Impediments and Prospects for Recruiting Greater Numbers of Women to Physics

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:
  • Give all students, particularly women, multiple opportunities to be recognized as good physics students. What might these opportunities look like? One might have students take the role of “expert” in group/classroom discussions or when solving problems. Or, if you, the instructor, feel that a student has a knack for physics, or has a novel or interesting way to solve certain types of physics problems tell them so! These experiences should not be overly contrived, but it is important to keep in mind that many students, especially women, may not have an internalized assumption that they can be “good at physics”, so reinforcement from an authority figure or expert could contribute to building recognition beliefs and, therefore, physics identities.
  • Try to ensure that classroom and laboratory environments are safe and supportive for all students. In particular, this may be something to pay attention to in peer-to-peer interactions, where students may consciously or unconsciously impose unfair judgments or assumptions on others. While it is not possible to monitor all peer interactions, one may try to ensure that no student get isolated or silenced in group work or labs, which are two contexts in which a solitary woman (or even a pair of women) may be marginalized simply by being outnumbered.
  • Lastly, one experience that we have identified as being positively predictive of women’s physical science career interests5 is the “discussion of underrepresentation” in the classroom. That is, we have found that women who report having been a part of a discussion of underrepresentation in their previous physics classrooms have significantly higher interest in physical science careers. We are still working to identify exactly what characteristics of this discussion are most important,6 but it appears that when women engage in an honest discussion that includes their peers (both men and women) to meaningfully explore why there are few women in some sciences, they may benefit by better understanding the reality of science practice and cultural expectations of scientific practitioners. That is, women may come to understand more clearly that social issues and cultural attitudes do have an impact on who chooses to participate in the scientific community and, in turn, that feelings of discomfort or disinterest in physics that they may have could be due to their tacit internalization of these issues, rather than something “inherent” to themselves. Then, these women may re-assess their physics-related choices.

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.


1. G. Potvin, Z. Hazari, R. H. Tai, and P.M. Sadler. Unraveling bias from student evaluations of their high school science teachers. Science Education, 93(5):827–845, 2009.

2. G. Potvin, and Z. Hazari. Student evaluations of physics teachers: On the stability and persistence of gender bias. Forthcoming, 2015.

3. G. Potvin and Z. Hazari, The development and measurement of identity across the physical sciences. Proceedings of Physics Education Research Conference 2013.

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.

6. G. Potvin, Z. Hazari, and R. M. Lock, Exposure to Underrepresentation Discussion: The Impacts on Women’s Attitudes and Identities. Proceedings of Physics Education Research Conference 2014.

Disclaimer – The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.