Women in Physics: Different Gender Perspectives

So the gender debate rages on. Buzzfeed recently posted an article that summarised the results of a research project led by sociologist Eliane Ecklund. The survey involved asking 3,455 physicists, from graduates through to tenured professors, asking them as to why women were so underrepresented in their field. They had to select one of the following answers:

  • Women seem to have more natural ability in biology than physics.
  • Women seem to prefer biology more than physics.
  • There is a lot more funding support for women in biology than physics
  • Women are discriminated against more in physics than in biology.
  • There are fewer mentors for women in physics than in biology.
  • There is some other reason.

The survey was then followed up with an interview of 216 candidates, asking them to elaborate on their views. Here’s the sample of what they said:


“morphological differences and biological differences [make men better at] hardcore math and physics.” — male assistant professor, genetics
“[There are] some brain differences between men and women that explain it.” — male grad student, biology

“On balance [women are] just less interested in math.” — male professor, biology

“Physics is more difficult for girls and you need a lot of thinking, and the calculation, and the logic. So that’s maybe hard for girls.” — male grad student, physics

“Science has been a male-dominated field for a substantially long period of time, and it’s going to take a while for that shift to change.” — male grad student, biology

“Women have to make a choice [because] the woman ends up being the primary caregiver if they have children.” — male postdoctoral fellow, biology


“I think women … want to have more of a sense that what they are doing is helping somebody. … Maybe there are more women in … biology [because] you can be like ‘Oh, I am going to go cure cancer.’” — postdoctoral fellow, biology

“Physics is more abstract and biology is more concrete. Women are less likely to like abstract things.” — female associate professor, physics

“[A friend of mine] was always told, ‘Oh, you’re not good at math,’ until she found herself getting As in a multivariable calculus class. You know, she was scared of math all through high school.” — female grad student, physics

“Male-dominated departments are really unpleasant for women. […] Men can be huge jerks in those situations.” — female associate professor, biology

“I know a lot of women who are in chemistry and physics who are excellent at what they’re doing, but are often sidelined or ignored by their colleagues because there’s just not very many of them.” — female assistant professor, biology

“It’s not going to be solved until we figure out how to help mothers figure out how to do the career and the kid thing.” — female associate professor, physics

Woa-ho. Interesting isn’t it? Apparently the researchers drew the conclusion that, “that few men in either discipline emphasized the present discrimination that women in science may face (and that men in physics hold a much larger share of senior faculty positions) suggests that discrimination is not being adequately addressed in physics departments at top research universities.” Apparently they also seem to believe that if women feel they need to be more “connected” to their research, or its practical applications, then physics departments that want to retain more women (there’s the kicker) might want to emphasise these applications.

The question is, who are they going to get to organize the ‘campaign’ to emphasise these applications? Usually men. And they’ll probably come up with something like this:

And cue the LOL. That was a video that was published by the European Commission that was pretty much flamed across the world and subsequently taken down. The video was meant to attract more women to science by speaking “their language to get their attention” – being “fun, catchy” and strike a chord with the youth. Yep…that worked. NOT.

What do you think? Why is there an imbalance of women and men in the realm of physics? How do we correct that balance, you know, without assuming all women are terrible at maths and will only go into science if it’s related to make-up?

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