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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14 Responses to Women in Physics: Different Gender Perspectives

  1. The question is, do women actually want to be physicists? If they don’t because they an incorrect notion about what the field is like and/or because the atmosphere is hostile, then a campaign to promote them will help (but not that one). If, however, they are simply not inclined because that’s the way most of them are wired (sexual dimorphism is more than physical) then nothing is going to change that.

  2. Hm, I might actually have a very good perspective of this. I'm a theoretical physicist myself. But have been teaching physics, chemistry and math over the past 7 years to predominately women. And know a lot of women in science.
    The thing is, if I know anything from women is that they more over like the abstract thought. That is why they are so well represented in mathematics. (No seriously, mathematics and women are a great link).

    But what I do know from years of experience is the following. Women generally don't choose physics first of all because there is a stigma on it. The women that do do physics are generally as much enthusiastic nut-cases as their male counterpart. So, this might be one of the reasons. That women don't like to be a nut-case. You are a physicist pretty much for life. Maybe some are afraid of the image that it gives them. All I know is that the women I know in physics are all awesome people who are very talented at what they do.

    Second reason I can imagine, is the main reason why people falter from physics in the first place. Physics, isn't an exact science. Not at all. The models are often completely weird and hard to relate to reality. The mathematics is not sound and full of crude approximations. And the eventual answers are not universal and limited to regions. This is something that isn't all that simple to cognitively accept. And I know that most people in physics simply accept the mathematics, and use the methods because they work. They don't need to know why they work. And I think women feel a stronger need to 'know what it is that they are doing' And more importantly 'why they are doing it'. However since most people don't care, they don't have a good answer for it. And discovering it by yourself is very unfruitful if you expect the pinnacle of science.

    So In short i think that:
    Women don't go into physics because they can't figure out why the methods of physics really work. (because nobody bothers to explain, because most people don't care)

    If you get that into education from the start, Physics will be so much more attractive to anyone. But you'd still need to get the teachers to give a fuck why it is the way we do it. I mean I wouldn't accept an answer to 'why does it work?' with 'just because it does'. And I think men are more, 'what is the fuss?' And because of this they'll find out after a year or 5 and then it is fine. But few women want to do something for 5 years what they don't get to understand or an explanation for.

  3. Why do you have to "correct the balance" unless this is some giant discrimination on women, (which its not), there is no reason to have to fix something that isn't broken. An example, There are more Female porn stars than Male porn stars, we have to "correct the balance" and make men be porn stars so the statistics are balanced. This is a very stupid idea, and upon reading, only seems like its to make the numbers balance, not the interests. Come back when women are actively being prevented from being physicists.

    • Did you read what half the women responses said here? Women feel pressured to not be physicists, by society, colleagues, and future parental pressure. What's your definition of actively being prevented from doing something?

  4. I'm a female engineering student and honestly, I like the campaign video. It would be great to show to elementary and middle school girls. I grew up playing with Barbie dolls and looking at fashion magazines. That would have caught my attention because science always seemed like a guy thing. I think there should be more role models like the girl from Myth Busters that are smart and sexy. Nothing wrong with liking pink and science.

    • The problem with that video is it still pushes the idea that women need to be "sexy" to be relevant. Being a scientist has nothing to do with how you look. If I were a swarthy little girl that video would just make me think that great, there's another field I can't go into because I'm not pretty enough.

      We shouldn't be teaching little girls that they have to be sexy to be successful. That video reinforces the idea that a girls worth is based on how they look no matter what field they go in to.

      Let's face it, NDT is not the sexiest man on earth (by non-geek standards), but he's a huge role model for thousands of people – why isn't there a female equivalent of him? Why should we perpetuate the stereotype that to be relevant as a female scientist you must be beautiful?

  5. We addressed this issue in Sociology and English classes at my University. In the USA, there's a distinct prejudice against women in the "hard" sciences and they're roughly 1 to 25 ratio or higher to their male peers. Where in Canada and Europe the numbers are lower at 1:20. But Japan and Korea had the lowest at 1:17. However, there seems to be sexism in the hard sciences as part of the problem as well as a lack of interest.

    Ironically, at the same time the number of women in the military working on engines and mechanical technology has risen. Plus they're been many post military veterans who're pushing those numbers down. But it doesn't look like it will change unless there's a major shift in genderfication in both public and private education in schools and at home. Typically, science toys and research are geared towards boys to begin with

    Also, it doesn't help that when a little girl hears from her parents or adults about being a scientist with some typical discouraging comments like: Oh, you want to be a scientist are you going to go into the cosmetics business and design new perfumes or make up?" Or those science experiments are taken away often by overprotective female role models and they say, "Playing with chemicals and other hazards are dangerous, if you want to learn baking science, I'll teach you…."

    While a few female science role models are out there Kari Byron of Mythbusters being the top science geek. She's not taken seriously, since she doesn't have a PhD or MA and her speciality is prop making and special effects. Even if there's major science to be learned most men see her still as a sexualized fetishism and not as a thinking equal, so it doesn't help. Even Beakman's World sucked since the female assistant spent more time being interruped by the rat or Beakman; then actually explaining science to the viewers.

  6. Women are not "wired" to not like the hard sciences and math! I love math, physics and chemistry. I am dual majoring in physics and chemistry, and guess what…I am also a single mother! I get good grades and I am just as good at science as any of the guys. The thing that makes science hard for women is the biased attitude. I heard this comment the other day: "We need to get a chick in the lab so there will be someone to wash the dishes." WTF! Really? I said something, and that's the answer. Until more women AND MEN start to speak out against gender bias nothing will change! It is the only way to create any real improvement for women in sience.

  7. I can't speak for the academic atmosphere now, but I can tell you when I was in school 20 years ago, the Physics and Math departments at my undergrad were very vocal about (and very proud of) their anti-female student stand. As a Geology student, I bumped up against them several times (I was lucky in my Department to only have one or two misogynistic teachers – the others were more open-minded and grasped very quickly I wasn't there because I thought Geology was all about "the Earth Mother", as many young women who started and dropped out believed. It was a science I deeply loved – and still do, even if joint disease and injury kept me from field work past my mid 20's)

    The Physics Dept. was particularly brutal; the all male faculty – all white, all aged 50+ – took pride in hounding bright young women out of the department. Because Physics Was For Men. (The male students were exceedingly pissed off about that, to give them credit.) My junior year they got a new, younger professor who stood up for the few female students they had – all of them insanely bright – and I've heard it's since gotten better there over the years.

    As for the Math Department? I felt guilty taking only 12 credits my senior year and decided to take a basic statistics class just to pad out the transcript. The first day of the class, this old fart of a tenured professor walked in and pronounced to the class – half comprised of young women – that if it were up to him, girls wouldn't be taking math, or even be involved in co-educational pursuits. And we should all be wearing long skirts. I thought he was kidding – he wasn't. I dropped out after the first test (insanely easy for me), and went to his office to tell him that he was offensively misogynistic and I couldn't believe he was permitted to actually say those things to students. He assumed I was dropping out because the test was too hard, and insisted on handing it over to me so we could sit down and correct all my mistakes. Since my IRL name is gender neutral, he had a nasty surprise when he plucked mine out of the pile – I had the highest grade in the class. All questions – including the bonus – were correct. Telling him I was the top of the Geology Department was just icing on the cake.

    (The Math Department was messed up there, so I don't know what I was expecting. I took Calculus from a theoretical mathematician who taught Calculus like it was theoretical math. Calculus without integrals would have been an interesting thought exercise – harder to swallow as actual method.)

  8. It's basically everything that people say it is.
    There is no easy answer.
    Here's why:
    Is it discrimination? Yes. Male dominated departments and entrenched male culture in any profession is hard to break down.
    Is it stigma? Yes. Physicists are seen as uber-geeks, and the culture makes it harder for females to embrace that image as a positive asset, currently.
    Is it interest? Yes, everyone from parents to teachers to the media discourage females from being seen to take an interest in hard science and engineering subjects.
    Is it biology? Probably yes for some branches of physics. Which is of course not to say there aren't females waaay over the right hand side of the bell curve in every branch – just that in some branches there may be fewer of them over there on the right than there are guys. That this is probably a fact is not really important right now, given that it cannot explain more than a tiny proportion of the current gender gap.
    I'm quite sure physics is not the only discipline missing out on great minds that happen to be in female bodies, and I hope it changes as fast as societally possible.

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