Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Do Cars and Construction Equipment Discourage Women in Physics?

Physics has a gender problem and to see an example you need look no further than the list of this blog's authors to your left.  You'll note that all of us are male.  A broader look into this problem yields what is known as the "scissors diagram".
Here the black lines show the fraction of men and women at various stages of physics careers while the red lines show the expected fraction from historical trends (because when current full professors were in high school there were far fewer women taking physics than there are today).  It appears that for some reason men and women both take high school physics in nearly equal numbers, but that for some reason women are far less likely to study physics in college.  Physics is not alone in this problem, as I've written about previously, but we are having a much harder time fixing it than fields like math or chemistry.

There are a lot of ideas as to why this might be the case but here's one from a Physics Today article that I hadn't considered before - problem sets based on cars and construction equipment.  I recommend reading the whole article as it is well-written and insightful, but allow me to over-simplify the basic argument:  homework problems in introductory physics courses generally use examples from topics like cars and construction work that are more likely for men to be familiar with than women.

My initial reaction was skepticism - how much difference can using terms like "pile driver" instead of "a machine that drops a heavy weight on [a metal rod], lifts the weight, and drops it again" possibly make?  But the more I think about it, the more I start to think that maybe the authors have a point. I don't think that the real issue is that men are more familiar with pile drivers than women - I think the issue is that when textbook problems appeal more to men than women, a subtle message is sent that women are out of place in physics, and no one wants to feel out of place.

Now don't get me wrong - I'm not arguing that physics problems should avoid real-world examples or that women can't understand problems talking about cars going around banked turns - but I do think it would be wise for physics faculty to try to use more examples from fields that have a higher concentration of women - like health care or preforming arts.  Instead of asking questions about baseball and football only, mix in some questions about ballet.  Ask more questions about blood pressure and less about pneumatic nail guns.  I'm sure this single step won't fix the larger problem, but I think it's generally a good idea to do everything we can to attract the best people to our field and not just the best men.


  1. Well, I will admit this is an interesting idea I have never considered.  And I don't want to dismiss something too quickly when I don't know enough about it.  However, given you stop doing word problems that refer to "male" things for the most part as  an undergraduate, I would expect the drop to stop at the undergraduate level if this was a significant factor. (I know we see some word problems in graduate school, but they are about quantum particles or electromagnetic waveguides or gravitational collapsing galaxies, not anything that can be worded in terms of cars/fine arts ideas.)

    And so, even after the menial word problems stop, the drop in women continues.  

  2. Actually, I will sort of agree with this but I think there are two things at play.

    1.  I do think physics is not a very feminine field, just like ballet is not a very masculine field.  Should ballet make an effort to become more masculine and physics more feminine?  Perhaps.  

    2.  Take that, and the results of a study discussing in Nature that concludes:

    "There are constant and unsupportable allegations that women suffer discrimination in these arenas, and we show conclusively that women do not," says Williams.Ceci and Williams conclude that female researchers lag behind their male counterparts in professional advancement because of a broader set of societal realities. Much of the problem, they say, can be boiled down to external factors related to family formation and child rearing. Motherhood can make women less likely to choose research careers than male scientists of equal ability, or lead them to choose academic positions with larger teaching loads but more regular hours, sacrificing time for research. The authors also point out that the strict tenure timeline conflicts directly with women's window for child rearing."A woman who has young children is still expected to come up for tenure 5–6 years after she starts her job," says Williams. "It creates a virtually insurmountable obstacle."And you have a big double-whammy.  And I think these are two distinct problems that have to be handled in different ways.  On one hand you have to have an effort to make physics more feminine that may be as difficult as making football more feminine.  And on the other, you have to make the harsh realities of academics and tenure track difficulties more accommodating to a gender that seems to me more concerned with how a job effects their ability to rear children then men.  (Not my opinion, read the study.!)

  3. I agree that you see fewer of these types of examples in upper-level physics courses, but the introductory sequence is full of them.  Freshman/sophomore level mechanics is filled with examples using cars, sports, and construction equipment.

    It would be interesting to see what the average gender ratio is in intro physics courses vs. upper level physics courses.  Anyone know where we could find that kind of data?

  4. Wouldn't that indicate that we should see the big drop-off at the graduate or assistant professor level?  Or is the thinking that women are planning ahead for those issues and leaving physics for other undergraduate majors in anticipation of those issues?

  5. Well, from your graph I think you have close to 20% women as assistant professors to less then %10 by full professors and the same pool who are assistants today should become full professors tomorrow.  This seems to suggest something is cutting the woman professors in half.  These people have claimed to have found this has more related to motherhood then discrimination.  (Again, this is not my finding, it is their's).

    But it is hard to tell since these are percentages not absolute numbers.  

  6. By the way, your scissors diagram is very interesting.  It does seem to suggest the drop between high school and undergrad is more significant then I would have guessed.  

    If I were to make a complete stab in the dark, I would guess women aren't interested in a subject that isn't very feminine like physics to begin with, between masculine word problems among other reasons, but they are willing to take it in high school since they are told how taking physics looks good for college applications reasons.  But when they go to college and taking physics isn't helpful for their goals so the incentive to take physics classes goes away and they stop taking them.

    But that is only a guess.  I mean, that's how it was with me and things like art classes.  I was willing to take an art class in high school to look more rounded in a variety of areas on a college application but after arriving at college, art has zero impact on my future and so I didn't think twice about taking an art class. 

    (But don't get me wrong, though I don't have an interest in making art, when I see great are I really appreciate it!)

  7. The red line gives the expected percentage of women in various professorial positions based on the historical percentage of women earned BS degrees.  Since the fraction of physics degrees earned by women has been rising over the past 20% years the fraction of women earning PhD's should be higher than the fraction of women who are full professors because of the time-delay.  Put another way, the red line shows the impact on the numbers purely from the passage of time, which seems to show that the big drop-off is at the undergrad level and that the remaining drop-off will level out over the next 20-30 years (assuming the fraction of women getting physics degrees also levels out).

  8. I suspect the problems of motherhood are related - however it's not at all clear to me why this is particularly a problem in physics while so less so in other areas that also demand research.  One could point out math and chemistry as in the OP.  However look to the softer sciences which do lots of research.  Admittedly those are easier fields but the point is that the motherhood explanation doesn't make much sense if it is just a time issue.

    I think many of these studies are a tad too quick to neglect sexual discrimination and bad behavior.  My own pet theory is that physicists tend to be disproportionately on the autistic scale.  (i.e. Aspberger's or related tendencies)  That helps with physics as one goes along and it gets harder and harder.  However women tend to not be present as high on the autistic spectrum and those that are tend to have slightly different behavioral classes.  (i.e. better communication skills)  Most prominently though I think the men on the autistic spectrum have horrible communication tendencies and how they act towards women really turns women off significantly.  These will be subtle things that I suspect most physicists don't notice but when get expressed pretty commonly by women I've talked with.  

    Of course there are excellent women physicists but I think we could do more to encourage them.  I honestly think though that subtle communication effects are neglected.  I also think the big drop off after High School is primarily due to people seeing who tends to go into physics and there being a strong social stigma over it.  (I remember when going to dances at BYU if I mentioned what my major was the woman's voice would drop about an octave and it was definitely not a positive.  For a while I must confess to just hiding my major.)

  9. I think that's part of it Joseph but then that just leads to the obvious question of why it is perceived as masculine or why women don't like it.  I think much of that has to do with how math and science is taught (and often subtly communicated as disliked) in grade school.  I remember reading a few papers on this (relative to math) back in college.  One problem was that many women teachers, starting in elementary school, didn't like math and there were very subtle communications made to girls. The different learning styles had an effect too.  (I believe some of these studies are used in by proponents of the segregated schooling movement who think women would get a better education in all-girl schools)

  10. As a women and an undergrad Physics major, I completly agree with this article. It is extremely difficult being a women in physics, not only is it hard to relate to some examples it is difficult to relate to the male prof and many students who are also mainly males. There has been days I haven't even had a class with a girl in it. If I walk in a class in a dress or heels everyone stares which makes me feel like I do not belong. I often can not add too much to conversations as well because they often are very masculan more so then if the class was coed. Hopefully more women will go to college for physics and build the path for other women to join. It is difficult but we can do it


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