The Identity Gap: How feelings of belonging push women out of physics

“You’re too pretty to be a physicist”

“Why are you in graduate school if you’re just going to leave once you have kids”?

“You don’t look like you study physics. I mean that as a compliment”

If you’re a female physicist, odds are you’ve heard something along the lines of this. Oof. In a recent discussion on twitter, women shared micro and microaggressions they’ve heard about their career paths, and unsurprisingly, the results weren’t great. It’s no secret that STEM is a male-dominated field, physics especially. You’ll see it right away when you walk into Physics 101 at any university. While other disciplines are seeing significant increases in female representation, physics has been the slowest discipline to show any progress. A new study from Physical Review PER shows that a lack of feedback and recognition contributes to a large gender gap in physics.

There are many reasons why this is the case. As a society, we’re not great at teaching physics. Traditional methods of teaching physics don’t work for everyone, especially women and underrepresented minorities.

So how do we do better? We look at it from every angle: we work to improve attitudes towards intro physics classes, we teach classes in a way that improves student’s understanding of content, and we work to reduce barriers for students entering and thriving in physics. The lack of women in physics is not because women aren’t interested in physics. Its because the culture of physics pushes women out, whether its the alienation, discrimination, or simply blatant sexism that comes with being in the field. While programs seek to get more women interested in physics, they still struggle to support women pursuing careers in the field, inevitably continuing to fuel the “leaky pipeline”.

One of the most important factors that affect student experiences in STEM fields is a feeling of belonging, a feeling of identity. If you see yourself as a “physics person”, odds are others will see you that way too.

So what does it mean to be a physics person? Lots of things, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s define it as a person who believes they are capable of understanding physics concepts, and completing physics tasks. In this case, belief is important. Someone may be competent at all these tasks, but if they do not believe it for themselves, they can’t have the same sense of belonging as their peers.

Lead author Dr. Zeynep Kalender began her physics career in particle physics, but when she moved to the USA to continue research, she decided to focus on diversity issues in the field. After learning about all the challenges women and underrepresented minorities face in STEM, she realized how much of her own experiences were reflective of larger, systemic issues in STEM, “When you are in it, and too young in the field, you do not associate personal doubts and hesitations in your research abilities with these external factors [harassment, sexism, biases, etc.]”.

Past studies have found that women tend to believe they are less competent than their male peers, regardless of their actual performance. In this recent study, researchers found a similar gender gap, but not in female identity, but in perceived recognition. For all metrics, women believed that their peers viewed them as less competent. This perception is linked to an overall lack of interest and lower beliefs in their own competency. Regardless of whether their peers actually view them in this way, these negative views degrade feelings of identity in STEM.

It means that in the classroom, students need to receive more feedback. While this study shows that women especially benefit from more positive feedback, opportunities for positive reinforcement benefit everyone. To make physics students feel a larger sense of belonging, they need to be recognized for their work. To change this, we need to look at top-down approaches to improving campus culture, from the department head to the undergraduate student.

While instructors have a larger control on the course, TAs have more opportunities to interact with students. A negative interaction with a TA can be detrimental to a student’s experience in the course, as researchers observed during interviews with students. Students in physics often suffer from the expectation to be “brilliant”, and lose out on learning opportunities for fear of sounding dumb to their peers. In an environment where students can already feel out of their depth, a supportive TA can make all the difference.

To make real changes, universities and institutions must teach their staff about the intersectional impacts of bias. The authors suggest hosting professional development workshops to train instructors and TAs about unconscious bias, classroom interventions, and other issues of equity and inclusion. While there isn’t a one size fits all approach to achieving gender parity, there are tons of ways we can start making a healthier and more equitable classroom environment, so why are we waiting?

–Lissie Connors

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