Beyond the Binary: Gender in Physics Education

Title: Enriching gender in PER: A binary past and a complex future

Authors: Adrienne L. Traxler, Ximena C. Cid, Jennifer Blue, Ramón Barthelemy

Lead Author’s Institution: Department of Physics, Wright State University, Dayton, OH 45435

Status: Accepted to Phys. Rev. Special Topics [open access]

It’s likely you have read an article concerning gender and physics: perhaps you heard about the gender pay gap or have read about the difference in number of men and women in the field. Studies like these can tell us a lot about the differences that men and women face in physics– however, models like these tend to use an incomplete framework of gender. In physics education research, studies tend to examine differences in participation, performance, and attitudes toward physics between men and women. However, many of these studies do not question the gender binary, which does not include non-binary or gender nonconforming people. Today’s paper reviews previous studies on gender in physics education and suggests a more inclusive gender framework in future studies.

An Unquestioned Framework?

After reviewing studies on standardized tests and interest and retention, the authors point out that all of these studies tend to have several unquestioned (and often unspoken) assumptions in them: they do not question their measurements as the most appropriate standard; they do not value the individual experience and student identities highly; they do not question the binary model of gender. These three assumptions are explained in further detail below.

  • The Appropriate Standard. In several reports on the difference in performance on standardized tests between men and women, a gap is often noted between men and women. However this gap is often framed, either implicitly or explicitly, as a deficiency in the performance of women.  Many of the reviewed articles tend to assume that their  measures, which tend to favor men, are standard, which means that other groups are deficient or lacking. Often these papers will discuss remedies for women’s deficiencies on the tests, but will not discuss the culture of physics as a factor that might contribute to or reinforce the perceived gender gap.
  • The Individual Experience and Student Identities. The reviewed studies also do not value the individual experience and student identities highly. Often the identities of a student can intersect, such as gender with race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and LGBT status. By taking into account more individual experiences, researchers can then acknowledge the complexity and many facets  of experiences in physics. The authors write that researchers tend to simplify their analyses by putting student identities into simple, discrete categories of gender, race, and other categories. However, this process often hides the details and complexities in the data. When other aspects of students’ identities are considered, dimensions multiply and can reveal more detail.
  • The Binary Model of Gender. Additionally, these studies do not question gender as a binary trait. These studies tend to uncritically accept sex and gender as binary categories, when the reality is much more complicated. Gender is a spectrum based on the range of characteristics pertaining to masculinity and femininity, and that spectrum does not work for everyone. These characteristics refer to social and cultural structures as well as gender identity. Facets of gender are not necessarily fixed, so they may shift over time. (See also: this link for a frank discussion of an individual experience with gender and this link for some terms pertaining to the topic)

The implicit biases in this gender framework tend to exclude people who do not conform to the gender binary and undervalue the experiences of women. In order to combat this, the authors suggest models of gender that allow for a greater range and fluidity of gender identities.  This conception of gender is more up-to-date with other fields  and can allow for more thorough investigation of the complexities in physics education research.

A New Approach

After reviewing studies, the authors find that the general framework of these studies, which is usually unarticulated, reinforces gender as a strict binary and often conflates the concept with sex. This approach can cause issues in that it restricts student identities for the purposes of designing research questions, collecting data, and reaching conclusions. It also ignores the intersection of gender with other aspects of identity. These narrow lines of investigation were not necessarily consciously chosen, but instead have been carved by a culturally embedded framework of gender.

Although this binary model contains deficient implications, the authors note that it is difficult to abandon such an embedded concept. However, the authors give some suggestions for researchers in physics education pertaining to framework, methodology, and subject treatment that are briefly outlined below.

  • Explicitly state the framework. The authors point out that “when we fail to be explicit, we do not actually avoid having and using theories.” The reviewed studies may have not explicitly stated a framework for their findings, but they were indeed using one pertaining to gender. The authors note that people default to less specific and less examined beliefs under the assumption that everybody shares the same foundations for specifying research questions and evaluating evidence. However, this default can prevent researchers from insights into their subject, and by explicitly stating the framework, these researchers may be able to articulate biases more clearly.
  • Shift the perspective. The same set of data can yield very different insights depending on the  lens employed for analysis. With this in mind, the authors suggest that using different frameworks may provide more information on the role of gender in physics education. Using only one theoretical framework neglects the interdisciplinary aspects of physics education research.
  • Avoid “gap-gazing.”  Focusing solely on achievement gaps among genders can contribute to incomplete models and implicitly positions these tests as unbiased. This also often reduces student identities to discrete categories and does not focus on the nuance of different identities. Studies  that explore multiple facets of student participation and success in physics can give a more complete picture than reducing students to opposing binaries.
  • Do more qualitative work  and quantitative work that attest to the complexity of identity. Qualitative work can more accurately give information about the complexity of intersectionality and student experience, which can lead to further insight. Quantitative studies can also acknowledge the multifaceted nature of identity, bu should not reduce student identities.
  • Pay attention to  “what works” findings. For any department looking to become more inclusive, factors such as supportive departmental climate have been emphasized. These areas of interest also can provide researchers a stepping off point for further research by focusing on the experiences of successful students who do not necessarily belong to the “standard” population and focus on intersectionality.

In short, gender is not a binary and this should factor into studies of gender in physics education research. Studies that reduce this complexity of identity, pertaining to gender and other factors, down to dichotomous check boxes should be treated with caution.

The authors note that they hope that this range of examples will provide inspiration and some possible starting points for physics education researchers who wish to build on the foundation of gender in physics education. The authors go on to suggest a few papers, including a paper that avoid classifying student by gender binary expectations and another that explores a range of gender performances, as a starting point for researchers interested in exploring a fluid range of gender identities in physics. By keeping a range of gender identities in mind, it is possible to uncover new insights into the role of gender in physics education.

About Mara Zimmerman

Mara is working on her PhD in Astronomy at the University of Wyoming. She has done research with Heartbeat binary stars, and currently works on modeling the composition of debris disks. When not at her computer writing code, she likes hiking, baking scones, and making puns.

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