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PER Corner: Fixing the Gender Imbalance in Physics

Chris Meyer, OAPT VP teaching and learning, Assistant Curriculum Leader York Mills C. I.

I have a problem in my physics classes: by grade 12, only one third of the class is female. I used to think of this as a fact of life, or something beyond my power to change, but now I am sure that is wrong. Too many girls are missing out on some of the best training in critical thinking available in high school. Research suggests why: girls experience physics education differently than boys do. By understanding these differences, I am modifying my classroom to create an environment that supports girls and encourages their future participation in physics.

The beginning of change
In my early days of teaching I noticed the gender imbalance in my classroom. My feelings at the time were that the best I could do is to try to be a kind and supportive teacher. I guessed that there were strong societal pressures that dissuaded girls from trying physics, long before students reached me. What could I do about society at large and the educational system that preceded me? Not much, was my conclusion. Years later, I switched to an inquiry-based style of teaching involving cooperative group work with the hope that this way of learning might appeal to more girls. To find out for sure, I started tracking the proportion of female students in my grade 12 physics classes.

12 physics

The results were not encouraging: there is no clear pattern of improved female participation. More troubling was how closely the results fit into the pattern that the universities are wrestling with. In my school, girls make up 40% of our grade 11 classes, 31% of our grade 12 classes and at U of T, 25% of the first year physics-major classes1. What more could I do beyond providing good teaching? It felt like I was fighting against the sea.

Expert blindness
One of the challenges of teaching is that we are blind to almost all but our own experiences of learning physics, and even then, we have a very coloured recollection. This leads to an understandable, but critical, error of teaching: to assume that what worked for ourselves as students will work equally well for our students. But we are not our students: our experiences learning physics are not the average student’s experience. As I learned more about physics education research, I began to understand how important it is to study my students’ learning experiences. What was most surprising for me was discovering how different those experiences can be for female students.

The female physics experience
It is always tricky to talk in general terms about the experiences of a large, diverse group of people. Many women have had great experiences with physics, but many others have not. Despite the challenges of working with broad strokes, it is a necessary starting point. As soon as we begin comparing educational outcomes by gender, some very clear differences between male and female physics experiences begin to emerge.

Difference: conceptual understanding
One important measure of student success is conceptual understanding. The results from my own classroom match those of the wider research literature with disturbing accuracy. At the beginning of a physics course, girls score about 10% lower on the force concept inventory (FCI2) than boys and that difference remains roughly the same when the test is given again at the end of the course3. Here are my school’s grade 12 FCI results: our pretest score closely matches the literature, and, happily, our posttest score shows the gap closing. Despite considerable research, no single factor convincingly explains the gender gap in conceptual differences. The best guess is that it is a complex combination of a number of factors, possibly including mathematical confidence.

Our FCI results are important for another reason. At U of T, students entering the first year physics for life sciences course and who have taken grade 12 physics scored 57% on the FCI4. I use this result as a rough score for students in Ontario taught largely through traditional instruction (lecturing). Our female students significantly outperform the U of T (i.e. Ontario high school) average. The research literature also confirms this result: the single most effective strategy to help female physics students is to change to a group-work, discussion-based learning environment. While this change does not eliminate the gender gap, overall it is immensely helpful to female students.

Difference: math anxiety
Girls in highly-developed, western countries experience greater math anxiety than boys, despite greater overall gender equity and having more female role models working in STEM fields5. Math anxiety is a real thing: MRI scans of math anxious adults show their brain’s response to a math problem is the same as their response to the anticipation of physical pain. We use a lot of math in physics — we are our math teachers’ biggest customers in high school. And if math anxiety is a factor disproportionally affecting the success of our female physics students, we need to do something about it in our physics classes. We can’t wait for the quality of our students’ experiences in math class to improve.

Difference: physics identity and belonging
First year female physics students report a lower feeling of belonging in their physics classes6. This is a very important characteristic to change if we hope to meet our goal of greater female participation. A sense of belonging includes feeling accepted or welcome within the class and the wider physics community. It also includes being able to see oneself as a future physicist, engineer, or as a successful student just trying a bit of physics. Now, if we ask students to draw a picture of a physicist, what would that drawing look like? If we show an old picture of our physics community’s members, like the famous one from the 1927 Solvay conference, what conclusions might a young girl make?

The Solvay Conference, probably the most intelligent picture ever taken, 1927 (1)
(photo public domain)

What about when a 15 year old girl enters her first physics classroom, and notices so few other girls? These observations and experiences can have a very powerful cumulative effect that begins very early. I was amazed how young my daughter was when she began dressing up in my wife’s old clothing and clomping around our house in her fancy shoes (note the toy cellphone, sigh…).


She learned very early that there are girl things to wear and boy things to wear; girl things to play with and boy things to play with. Despite the best efforts of my wife and I, there were powerful forces at work that my daughter gleefully responded to. These forces continue their work in our classes.

Difference: self-efficacy
We all have a sense or mental picture of what we are capable of doing. Quite naturally, we tend to steer ourselves towards situations in which we are likely to succeed and away from those where we are less likely. Female physics students report a lower sense of self-efficacy than boys7 — they have less confidence that, given a physics task, they will be able to complete it successfully.

Compounding this problem, boys seem to demonstrate a “male overconfidence syndrome”8. One study showed how girl’s confidence levels (self-efficacy) track fairly closely their course marks. This seems quite reasonable: marks go up, confidence goes up; marks go down, confidence goes down. For boys, this connection was not as strong, especially for boys with no prior physics training. Their confidence levels were somewhat impervious to their course results, suggesting a counterproductive behaviour towards learning.


The stereotype threat
Psychologists have documented a powerful effect that anyone who is a minority in a group can be susceptible to. By creating a situation when the individual is at risk of confirming a stereotype, those individuals will tend to underperform. The classic study9 involved race: when it was suggested that a challenging verbal test (the Graduate Record Examination) was a measurement of intelligence, black students underperformed white students; when a similar test was described simply as “a laboratory problem-solving task”, there was no difference in performance. Simply asking the students to indicate their race was enough to trigger the stereotype threat. In situations like this, psychologists propose that the minority individual feels a “threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype, or the fear of doing something that would inadvertently confirm that stereotype”10. This effect has been observed amongst female math students writing an AP Calculus exam11. We might imagine a well-meaning teacher saying, “I want to encourage all you girls to work really hard at math. I know you can do it! Just don't give up and you'll see!” How many more girls would be putting up their hands in class to volunteer an answer?

Girls are not the problem
These explorations helped me to see my physics class through different eyes. Even though I would count myself as a well-meaning teacher, I was pretty clueless to the existence of these different physics experiences. Now, the challenge is to find ways of modifying my classroom to try to counteract these various effects, and avoid compounding them through the stereotype threat. An important starting point was the realization that the problem is not specifically with my female students, but rather with the overall classroom culture, which, of course, includes the male students. As a result, the remedies that I have chosen are ones that should help all my students work together in a more thoughtful and constructive way. I want to improve my students’ awareness of the quality of their social interactions, so they support each other’s learning and avoid reinforcing stereotypical behaviours.

Metacognition: awareness of your process of learning
Good physics teaching should involve much more than just physics content: we should be teaching our students a complex set of intellectual and social skills used by successful scientists. To improve any skill or practice, we need to be aware of what it is, how it is doing, and how it should be improved. Many high school students have never had explicit training in how to lead a group, how to have a constructive discussion, how to disagree intelligently, how to listen to others, or how to seek consensus on a challenging idea. I’m sure you have met adults (colleagues!) who still lack these skills. In the absence of this training, “default” or stereotypical behaviours are much more likely to emerge. Gender dynamics figure prominently in these behaviours — just ask any woman working in a traditionally male-dominated profession. My goal as a teacher is not to point out the dysfunction of one side of the gender divide, it is to help both sides become more aware of their learning behaviours and improve them: this is the process of metacognition.

Improving group dynamics in our classrooms
My students do all their learning in cooperative groups, so the gender dynamics of those groups can have a powerful effect on the quality of their learning. In particular, the matters of physics identity and self-efficacy can lead to an imbalance in group participation: usually too much male and too little female discussion or equipment use. Rather than point this out directly (“c’mon boys, give the girls a chance to use the equipment too”), I provide everyone with explicit group work training at the start of the course, and prompt the class to reflect and improve throughout the semester. The main way I do this is using multiple choice questions with paper “clickers” (for more on that, see this article). I use the questions either at the beginning or the end of the class depending on whether I want to prime them for their upcoming work, or have them reflect on their recent work.

I make up labels for particularly important sets of skills like the group discussion process: listen to ideas from each person, discuss and reach an agreement, then write your own response. If this is done consistently and well within a group, it can help address the imbalance of participation. I also avoid the combination of male, male, female students when I create their groups, unless I know the students’ personalities well.

Another way of fighting a low self-efficacy is to prompt students to reflect on their progress and successes in our physics class, which can often be forgotten during the struggles of learning, or after the perceived defeats when combating a stereotype.


Combating math anxiety
Over the years it gradually dawned upon me that when I put really “mathy” questions on a test, featuring either lengthy algebraic or proof-like work, my female students would be disadvantaged. I did not realize at the time that this might be a manifestation of math anxiety. From my experience, the antidote to math anxiety in the physics class is sense-making. This is a concept-first approach to learning and evaluation where the priority is always physics understanding. When learning, students do a lot of conceptual exploration before mathematics is introduced. (See the video of my freefall lesson from grade 11 physics.) When the math does arrive, students have a stronger conceptual framework to hang the mathematical ideas on: the math is more likely to “make sense”. I wish I could have recorded one conversation I overheard between two girls in my grade 11 physics class. We were doing some freefall problems when one girl mentioned, “this is a lot like math class”, to which the other responded, “yeah, but this makes sense.” When using any mathematical tools, we emphasize interpretation: extracting the physical meaning of the mathematics. In a typical classroom or homework question, the physical concepts are described (part C), the physical role of the mathematics is explained (part D) and the final result is evaluated to see if it makes sense (part E).

math work

To reinforce this, I continue the concept-first emphasis in our evaluation: tests, quizzes and assignments focus on the physics ideas, with the math as a final step. Our tests and exams also involve group discussions, which helps build confidence and reduce anxiety (for more, read this article).

group work test

Another facet of sense-making is providing students with situations to study and questions to answer that have a clear and interesting context in which they can practice making sense. Questions about idealized boxes and blocks have an important simplifying purpose, but they are more abstract and less easy to relate too; they often lack any glimmer of interest or insight into problems we face in the real world. Students perform poorly on these idealized questions compared with identical questions in a more realistic context12.

You belong here
My suspicion is that most girls in grade 10 have arrived at the conclusion that they do not belong in a physics class. Given the long historical gender imbalance in physics, we are caught in a viscous cycle: girls see few other girls in physics and choose not to try physics. We need to remind ourselves that our discipline has very powerful stereotypes about who can be a successful member of our community. To combat this, we need to encourage girls to take a risk by trying physics, and encourage them to stay when the going gets tough.

A major study13 explored factors that encourage girls to pursue post-secondary education in the physical sciences. The only statistically significant factor having had a high school class discussion on the underrepresentation of women in physics. Insignificant were same-sex classes, female teachers and female role models.


In my class I am going to add a new discussion where students will compare the old photo of the 1927 Solvay conference with the photo of the recent physics conference at Brookhaven National Laboratories.

(image courtesy Brookhaven National Laboratories)

This will serve as the starting point for our discussion of the diversity of people in contemporary physics. But equally important is the diversity of the utility of physics.

Physics solves meaningful problems
Part of the reason girls do not choose physics is because they do not see how it can satisfy their personal interests or help prepare them for their futures. University engineering departments have been struggling for years to increase female enrollment. At U.C. Berkeley, they created an engineering minor program that focuses on developing engineering solutions for low-income communities14. In its first year, half the class was female. Programs at other universities that focus on a social good have had similar success attracting women.

High school physics is a critical gateway course for many STEM career pathways. While we don’t have the latitude to create a whole program with a social-good focus, we neglect these worthy applications of physics at our (and our students’) peril. We should provide opportunities for our students to learn how their physics knowledge can be put to work against meaningful problems. One preliminary example of this is an engineering design project I piloted last year, which encourages students to look for simple problems at home or in the school, and to design, build and test solutions.

Amongst all these challenges, there is some good news from my own classes. Despite weaker female scores on the Force Concept inventory described earlier, the final course marks of female students in grade 12 are at least equal to those of the males. (I suspect this is related to the male overconfidence syndrome and the common attitude that “I don’t have to show my work, because I get it”.)

grade 12 marks

The Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey (CLASS)15 measures students’ changes in expert-like attitudes towards learning and doing physics. Through this survey, girls in grade 12 report an increased personal interest in physics and a greater sense of conceptual understanding. This is not too surprising since girls do make large improvements in their scores on the Force Concept Inventory and the gap between the gender scores narrows.


Get out the message
So far, I have discussed changes to our classes that will help our current female students succeed and remain in physics. But to correct the gender imbalance, we need to go further by reaching out. I am quite encouraged by the work of Roberta Tevlin, who leads an optional-attendance math, science and technology program at Danforth Collegiate and Technical Institute in Toronto16. Concerned with the low female enrollment in the program, she surveyed her female students and created focus groups to help her better understand their thinking and motivations. Next, she began running girls-only engineering events after school to help encourage girls from the junior high schools to consider Danforth’s program. The results have been very encouraging, with female enrollment now equal to male.


My project for this coming school year is to run some girls-only engineering challenges, but within my own school, to encourage female students in grade 10 to consider physics in grade 11. If this is successful and I can get a core female physics club going to support it, I hope to invite students from our junior high schools.

Accept the challenge, own this problem
For fifteen years I taught under the assumption that the gender imbalance in physics was not my problem — after all, I am one small cog in the large educational machine. This is a complex and difficult problem to solve, but it is just too important to neglect. If we believe that physics is fascinating, helpful and important, it should trouble us that so many of our daughters, nieces and students overlook it. Even at this early stage, the research shows there is much that we can improve right now. Physicists and physics teachers love solving problems — let’s solve this one.

  1. Thanks to Jason Harlow at U of T for the stats.
  2. Hestenes, David, Malcolm Wells, and Gregg Swackhamer. “Force concept inventory.” The physics teacher 30.3 (1992): 141-158.
  3. Madsen, Adrian, Sarah B. McKagan, and Eleanor C. Sayre. “Gender gap on concept inventories in physics: What is consistent, what is inconsistent, and what factors influence the gap?.” Physical Review Special Topics—Physics Education Research 9.2 (2013): 020121.
  4. Harlow, Jason JB, David M. Harrison, and Andrew Meyertholen. “Correlating student interest and high school preparation with learning and performance in an introductory university physics course.” Physical Review Special Topics—Physics Education Research 10.1 (2014): 010112.
  5. Stoet, Gijsbert, et al. “Countries with Higher Levels of Gender Equality Show Larger National Sex Differences in Mathematics Anxiety and Relatively Lower Parental Mathematics Valuation for Girls.” PloS one 11.4 (2016): e0153857.
  6. Kost, Lauren E., Steven J. Pollock, and Noah D. Finkelstein. “Unpacking gender differences in students’ perceived experiences in introductory physics.” Proceedings of the 2009 Physics Education Research Conference. 2009.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Lindstrøm, Christine, and Manjula D. Sharma. “Self-efficacy of first year university physics students: do gender and prior formal instruction in physics matter?.” International Journal of Innovation in Science and Mathematics Education (formerly CAL-laborate International) 19.2 (2011).
  9. Steele, Claude M., and Joshua Aronson. “Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans.” Journal of personality and social psychology 69.5 (1995): 797.
  10. Madsen, Adrian, Sarah B. McKagan, and Eleanor C. Sayre. “Gender gap on concept inventories in physics: What is consistent, what is inconsistent, and what factors influence the gap?.” Physical Review Special Topics—Physics Education Research 9.2 (2013): 020121.
  11. Danaher, Kelly, and Christian S. Crandall. “Stereotype threat in applied settings re?examined.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 38.6 (2008): 1639-1655.
  12. McCullough, Laura. “Gender Differences in Student Responses to Physics Conceptual Questions Based on Question Context.” ASQ Advancing the STEM Agenda in Education (2011).
  13. Hazari, Zahra, et al. “Factors that affect the physical science career interest of female students: Testing five common hypotheses.” Physical Review Special Topics-Physics Education Research 9.2 (2013): 020115.
  14. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/27/opinion/how-to-attract-female-engineers.html?_r=0
  15. http://www.colorado.edu/sei/class/
  16. http://www.dctimast.com/
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