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Gender in Ontario Physics Classrooms

John Caranci, Lecturer in Physics and Chemistry Teaching, C.T.L., Ontario Institute for Studies in Education University of Toronto

What does the gender balance in high school physics look like in Ontario? According to the Ontario Ministry of Education, 7,590 women earned a grade-12 physics credit in 2005/6 and nine years later there were 9,252. That is a 24% increase! At first glance it looks great. However, the increase for men was close to the same and from 2005 to 2015 the percentage of grade 12 credits in physics earned by women has remained steady at 31 ± 1 %. The good news is that while school population has decreased, the number of physics credits has risen from 23,542 to 25,589. The bad news is that the gender imbalance has not changed.

Why isn’t it changing more? We have attracted more women into teaching physics. The majority of my masters of teaching physics class is female. Graduating more exceptional female physics teachers does not seem have the effect assumed. (See Chris Meyer’s article for research on how much influence the gender of the teacher has on the career interests of female students.)

It could be we are looking in the wrong place. The link may be earlier, long before the first time students see “physics”. We need to attract students in elementary school. The Ontario Curriculum Grades 1-8: Science and Technology, 2007 does not even mention the word physics, even though the curriculum itself is weighted towards physics topics. Energy is mentioned 266 times. Force is mentioned 189 times. Here is a small selection of topics in the elementary curriculum: Grade 3 Strong and Stable Structures, Forces Causing Movement: Grade 4 Pulleys and Gears, Light and Sound; Grade 5 Forces Acting on Structures and Mechanisms, Conservation of Energy and Resources; Grade 6 Flight, Electricity and Electrical Devices, Space; Grade 7 Heat in the Environment; Grade 8 Fluids. These are physics topics but most students do not know this.

Although, most senior physics classrooms I have been in do reflect this one-third to two-thirds ratio; some have a more balanced ratio. For those teachers with a ratio closer to fifty-fifty, talk to your students and send me a note on what you found out. Ask them why they think this imbalance is still true in 2016.
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