Equity and Access

Published in the Research School of Physics Event Horizon
Vol42 Issue48 12–16 December 2016

From the RSPE Equity and Access Committee:

Discussing underrepresentation as a means to facilitating female students’ physics identity development

Explicit discussions of the underrepresentation of women in science can change the way that female students interpret their experiences and potential futures as scientists.

Despite the fact that approximately half of high school physics students are female, only 21% of physics bachelor’s degrees are awarded to women. In a previous study, drawn from a national survey of college students in introductory English courses, five factors commonly proposed to positively impact female students’ choice of a physical science career were tested using multivariate matching methods. The only factor found to have a positive effect was the explicit discussion of the underrepresentation of women in physics. In order to explore this further, a case study of the classes of one teacher reported to discuss the underrepresentation of women was conducted. Two classroom underrepresentation discussions were recorded, students and teacher were interviewed, and relevant student work was collected. Analyzing the case study data using a figured worlds framework, we found that discussing the underrepresentation of women in science explicitly creates an opportunity for students’ figured worlds of professional and school science to change, and facilitates challenging their own implicit assumptions about how the world functions. Subsequently, the norms in students’ figured worlds may change or become less rigid allowing for a new openness to physics identity development amongst female students.

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