The Twenty-Two Percent: A Review of Gender in Physics

Naval officer Gretchen S. Herbert speaks with young women participating in a Pre-College Experiences in Physics (PREP) Summer Program at the University of Rochester. Photo by U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Katrina Sartain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Note: This article will use some binary gender language (“women” and “men”). These were the genders studied and language used in the papers this article covers, but I acknowledge that this language does not encompass the whole spectrum of identities.

Recently, the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Texas A&M University published a study ten years in the making investigating the relationship between gender and performance in introductory physics courses. This article will review the results of the study, as well as the underlying problems that have led to the underrepresentation of women in the field.

The Texas A&M study was notable in its scope, gathering data from over 10,000 students from 2007 to 2019 on not just final grades but also exam scores. The overall conclusion of the study was that there was no statistically significant correlation between gender and performance in these physics courses. However, there were a couple of interesting details that add nuance to that conclusion.

First, the only course that showed a statistically significant difference was the algebra-based mechanics course, typically taken by students pursuing majors outside of the physical sciences, in which female students performed slightly better than male students. Interestingly, this was also the course with the greatest percentage of female students (55.6%), while the other three courses studied had 55.4%, 25.1%, and 19.2% female students. Additionally, the study found several instances of women performing better in comparison to men (though only by a small amount) when the instructor was female.

The study also sent out a questionnaire, which asked whether the students felt included, how they thought they performed (“well below average,” “below average,” “average,” etc.), and whether they felt their contributions were valued. For all the courses except algebra-based mechanics, male students rated their performance higher than female students, despite no difference in actual performance.

However, there was no statistically significant difference in feelings of inclusion or valued contributions (except in algebra-based mechanics). Women in these classes felt included and valued, but still had a distortedly negative perception of their performance; these feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt bring us to an important question: why was this study necessary? 

Women are currently underrepresented in physics. In the United States, only 22% of physics bachelor’s and Ph.D. degrees were earned by women as of 2018, a number that has made slow progress in the last 50 years, particularly when compared with other STEM fields (see figures below).

Graphs showing the underrepresentation of women in physics (2018). Image by IPEDS and APS.

Why are women so underrepresented? In 2016, Physical Review Physics Education Research, published by the American Physical Society, did a special collection on Gender in Physics, which is a great resource for those interested in learning more about this topic and willing to parse through some scientific papers. As the Texas A&M study showed, women are not less capable at physics than men, and yet the gap in representation persists. Why? A paper by science education scholar Angela M. Kelly in this collection gives a particularly thorough review of the topic from a socio-psychological perspective. Using social cognitive career theory, which describes the psychology behind career choice and performance, this study explains factors that make women less likely to pursue physics education and careers, and interventions that will make the field more accessible to women. 

On the psychological level, three key factors are self-concept and self-efficacy (psychological terms describing confidence in one’s abilities), outcome expectations, and motivation. In other words, people are more likely to pursue a field if they are confident in their abilities, see a path towards success and satisfaction in that field, and have some intrinsic (coming from within) or extrinsic (coming from external influences and perceived outcomes) motivation. 

Women often underestimate their physics ability, even if they are in fact performing just as well as men

Kelly’s article discusses how these psychological phenomena contribute to women’s choice to pursue or not pursue physics. Women often underestimate their physics ability, even if they are in fact performing just as well as men, as demonstrated by the Texas A&M study, among others. Stereotypes about boys being more suited to physics than girls can start as early as elementary and middle school, turning girls away from the field at a young age. A related issue is stereotype threat, in which anxiety about fulfilling a negative stereotype leads to worse performance. These stereotypes have at times been propagated by tests called concept inventory assessments, which are used in educational studies but may have demographic biases, as other studies have investigated. This is why the Texas A&M study, which used course performance instead and found results which negate this stereotype, is so important.

Additionally, classroom social environments are often hostile to women, who tend to prefer a supportive, collaborative atmosphere and often shy away from argumentative interactions and authoritarian teaching styles. Role models and familial support can be incredibly influential in the decision to study physics, but the lack of female physics teachers and women in physics more generally means these role models are often absent. These factors combine to create a lack of self-efficacy and self-concept and low outcome expectations for women studying physics.

Kelly’s paper also concluded that women tend to value intrinsic motivation (10), and are more likely to study physics if they see the applications and social relevance of the subject, something which is often underemphasized in physics curricula. This may be one reason biology and chemistry, which tend to emphasize medical and other applications, have been more successful in attracting women, as seen in the APS graph above.

It isn’t all bad news. There are some promising and exciting interventions to increase the number of women in the field. Kelly’s article emphasizes the importance of positive classroom environments which foster respectful collaboration, provide hands-on learning opportunities, and employ inclusive pedagogical strategies, such as asking about prior knowledge before beginning a topic and discussing student misconceptions. These classroom reforms have been shown to benefit both men and women (7).

There are some promising and exciting interventions to increase the number of women in the field.

Another strategy is to emphasize a malleable theory of intelligence, where ability is determined by hard work and improvement rather than a fixed level of talent, thus empowering women to overcome the stereotype-driven fear that they are innately less capable. Additionally, women would be more engaged by curricula which emphasize the social relevance and real-world applications of physics and strive for depth over breadth in topics covered. Teacher support and encouragement are also incredibly important; this can include having high expectations and giving critical feedback, which signal confidence and belief in students that they can improve and succeed. Women also need exposure to role models, particularly female role models, who enable them to envision their future in the physics field. Conferences and student groups geared specifically towards women in physics can help provide exposure to these role models and create a more supportive and welcoming environment.

Professor Lommen’s research group at the International Pulsar Timing Array Meeting in Pune, India, 2019. Photo from Lommen’s homepage with permission.

Andrea Lommen, a member of the Haverford physics department, spoke about her experience as a woman in physics and some of the disparities she has seen. At one conference, she was one of roughly 5 women out of 25 physicists (a fairly standard ratio in the field) and one of the more senior members in the group. One of the other women came up to her and asked, “Do you ever feel like nobody’s listening to you?” The woman was surprised to hear that Lommen felt this way all the time, and was relieved to know that it wasn’t just her, and that her ideas or her mode of expressing them weren’t somehow inadequate.

Some time later, a second and then a third woman asked Lommen the same question. Lommen assured them that not only had she felt that way herself, but other women at the conference had come up to her and asked her the same thing! Each person was shocked to hear that other women at the conference, who they perceived as so capable and well-spoken, had experienced this same apprehension. Afterward, Lommen noticed that the women not only felt more confident in themselves but started more actively speaking up for one another during discussions.

Lommen says she has frequently been in situations where a woman says something and is ignored, and then a few minutes later a man says the same thing and is commended. However, with increasing awareness of this type of (often unconscious) bias, she has also seen many wonderful examples of women and men alike stepping in when they see that anyone, including a woman, is being unfairly shut out of a conversation. Looking out for ways to be supportive and welcoming towards people of all identities is something that we can all do to help this issue, whether physicists or any other members of the Haverford community.

This article was edited by Emi Krishnamurthy and Lydia Guertin.