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Increasing the Gender Diversity in Lecture Content

Sara Cormier, Instructional Assistant, McMaster University

At the 2018 OAPT Conference held at IQC, University of Waterloo, I had a very lovely, inspiring conversation with Roberta Tevlin. As a side note, I always have productive chats at the OAPT conference with a variety of people (this is a shameless plug to encourage everyone to register for the 2020 OAPT conference at McMaster. It was during this conversation that we chatted about how to increase the diversity of the examples we share in class. Afterwards Roberta spearheaded the idea to create a resource to share with everyone that compiles diverse examples of physicists. She pulled Michelle Lee, Sara Naudts and me in to help. The resource is really great and well laid out. I am supremely impressed with it (I had only a small contribution in creating the resource) and have used it to increase the diversity in my own teaching which I describe below. To learn more and use this great resource yourself, I encourage you to read another OAPT article (after you finish reading this one, of course), written by Roberta. You are also welcome to use any of the examples I’ve used below.

After that initial conversation with Roberta I took a careful look at my own teaching of Physics 1A03, a first-year physics course for the life sciences at McMaster. To be honest, I was a bit horrified at the lack of diversity in the PowerPoint slides. In Physics 1A03, we like to include video clips to break up the lecture, add excitement, and aid in teaching content. We have some great clips from Veritasium, The Slo Mo Guys, Steve Mould, and Brian Cox, among others. Individually each of these videos is great but when taken as a whole, what’s missing is obvious and I think it takes away from the course. I’m still embarrassed to admit that I never noticed the lack of gender diversity, especially given my passion for increasing and promoting diversity and inclusivity in physics. I’ve organized the annual Girls in Science Day at McMaster since 2013 (minus two parental leaves) which focuses on giving Gr. 10 girls examples of successful females in STEM. Our motivation for the day is the idea that “you can’t be what you can’t see”. How did I not see the lack of diversity in my own teaching?! Okay, so maybe things weren’t so bad. We did have our course mascots, appearing in our online video modules, a lovely pig named Einswine and Physics Girl (note: not Physics “Boy”, see the picture below) and some of our examples that were not videos were more gender diverse.


So, we could have been worse, but we also could have been doing much better. This term Dr. Kari Dalnoki-Veress and myself were teaching all three sections of physics 1A03 (Kari taught two sections, I taught one) and together we examined all of our lecture slides with a diversity lens to identify areas where we could improve the content. I’m happy to say that I think we are now doing better. The thing is, it’s not always trivial to improve diversity in lecture content which is precisely why these types of resources and initiatives are so important. We all have bias and without actively working towards creating a more diverse way to present material, we will continue to fall into the historic problems. Who do we talk about in first year physics? For us in Physics 1A03 it’s Newton, Einstein, Fermi, Hooke, Pascal, Archimedes… you see the pattern. Coupled to this, YouTube has its own problem. Studies have shown that the majority of YouTube content is men. Depending on the study, between 75-80% of the top content is male dominated (Döring & Mohseni, 2018). Thus, if we want to show diverse examples in our teaching, we have to make a conscientious effort to do so. It will not just happen by chance.

As promised, I’ve outlined a few examples of the changes that we’ve made to our lecture content. Feel free to incorporate any of the examples to your own lectures/classes. One easy change that we made was to swap out a video of total internal reflection in a bucket with a hole in it, with a similar clip from real life Physics Girl Dianna Cowern (not to be confused with our mascot ‘Physics Girl’ who was coined before we knew real life Physics Girl). The full video can be found here. If you are not familiar with Dianna’s YouTube channel, you are missing out. In fact, maybe we can tag her in this article so she can read it and become my friend? That would be totally awesome. Apart from Dianna’s YouTube channel, it was a bit of a struggle to find reliable, exciting physics content that is not presented by a male. So instead, we looked to add diversity to the lectures through multiple means (not just the videos).

In Physics 1A03 we teach an entire lecture on order of magnitude estimation type questions (also known as Fermi questions). This past term we introduced the topic by discussing Dr. Gwendolyn Eadie’s PhD thesis, which she completed at McMaster. Her thesis: Estimate the Mass of the Milky Way. Gwen is currently an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto cross appointed in the Department of Statistical Sciences and the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics. Discussing Gwen’s thesis was a great way to introduce the topic of estimation and it was really fun to talk about Gwen’s research not only because she is a successful female Astrostatistician, but also because the research is current and exciting. For more info on Gwen’s research see here. For those curious, Gwen’s current estimation is that the Milky Way has a mass of 7 × 1011 Suns.

We switched another example where initially students were asked to calculate how much more material would be needed to clothe Dr. Evil compared to Mini-Me given the ratio of their masses, and assuming they were isometric. Initially we switched this because we were worried students may not get the reference. Have they ever seen or heard of Austin Powers? Instead we switched it to Chris Hadfield and his isometric bobble head. This year we changed things again to Rosalind Franklin and her bobble head. A small change, but it gave us the opportunity to say “hey, do you guys know who Rosalind Franklin is, and why she is famous enough to have her own bobble head?” The slide with this example is copied below.


Another fun switch we made was switching a video clip showing a fox chasing some ibex from the BBC narrated by David Attenborough with one of Serena Williams and Bianca Andreescu at the US Open. The video itself in both cases was simply meant as a way to analyze some motion using kinematic graphs. The actual example made no real difference. And it’s not like Bianca and Serena are physicists. But they are pretty awesome women and we thought why not include them? It was also topical at the time (Bianca had just won). The more diversity in the examples we provide the better. This is something we could all do better. Even small things like making sure the names that we use in our examples are not biased in any way. Are they all male names? Are they all white names? If it’s a sport example, is it always males playing that sport? We had one example in Physics 1A03 with a picture of two male baseball players in a funny collision to discuss the forces at play. It was funny and the picture would always get some laughs in class. Instead I changed it to a discussion on the forces acting on my one-year-old daughter as she slid down a slide. The video was much less funny than the picture used before, but much cuter, and instead of laughs there were some “awws”. We also got into a pretty great class discussion on friction which was spurred from the video.

We also cover light in Physics 1A03 and we could not get by without mentioning Dr. Donna Strickland here. She’s a Canadian, a McMaster alumna, and the third woman to ever win a Nobel Prize in physics. And it was during this lecture that we choose to delve a bit more into the gender diversity issue within physics. We introduced Donna, why she won the Nobel Prize and some of the applications her research has helped spur (laser eye surgery is the example I used) and then we discussed the lack of representation of women in the Nobel Laureates. Only 1.4% of the Nobel Prizes given in physics have gone to women and less than 6% of all Nobel Prizes have gone to women. These statistics are highlighted nicely in a GIF that was taken from Twitter (see here). This was a fun class to teach and I think it really resonated with students. For anyone interested, Donna will be giving a public lecture at McMaster on June 8th 2020 for the annual CAP Congress. June 8th is also the day of the teacher workshop at the CAP congress, so mark your calendars!

We did not end up changing too many of the videos in Physics 1A03. We still have a great Veritasium, Slo Mo guys, Steve Mould, and Brian Cox. These are great resources and very well done. The idea is not to stop using these videos but to make sure these are not the only things students see. Basically, we are more cognizant of what material we present to students and remember to look at things with an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion lens. We are actively trying to demonstrate to our students that anyone can (and should!) do physics. This is an attitude that will hopefully aid in our recruiting efforts to second year physics programs, but also, it’s just true; anyone can do physics. We will continue to advocate for our students, teach a growth mindset and show diverse examples in class so that everyone can see themselves in physics. Easier said than done, but not impossible.

If you are reading this and taking stock of your own teaching and perhaps feeling a bit where I was a few months ago, don’t feel too bad. You are not alone and it’s not just the physics discipline that has this issue. I recently enrolled in a professional development course on leadership. I took the course this term in conjunction with teaching Physics 1A03 so was very much in the mindset of observing video and lecture content for diversity. As was the case in Physics 1A03, the leadership course was pretty dismal in the gender diversity in the videos we watched. Were the course facilitators trying to imply that only men can be leaders?! Of course not, but that was the idea that was conveyed with the video content. As with the physics 1A03 team, the facilitators were most likely completely unaware of this oversight. My priority always is to present the material in a clear, concise way (as I’m sure was for the leadership course facilitators). But as it turns out, a lack of diversity can become distracting, can reduce learning and can affect the confidence of the students. The idea that I always come back to and is our motivation for our annual Girls in Science Day, is that students cannot be what they cannot see. The more diverse examples we provide, the higher the likelihood of students seeing themselves in a physics program. I’m quite happy with the lecture slides we’ve created and the changes we’ve made and while most students may not notice anything different, I think it does make a difference. If anyone would like to share how they have incorporated diverse examples into their teaching, I would love to hear about it. And if you happen to come across some cool physics videos on YouTube that also promote some form of diversity, please share.


Döring, N. & Mohseni, M. R. (2018). Male dominance and sexism on YouTube: results of three content analyses. Feminist Media Studies, 19(4), 512-524. DOI: 10.1080/14680777.2018.1467945
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