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Geoff Potvin, Florida International University
Few readers of the FEd Newsletter need to be reminded that the physics community continues to suffer from a dearth of women participants. Though women enroll in high school physics in large numbers (nearly 50% overall, though lower in advanced high school physics courses), this does not continue at the college level: women receive about one in five bachelor’s degrees, a proportion that has, if anything, crept slightly downwards for the past decade or more (a period in which the total number of bachelor’s degrees in physics has increased substantially from a historic low point in the mid-1990s). Many efforts have been made to try to recruit women by increasing their interest in physics or physics-related careers or by facilitating young women to have meaningful and interesting physics experiences, but these efforts do not appear to have overcome this persistent problem.
What are the root causes of this under-representation? Women on average perform very similarly to men in high school physics courses (and other math and science courses) but have been repeatedly found to have lower interests in the physical science domain in high school (and earlier). The attention of researchers has focused on the mechanisms by which young women come to have depressed attitudes towards physics. In this light, one might worry that attitudes which marginalize women in physics contexts may primarily come from more senior members of the science community (say, teachers or professors), and that these more senior physicists impose their gender-biased views on otherwise-unbiased junior physicists/students, who then internalize or at least have to accommodate these beliefs. However, my co-authors and myself have found that students exhibit clear gender bias in physics at the beginning of their college careers. We examined the attitudes of new college students in a particular context: by asking them to evaluate their (previous) high school physics teachers. What we found,1 and have now replicated independently,2 is that students (men and women alike) tend to underrate their women physics teachers by about 6% of the evaluation score, on average. This gap is not explained by actual classroom practices (some of which do impact students’ evaluations, as expected), student grades (also independently predictive of teacher evaluations), nor by teacher effectiveness (e.g. their effectiveness at preparing students for success and/or interest in college science). What this means is that students, by the beginning of college at the latest have already developed particular attitudes about the competency of women in physics-related domains to a sufficient extent that they show up in their evaluations of others. Importantly, this “evaluation bias” is present amongst both men and women evaluators, so women have internalized these beliefs in a similar way to men. Clearly, this effect is a concern for interpreting college course evaluations, but even more poignant (from the perspective of recruiting women to physics) is the concern that students are explicating these judgments with one another in a myriad of subtle (or not-so-subtle) ways in their peer-to-peer interactions, and that women in particular have already internalized the feeling that they don’t belong in physics or that they cannot perform adequately.
Another way that our research group has repeatedly explored students’ self-beliefs with respect to physics is through their “physics identities”, an interpretive lens that is very useful for understanding students’ physics-related choices.3,4 Pertinent to the current discussion, it has been found that women have significantly poorer physics identities; that is, women tend to hold weaker beliefs in themselves as a “physics” type of person, which significantly impacts the likelihood that they will pursue physics-related careers in college or later. Why is this the case? Students’ physics identities are, to a large extent, determined by three interrelated factors: their interests in physics as a subject, their beliefs in their ability to perform in physics contexts, and, most importantly, their beliefs in the recognition they receive as physics people. The latter, recognition beliefs, are the single most important predictor of an individual’s physics identity. Students who receive (or at least believe they receive) recognition for their competency and/or belongingness in physics, are significantly more likely to develop a strong physics identity, an attachment to physics as a pursuit, and to choose it for their careers. This is particularly important for women, who may be receiving less physics recognition throughout their education (or even receive negative reinforcement as we have discussed above) as well as in informal contexts (e.g. media, family, peers, etc.) throughout their upbringing.With these findings in mind, we have sought to explore ways to positively affect these attitudes such that women may begin to consider physical science careers in more appreciable numbers. Though there is much work still to be done in this space (and work that is currently in progress), there are a few classroom practices that may be helpful:
There are many other things that we might do to help recruit more women to physics, but these three suggestions, based in education research, may be useful for physics instructors to think about implementing and might sometimes be overlooked. Only through concerted effort, new ideas, and further research will our community be able to finally address our underrepresentation problems.
Geoff Potvin is an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and the STEM Transformation Institute at Florida International University. He is a member of the FEd Executive Committee and conducts research in physics education that seeks to understand diversity issues in the physical sciences, retention and success in graduate education, and the culture of STEM and its connection to the recruitment of future practitioners.
4. Z. Hazari, G. Sonnert, P. M. Sadler, and M.-C. Shanahan. Connecting high school physics experiences, outcome expectations, physics identity, and physics career choice: A gender study. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 47(8):978–1003, 2010.
5. Z. Hazari, G. Potvin, R. M. Lock, F. Lung, G. Sonnert, and P. M. Sadler. Factors that affect the physical science career interest of female students: Testing five common hypotheses. Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research, 9(2):020115, 2013.