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Why we need to change the public’s perception of physics

26 May 2021
Taken from the May 2021 issue of Physics World where it appeared under the heading "Rooting for women in science". Members of the Institute of Physics can enjoy the full issue via the Physics World app.

Arushi Borundia says that while stereotypes will always exist, more can be done to change the public’s perception of what a physicist is

woman working at a computer data centre
Weight of expectation Women in science can feel they carry a responsibility for all women in their field. (Courtesy: iStock/SeventyFour)

Physics is more stimulating than ever and the world increasingly depends on it. Yet, sadly, many women still do not feel inclined to pursue the subject. My own motivation for studying physics at university was my inquisitive nature: I simply enjoy delving into mathematics to understand how the world works. However, studying a subject like physics, where men dominate, can be intimidating. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed and question whether I even belong.

I have experienced biases during my time in physics, such as being told that I am too “girly” to be a physics student. Gender bias can also have a big impact on women when it comes to looking for jobs. Women who want to pursue a research career in physics, for example, must publish more papers in top-tier journals than men just to be accepted for the same job position. The gender gap can leave aspiring female physicists feeling inadequate and isolated.

Yet this is a problem not exclusive to physics: women in other sciences go through similar issues. We as individuals feel as though we are carrying the hopes, aspirations and responsibilities for all women in our field. Hiding from the spotlight or “blending in” can only make matters worse. It just means that examples of female success, such as the African American female mathematicians and computer scientists who worked at NASA in the 1970s, end up being ignored or forgotten.

While studies have revealed no difference in the capabilities of girls at physics – they perform as well if not better in exams than boys – physics stands out as the second most popular A-level subject for boys in the UK but only the 18th most popular for girls. This means that science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects at university and occupations in these fields are dominated by men. Between 2017 and 2018, for example, women accounted for just 35% of STEM graduates from UK universities, while, according to the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency, the yearly increase in women studying core STEM subjects is only around 1000 students. Despite the many recent efforts to inspire women to pursue STEM subjects, it seems that no significant change has occurred. So, will there ever be an even division between males and females in science or is the divide firmly engraved in us from ancestral societal roles?

Changing perceptions

Stereotypes – whether of gender, race or culture – will always exist. They emerge from a fundamental human desire to use our cognitive skills to classify information. We might know nothing about a person, but we subconsciously make assumptions about them based on those stereotypes. Women, for example, are perceived as affectionate and caring towards others while men are considered to be assertive and wanting to dominate. The problem with these generalizations is that they result in two key variations between male and female roles in society. First, women are more likely to hold low-authority positions and men are more likely to hold high-level positions. Second, women are therefore more likely to be homemakers and men are more likely to be employed in a paid business.

When it comes to physics, we portray physicists as hard-working, clever, socially inept…and male. However, there is a point when such stereotypes morph into discrimination, such as gender bias. Many wrongly correlate girls’ loss of interest in mathematics and physics to a fear of being “unfeminine” or to them being unable to cope with the perceived difficulty of the subject. Those assumptions then underscore even more firmly traditional beliefs of men’s competitive instincts, durability and motivation to master hard topics. The net result is a subconscious barrier to physics in young girls’ minds.

I believe that changing the public’s perception of what a physicist is will be key to redefining the cultural barriers between physics and wider society. It will take time, but the focus needs to be on children, who are scientists by nature, in that they show a curiosity for how the world works. Indeed, it has been shown that girls only begin to develop negative opinions about science once they reach the age of 10, especially when they become aware of female societal roles. Children gather their perspective on gender “norms” from people around them and increasingly from the media and social media too – so the more they see diversity in the appearance of scientists the better. Sadly, some secondary-school physics textbooks do not include a single female physicist.

Women pursuing a career in any STEM field should be looked after. Finding other women who have been through similar challenges will help to remind us that we are not alone in doubting ourselves in STEM. For now, we need to see these thoughts as a compromise for the reward of an accomplished life. Only in time can we change the perception of what it is to be a physicist, but that change will come.

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