Commentary | Bring back Marie Curie

Understanding the gender divide in Physics

I wanted to write a follow up to Shannon Palus’ article “Fine Men, Sexist Pigs” published in the Daily on October 11 (Commentary, page 7) in the hopes of sketching out the background and widening the scope of the discussion on the gender divide in physics. Specifically, I want to talk about the pervasive underrepresentation of women in the applied mathematical sciences and how this can affect gender discrimination.

First, let me clear away any misconceptions you may have before entering this discourse: men are not better than women at math – the primary indicators of success in all levels of math worldwide are correlated with socioeconomic status and access to education, not gender. In 2005, it was proposed that men outperform women in standardized math tests because of greater intellectual variability between males; this hypothesis has since been proven false and current studies show evidence that it is in fact the format of testing that leads to the slight gender gap in physics and maths scores on the SAT and GRE.

Why, then, is it that Physics and Engineering continue to retain the largest gender gaps at both the undergraduate and graduate levels? A study called “What’s it Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors” by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce found that only 18 per cent of physics majors nationwide are female; for engineers, it’s even worse: 16 per cent female enrolment across the board, and the engineering subjects that break 20 per cent are the least intensive mathematically. Pure mathematics, by contrast, features a nearly even gender split with 44 per cent female enrolment, so there must be some unknown factor that is deterring women from entering applied mathematical fields.

Basit Zafar of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York interviewed college students at Northwestern University and found that for women, the biggest deterrent from entering majors such as engineering and physics was a belief that they would not enjoy the coursework – a belief that was strongly correlated with the perceived gender breakdown of the subject. The study suggests that women are backing out of engineering and physics programs because they believe that since so few women are enrolled, they will not enjoy the subject. If true, this would mean that the view of physics as the realm of males is directly, and wrongly, affecting the decision of women to enrol in physics and engineering programs.

My own view is that cultural stereotypes and a lack of role models are responsible for the lack of interest in these fields. I challenge you to stop reading this right now and try to think of one female physicist that’s not a McGill professor or Marie Curie. Got one? Was it Ellie Arroway? (Jodie Foster in Contact.) Unfortunately all classical (read: high school-level) physics was established by old white guys, so all the role models presented are male: Bill Nye, Einstein, Hawking, Sagan, Cox, et cetera. The closest we come to a female physicist role model is Marie Curie, and she’s usually presented as a chemist (Chemistry is 44 per cent female). Even the classes themselves are taught by men: it wasn’t until this year, when I enrolled in a 500-level elective, that I had a physics professor who wasn’t male.

Physics as an-all male field is also continuously reinforced by pop culture, only 18 per cent of movies that feature scientists have female scientists (and that includes blatant sexual objects like Dr. Christmas Jones from The World is Not Enough). TV shows like The Big Bang Theory have done nothing to shake the generally accepted image of physicists as lonely, unattractive, and socially immature men. This stereotype is so strong that when 5,000 school children were asked to “draw a scientist” for a study in 1984, only 28 children drew a female scientist. It is my belief that the very real issues presented in Shannon’s article are the product of the extreme gender gap and of a subconscious cultural assumption that physics is a male-only field. These assumptions are what prompt women to reconsider enrolling in physics and engineering fields, under the impression that they will not enjoy the subject matter.

Disabusing North America of our shared presumptions and expectations of what a physicist or engineer should look like and act like is an impossible goal. One effective way to break down cultural barriers in physics and engineering is merely to enrol more women in these programs. Up until quite recently, the higher strata of medical practice was considered a male -only profession; this stereotype is slowly being eroded by a massive influx of qualified female applicants. In 1976 women made up only 20 per cent of enrolment in medical schools, but now the number of degrees awarded to female students is at 48 per cent. The number of female surgical trainees grows each year, and the gender gap in general surgery is shrinking as more and more women are taking the place of their retiring male colleagues.

The solution may lie in providing young female students with more high-visibility female role models in physics and engineering: Canadian astronaut Julie Payette is an ideal example, but Kari Byron of Mythbusters – though lacking in scientific credentials – could nonetheless be considered a role model in the field of engineering. High school physics classes are routinely underattended by female students, high schools would do well to encourage female math students to continue to study physics during their final years.

A female friend of mine who has a master’s in aerospace engineering once told me that whenever she tells people about her career, their reaction is always disbelief. Her favourite line was: “Really? I thought you’d be a waitress.” By increasing the number of students in physics and engineering programs as well as high-visibility women in these fields, we can hopefully eliminate or marginalize reactions like this one and, with them, discrimination against women in physics.

Hugh Podmore is a fifth year Physics student. He can be reached at hugh.podmore@mail.mcgill.ca. 


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