine, joking: “We’ll have to perform a cleansing ceremony when you leave.’’

In an interview, a female grad student told her: “People don’t wear dresses, people don’t wear high heels” she told Gonsalves. “If I did those things, I would feel out of place.”

That student’s fears were echoed in a panel at the end of the session in San Antonio. One leader of a women-in-physics group noted that their group had a discussion about whether or not it is appropriate to wear high heels — regarded by most of North America as a standard option for business casual office wear — to an interview. On the reddit.com discussion website, one thread about the March Meeting gave gendered advice on what to wear. One entry suggests flip flops. But when casualness is linked to gender, it may not be as accepted: Another entry warns not to wear a skirt that’s too short, lest the wearer not be taken seriously.

Those stereotypes are knit into who students consider to be a physicist. In research published in 2009, Potvin found that female teachers received lower evaluation ratings, on average, than their male counterparts — regardless of actual classroom behaviors. New research from Potvin paints a “worrying picture”: Students who score higher on the physics identity scale exhibit bias against female teachers more strongly.

There’s little consensus on how to attract more women to the field of physics. In a survey of 7,505 students, Potvin looked at the effects of several approaches: single-sex classrooms, women-scientist guest speakers, role models, and discussions of the problem. Discussing the issue of underrepresentation was the only method that increases the likelihood of pursuing a physics career.

For Gonsalves, looking at gender alone is not sufficient. “If you are really truly going to understand peoples’ experiences, you need to use a more intersectional lens.” That means taking forces like race and class into account, and expanding the diversity issue beyond just women in physics.


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