Opinion | Think Physics, Think Man: Barriers to Women’s Participation in Physics Education

Title: Opinion | Think Physics, Think Man: Barrier’s to Women’s Participation in Physics Education

Author:  Eliot Jane Walton (she/her)

First Author’s Institution: Monash University, Victoria, Australia

Status: Uploaded to arXiv [https://arxiv.org/abs/2303.04400]

Eliot Jane Walton is a PhD candidate specialising in the study of hadron production at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). She works as part of the LHCb Experiment, and is particularly interested in the role of multiple parton interactions on the production of hadrons with more than one heavy quark. She is a member of the LGBTQIA+ community and advocates for gender and sexual minorities in physics. She lives and works in Wurundjeri country at Monash University in Australia. Find out more: https://eliotjanewalton.owlstown.net/

This article combines my personal experience as a transgender woman in a particle physics PhD program with empirical studies on the distribution and participation of women in higher education to speculate on the effects of gender in a physics classroom. I started my transition in the second year of my undergraduate physics education, putting me in the position of having experienced, and then lost, the male privilege that many physicists possess. While I had that privilege my undergraduate peers generally assumed that I knew what I was talking about, even when I didn’t. Meanwhile, post-transition and as a teaching associate for the same courses, I found that I was generally treated by the second year students I was teaching as if I knew less than I did when I was a student.

This experience, and others, led me to explore the research around how physics education is systematically biased in favour of men, and against women. For example, the way the history of physics is taught and discussed may be paraphrased as: “Newton did this, Maxwell did that. Einstein did everything, then Schrödinger wrote an equation, Heisenberg got lost, Dirac wrote another equation and Feynman made some diagrams.” That is to say physics has been an unbroken progression of ’genius’ men for four hundred years. Even when Marie Curie or Emmy Noether are included, the image remains one of (overwhelmingly male) ’genius’.

The problem is that by construction men more easily imagine themselves possessing the qualities of ’genius’ than women. The notion of ’genius’ used today is largely the production of Enlightenment and Romantic thinking: the emphasis is on the individual as the singular, miraculous point of production. An idea, a theory or a work of art springs from the mind of the ’genius’ often fully formed and perfect, like Athena from the head of Zeus. The ’genius’ is a loner, isolated and competitive in a way that men, who often lack the strong friendship groups and support networks typical of women, identify with.  If the work of a ‘genius’ is widely disbelieved or radical, the ‘genius’ takes this  as a sign that the work is valid as opposed to a reason to question it. In my experience, proponents of this idea of ’genius’ often identify with it and desire to apply it to themselves.

The fact that men can more easily imagine themselves in the role of ’genius’ has many (un)intended consequences. One is that, despite the persistent stereotype of women as ’chatty’ it is men who occupy the vast majority of time in discussions. As in my experience with competency, where I was treated as less competent the more senior I became, it seems that women are stereotyped as talking more despite the fact that, when measured objectively, they speak less than men. Perhaps contributing to the masking of this trend is the underlying expectation that the ‘genius’ men deserve more time to highlight their ideas.

Women are treated as an addendum to humanity despite being responsible for creating most of it. This attitude is well summarised by the feminist author Virginia Woolf, who in 1929, described the influence of gender in writing as: “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.” Her observation remains accurate. We have women’s history, women’s literature, women’s sport – and history, literature and sport. Despite this impression of insignificance, women are more numerous than men. Were the world equitable, every second person you see in a physics classroom, every second politician, CEO, Olympian and entrepreneur, doctor, lawyer, artists and actress should be a woman. In terms of numbers alone, that is what an equitable world looks like.

The final aspect of gender dynamics I examined is the notion of the “glass cliff”, which describes the appointment of women to senior positions in times of crisis. When nothing else has worked there is a tendency for organisations to do something truly radical: appoint a woman to a leadership position. Therefore, I suspect that women’s insights are more often sought in the classroom when physics problems become harder and when the team (usually mostly men) have no other ideas.

This analysis uses binary gender categories because they are the categories about which the most information is available. This analysis also examines only a handful of the possible aspects of any woman’s experience in physics, and these experiences will necessarily be different based on the student’s ability, nationality, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status, sexuality, gender expression, neurodiversity, personality and other factors.

I invite the interested or passionate reader to leave a comment and read the full article at the link above. I would love to hear from the readers of Astrobites. Tell me what you think! Although I ask you to please keep any comments polite and respectful.

Astrobite edited by: Isabella Trierweiler

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