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Can we declare victory for women in their participation in science? Not yet

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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"When will we know when we can declare victory? For years I proceeded on the assumption that victory was equal participation of men and women in all branches of science and engineering. Today I’m not so sure…. It’s possible that we will come to understand that some fraction of the asymmetries in the distribution of women in the sciences, with women far more well represented in the life sciences and less so in the physical sciences, is the result of women seeking those fields in which they are able to make the greatest contribution in their own judgement. As scientists we have to be open to that possibility."

- Shirley Tilghman, President of Princeton University, speaking at Queen’s University [1]

The question of gender representation in science is an incredibly difficult one. Women are underrepresented in science as a whole, especially in senior positions, but the disparity can be even more dramatic, or in other cases disappear, when we narrow the focus to particular fields.

Over the last half-century, efforts to recruit and encourage women to pursue careers in science have been very successful, but they have not been evenly distributed. In 1966, for example, women earned only a quarter of the undergraduate biology degrees awarded in the U.S. By 2007, however, women out numbered men, taking 60 percent of these same degrees. In physics, though, these numbers have barely budged, with the percentage of undergraduate degrees earned by women rising from 14 percent to only 21 percent over the same time period. The question, of course, is why?

Most recent studies have shown very little difference in physics-related abilities between genders—not nearly enough to explain the large participation gaps.[2] So what is keeping women out of physics? Is it, as Dr. Tilghman suggests, that women just don’t choose to put their efforts into physics because they feel they can make a greater contribution elsewhere? Or, maybe women are not interested because they don’t see how science fits with their desire to work with people, as was recently argued by Claire Cupples, the Dean of Science at Simon Fraser University.

These might seem like comforting explanations—no discrimination, no stereotyping, just choice—but they are also too simple.

What influences students’ decisions to pursue physics?

As early as the eighth grade, the interest that students show in science is one of the best ways to predict whether they will go on to receive a bachelor’s degree in science, a link which is even more important than their mathematics achievement at the same age.[3]

Personal interest isn’t, however, the only factor. Students’ belief in their own abilities is extremely important. Students with high self-efficacy, confidence in their ability to succeed at particular tasks, tend to understand physics better and achieve better grades. This makes a lot of sense: if students don’t believe they have the ability to master new ideas and problems, it is easy to see why they might not persevere in trying to understanding difficult concepts. This relationship is true for both male and female students, but female students tend to believe in themselves less, contributing to the difficulties they can encounter in physics.[4]

Parents, teachers and peers also have strong influences on students’ perceptions of their own abilities, affecting students’ career and degree choices. In one study, students were followed from age 12 to age 24. Researchers asked the students and their parents about the student’s math and science interests, abilities and career aspirations. They found that the more mothers believed in their children’s science and math abilities in grade 7, the more likely those students were to pursue careers in science at age 24.[5] Peers can have a similar impact, supporting or eroding students’ belief in their own abilities. In another study, rural girls who were recognized as talented in science were strongly influenced by the recognition and support they received from their peers.[6] These social influences can be troubling because parents, teachers and even peers often have stereotypical views of interest and ability in science, views that tend to favor male students.[7]

Together, studies like these illustrate how challenging it is to pinpoint a single cause for the underrepresentation of women in physics. There are elements of interest and self-confidence, but also difficult social pressures. With these challenges in mind, what is needed is not acquiescence but continued searching for solutions. We still need to know what can be done to support and encourage students, and girls in particular, to pursue careers and graduate studies in physics.

Looking for solutions in high school physics experiences

One such effort, the Persistence Research in Science and Engineering Project [8] led by researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, is trying to identify the impact of teaching environments and strategies on students’ decisions to enrol and continue in physics in university. As part of the project, they have surveyed 3,800 American undergraduate students about their physics interests, confidence and career plans, along with their experiences in high school physics classes.

From this survey data, my colleagues Zahra Hazari, Gerhard Sonnert, Philip Sadler and I created a measure of each student’s "physics identity," the degree to which they perceive themselves to be the right type of person for physics.[9] Being the right type of person means, for example, having confidence in their ability to complete the right tasks (for example, understand and solve difficult physics problems), having a strong interest in physics, having others recognize them as the right type of person, being successful in physics, and choosing to participate in physics-related activities. We found that our measure of identity was a very good way to predict students’ desire to remain in physics and pursue it as a career.

Once we were confident that our measure of physics identity was a valid way of bringing together many of the social and personal factors that tend to influence career choice, we wanted to know what could be done to improve it. As a former high school physics teacher, I was particularly interested in finding out which teaching strategies or classroom activities can contribute to stronger and more positive physics identities, especially for female students.

To answer these questions, the PRiSE questionnaire asked students what they remembered about their high school physics experiences: what they did in class, how they were taught, and the types of resources they had available. In addition to strictly pedagogical questions about lab time versus lecture time, topics that were emphasized, and instructional strategies that their teachers used, we were also interested in whether students recalled their teachers taking time to address subjects that generally fall outside of the usual physics concepts such as discussions of the benefits of and steps needed to pursue a career in physics, ethical considerations in science, and the under-representation of women.

Supporting women by recognizing underrepresentation

Looking at all of the students, male and female, there were several classroom factors that were related to stronger identities. From the perspective of student interest, it wasn’t surprising that teachers who introduced current and cutting-edge physics topics contributed to stronger identities. Frequent labs addressing students’ beliefs about the world, opportunities for peer teaching, and encouraging student questions were also related to stronger physics identities. Students with stronger identities also remembered receiving encouragement from their teachers to pursue physics and having discussions in class about the benefits of being a scientist.

But what about women in particular?

Usually, the strategies that come to mind for encouraging female students include providing positive female science role models, creating opportunities for collaborative group work, and discussing the lives of female scientists. We were very surprised, though, that none of these usual solutions had an effect on the physics identities of the students in our study. Female students who experienced them were no more likely than others to have strong or weak identities in physics.

There was only one classroom experience that had a uniquely strong impact on female students: the explicit discussion of underrepresentation of women in science. This isn’t just highlighting women scientists like Marie Curie but instead talking directly about the fact that there are few women in physics. Female students who had experienced these discussions in their high school classes had significantly stronger physics identities. And further, these discussions had no impact on male students. In other words, for students who experienced explicit discussion of female underrepresentation in physics, the potential physics career gap was decreased.

While addressing her audience at Queen’s, Dr. Tilghman suggested we might reach a point where there are as many women in some areas of science as want to be there, with any remaining gender gaps the result of choices made by women themselves. Our analysis shows that we are not there yet; social influences are still very important for determining if students will pursue a career in physics. Student’s opinions are far from fixed, and good science teachers can have an important effect on their students’ physics identities. Most importantly, teachers who did something as simple as acknowledging the gender imbalance in physics could be enough to help encourage female students toward a physics career.


[1] Her talk was broadcast as part of an episode of the CBC Radio program Ideas.

[2] Hyde, J.S., & Linn, M.C. (2006). Gender similarities in mathematics and science. Science, 314, 599–600. [doi: 10.1126/science.1132154]

[3] Tai, R.H., Liu, C.Q., Maltese, A.V., & Fan, X. (2006). Planning early for careers in science. Science, 312, 1143–1144. [doi: 10.1126/science.1128690]

[4] Cavallo, A.M.L., Potter, W.H., & Rozman, M. (2004). Gender differences in learning constructs, shifts in learning constructs, and their relationship to course achievement in a structured inquiry, yearlong college physics course for life science majors. School Science & Mathematics, 104, 288–300.

[5] Bleeker, M.M., & Jacobs, J.E. (2004). Achievement in math and science: Do mothers’ beliefs matter 12 years later? Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(1), 97–109.

[6] Jacobs, J.E., Finken, L.L., Griffin, N.L., & Wright, J.D. (1998). The career plans of science-talented rural adolescent girls. American Educational Research Journal, 35, 681–704.

[7] Kessels, U. (2005). Fitting into the stereotype: How gender-stereotyped perceptions of prototypic peers relate to liking for school subjects. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 20, 309–323. [doi: 10.1007/BF03173559]

[8] Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), PRiSE surveyed a nationally representative sample of college/university students enrolled in introductory English courses in the fall of 2007 about their interests and experiences in science. The survey can be viewed online at

[9] This post is based on findings published in our paper: Hazari, Z., Sadler, P. M., Sonnert, G., & Shanahan, M.-C. (2010). Connecting high school physics experiences, outcome expectations, physics identity, and physics career choice: A gender study. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 47, 978–1003. [doi: 10.1002/tea.20363]


About the author: Marie-Claire Shanahan is an assistant professor of science education at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where she studies the interactions that people have with each other in science—in classrooms, meeting rooms and online. She is President of the Canadian Science Education Research Group and a member of the Centre for Mathematics, Science and Technology Education. She blogs at Boundary Vision and tweets at @mcshanahan. When she isn’t teaching, visiting research sites or writing, she can be found exploring the Edmonton river valley with her dogs, who, despite her best efforts, have not yet developed the ability to ask scientific questions.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 12 Comments

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  1. 1. Cramer 5:56 pm 03/29/2011

    I am surprised nothing was mentioned about cultural aspects of why women are underrepresented in physics. Since over half of all PhD students in the US are foreign and 2/3 of all foreign students are Asian (half of Asian students from China), I wonder what the cultural impact is. It appears this article is only looking at US universities.

    I have not been able to find a breakdown on the nationality of women studying physics. I have however found that by the late 1990s, less than 10% of physics students in China were women. I guess that has recently increased to over 25%, but I don’t know how that translates to foreign students in the US.

    Too bad this article did not go into that. Shanahan seems to mostly care about how high school teachers were impacting the skew (maybe because that’s where changes can be more easily made). I guess by including Shirley Tilghman’s opinion that much of it has to do with choice, Shanahan does consider the culture factor, but she’s very vague and seems quick to discount it.

    The <10% figure came from the following source:
    China Debates Big Drop in Women Physics Majors
    Yang Jianxiang
    Science, 11 Jan 2002: Vol. 295, pg. 263.

    Link to this
  2. 2. mcshanahan 6:58 pm 03/29/2011

    Thanks for reading Cramer. I really appreciate your comment. And while this particular study didn’t emphasize culture, I didn’t mean to give the impression it isn’t important. Parent, teacher and peer influences are very strong and these certainly differ by culture. It doesn’t address your question about foreign students, but Heidi Carlone from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro has published an interesting study exploring women of colour navigating science career paths in US universities.

    Carlone, H.B., & Johnson, A. (2007). Understanding the science experiences of successful women of color: Science identity as an analytic lens. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 44(8), 1187-1218.

    You’re right that we were most interested in places where change can happen, such as high school classes, but this is far from a total explanation. Culture is very important and this is definitely a question that doesn’t just apply to the US.

    Link to this
  3. 3. billf 7:10 pm 03/29/2011

    Seeing as how men are now underrepresented in biology degrees, I assume there will be the corresponding call for interesting more men in that particular branch of science. Can we declare victory in that area yet?

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  4. 4. mcshanahan 7:17 pm 03/29/2011

    No, you’re right, we can’t. If you’re interested, there is an excellent program here at the University of Alberta that encourages young male students to participate in summer research internships in nutrition, human ecology and nursing.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Numerouno711 7:57 pm 03/29/2011

    I am so happy that this topic has been raised. I think less women participation is on account of our genetic build up that has formed in due course of time by the choices our ancestor women have made on account of their role as a child bearer and nurturer. Women have been sacrificing and still are sacrificing their ability to perform equally or even better than their male counter parts. It is this responsibility upon our shoulders that has let men be successful in contributing and participating in subjects like science and maths

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  6. 6. Cramer 2:54 am 03/30/2011

    Professor Shanahan,

    Thank you for your reply. The word "care" in my third paragraph was poorly chosen. I didn’t mean to imply you thought culture wasn’t important, I was just surprised that is wasn’t mentioned.

    After I wrote that comment, I wondered if the culture factor was less significant than I originally thought; especially, since you said that 60% of biology degrees were awarded to women. Is it still thought that women have better verbal episodic memory skills where men have better visuospatial processing skills??? I would definitely think verbal episodic memory skills would be better suited for the biological sciences and visuospatial processing skills would be better suited for math and physics.

    Maybe it is just a matter of choice. It’s might just be an issue of comparative advantages (a theory in economics). If women are better in every single field/subject than men, this would still be the case (which is typically found in testing). It only matters that women on average are better in verbal episodic memory than visuospatial processing. If they are better or worse than men in any subject is irrelevant (works the same in international trade, etc.).

    Also, there are only approximately 6,000 bachelors degrees and 1500 PhDs awarded in physics each year. 80,000 bachelor degrees in biology are awarded.

    From what I can see if you remove engineering and computer science from all the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) degrees, it appears that women are actually awarded more bachelor degrees than men.

    If these numbers are correct, I would not say the problem is in science, it is in engineering and computer science (CS is typically consider to be more of an engineering field).

    Also, 57% of college degrees are earned by women. Men also fared worse during the last few recessions by losing more jobs in construction and factory work. 93% of the people incarcerated in the US are men.

    Thinking that all fields should equally split 50%-50% especially in a field that graduates only 6k per year seems less alarming than the 57% graduate rate or difference in computer science/engineering. Look at those problems first, and that just might solve the physics disparity.

    Or maybe we could solve the problem if we figure out why men are more stupid (i.e. not as smart) than women on average.

    My numbers came from:

    Link to this
  7. 7. whatsup 3:05 pm 03/30/2011

    Let’s see. The fastest typists in the world, the best chefs, the hottest women cloths designer/hair dressers are all men. On the other hand there are more women in American universities but more homeless men on the streets of our large cities. Is there nothing equal in this country any more. Enough with this equality bit. You lefties have got to stop with your designer societies and let people make up their own mines about having babies or majoring in physics. Where there is a need there are "People" who who will fill it in a truly FREE country. Mine your own business.

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  8. 8. wstrong 4:10 pm 03/30/2011

    I think this article is really poorly argued. I’m also skeptical of what I understand to be the underlying premise.

    "We still need to know what can be done to support and encourage students, and girls in particular, to pursue careers and graduate studies in physics."

    Why? Because there are less women than men in physics, and by some reckoning there "should" be the same? The article mentions that there are more women than men in biology. Does this mean its equally desirable to boost the percentage of men there? Both could be accomplished at once if some of those would-be bio women could be recruited to physics at a young age. Maybe the real problem is "too many" men choose physics? Easy problem to solve: subsidize (pay) women to study physics, and get the funds from charging women more who study biology, vice versa for men. This is of course is social engineering, to try to get the world to conform to some people’s idealistic model. The result is that you will end up with people that are less happy with their careers, and probably also less productive.

    "suggested we might reach a point where there are as many women in some areas of science as want to be there, with any remaining gender gaps the result of choices made by women themselves. Our analysis shows that we are not there yet; social influences are still very important for determining if students will pursue a career in physics."

    Nothing in the article that I saw showed that women wanted to be in physics but just were being denied somehow. It showed that if women are culturally conditioned differently towards physics then its possible to increase enrollment. So what? All of our attitudes and decisions in life are massively influenced by cultural conditioning – just take a quick look around the globe to establish that fact. I have no doubt that you could also provide "special recognition" for men, and change the physics cultural environment for them to either increase or decrease enrollment. What would be the justification for spending resources on accomplishing this? Trying to remove explicit barriers is one thing, trying to socially engineer society towards idealized norms generally doesn’t work out so well.

    Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that women are not discrimintaed against implicitly or explicitly in physics, this article just does little to make such a case.

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  9. 9. Cramer 5:08 pm 03/30/2011

    whatsup says, "Mine your own business."

    That sounds like a plea for a reduction in any transparency that might currently exist. Why promote secrecy? Secrecy is not consistent with your assumed free market ideology because inefficient markets tend to breakdown because people lose trust. The investigation of why certain members of our society have access to some benefits of our society while other don’t can only lead to more freedom, not less. Should it be up to you to decide what is investigated? What if it was found that systematic discrimination existed and you, your daughter, or sister was rejected from their chosen field of study because of it?

    It is also interesting that you believe that "lefties" desire a "designer society" then give an example of the "righties’" desire to completely strip the family planning rights of women. How about the "righty" laws in Texas renaming slave trade to "Atlantic triangular trade?" Is that not a "designer society."

    You seem unaware that both authoritarian conservatives and libertarian conservatives exist, but it has only been the authoritarian conservatives that gain any real power. The last election has made that clear where authoritarian conservatives were elected dressed up as libertarian conservatives. Maybe you should take some time to think about why the words libertarian and liberal (i.e. your lefties) are similar sounding.

    As a liberal I also believe in the government’s role of protecting "property rights" just like the libertarian’s hero, Ayn Rand, did. However, those property rights include more than just the property of the wealthy. All property is included, from the commercial property of gulf fishermen to the intellectual or bodily property of an impoverished inner city youth.

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  10. 10. okwhen 12:54 am 03/31/2011

    I completely agree with the author to a point. From what I read in this article many obvious and valid variables seemed to be missing. For instance; 1) What is the saturation of each discipline, 2) Pay differential, 3) Possibility for advancement, 4) Job locations, 5) How pregnancy effects position.

    Another comparison I never see is the separation of sexes in professional sports. No, not football or soccer, but rather sports where both sexes are basically on equal playing fields. The sports I am referring to is billiards, badminton, bowling, ping-pong, darts, etc. Women have faster reflexes than men therefore, any advantage seems to be in the woman’s favor. However, if there is a coed competition it is usually only for an exhibition. This is one point I completely agree with the author. By exerting stereotypical roles, we are hindering peoples inner ability and creating divisions where they are not needed.

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  11. 11. JDahiya 8:14 am 04/7/2011

    wstrong, you may also like to see this article for a good reason why it’s important to have more women in Physics: Not that I think you don’t already know that; from your post, you almost certainly do.

    Link to this
  12. 12. JDahiya 8:28 am 04/7/2011

    When I saw this:—-not-that-other-wimpy-jan&WT.mc_id=SA_DD_20110401#add-comment

    I wondered: is the well known story of Jane Goodall one possible reason why biology has more women today?

    Link to this

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