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Gender Roles - How to succeed in attracting young women to physics in the long term

May 21st, 2021

The importance and fostering of young women's competence perception as well as their sense of belonging in physics

Peter Wulff

Female students, on average, are much less interested in physics than male students. As a result, only few women study physics. Even high-achieving female students are less likely to choose to study physics than their peers. A study conducted at the IPN investigated the extent to which female students could be drawn to physics by a learning environment specifically designed according to the findings of gender-related research.

The underrepresentation of women in physics has been a problem for many years and in many countries. The proportion of female students at the beginning of physics studies in countries such as Germany or the USA is around 20 percent. Female students also drop out of their physics studies more frequently than their male counterparts, so that the proportion of female students declines disproportionately during the course of their studies. Similar problems occur in student competitions such as the Physics Olympiad. The Physics Olympiad is a multi-stage competition that identifies and promotes high-achieving female and male students in physics. The proportion of female students in the first round of the Physics Olympiad is approximately 25 percent. This percentage drops to less than 10 percent by the final round.

The fact that young women are less likely to study physics and that they are more likely to drop out of physics studies than young men is not due to differences in performance. This also applies to the underrepresentation of young women in the Physics Olympiad. Rather, the underrepresentation of high-performing young women is due to a complex interplay of structural features of the learning environment in physics classes or physics studies and individual characteristics of the students. It is assumed that decreasing engagement and a lack of fit between learning environment and individual student hamper the development of a physics identity.


Exploring how to foster engagement in physics and the development of a physics identity among young women

In the context of schools, structural characteristics of physics education such as specific subject traditions and associated gender stereotypes have a lasting impact on the development of a physics identity for young women. Whereas female students tend to prefer cooperative formats, physics education is traditionally knowledge-centered and competitive. In addition, physics-related learning environments often reflect traditional gender roles. Physics is considered a male domain; there is a lack of female physicists who could act as role models for interested female students. Last but not least, physics-related learning environments are rarely oriented towards the specific interests of young women, and when it is, it is rather stereotypical.

In addition to these structural characteristics of the learning environment, at the individual level, young women's perceptions of their own competence and sense of belonging in physics are often disproportionately lower compared to young men. Thus, even high-achieving young women underestimate their own expertise in physics. Similarly, they experience less support from their social environment for their involvement in physics than is the case for young men. As a result, the willingness to engage in physics is low(er); a physics identity is not developed.

Individual and structural characteristics are linked by a complex interplay. For example, if young women perceive physics as male-dominated, this can negatively influence their sense of belonging, which in turn leads them to turn more to other domains and the overrepresentation of men in physics remains unchanged. By specifically modifying the structural characteristics of a learning environment, the individual needs of young women can be addressed, thereby increasing their willingness to engage in physics. For example, the perception of competencies and the sense of belonging can be strengthened through the use of action-oriented and cooperative forms of instruction. Likewise, adapting the social arrangement of the learning environment, in which female role models and social interactions among like-minded young women are encouraged, can have a positive impact on the sense of belonging. Finally, a selection of learning content specifically geared to the interests of young women can support their perception of competence.

Gender-inclusive design of physics learning environments with these three structural features in mind - the form of instruction, the social arrangement, and the selection of learning content - should address young women's individual needs for competence and belonging, thereby increasing their engagement in physics and indirectly contributing to the development of a physics identity.


How should a gender-inclusive learning environment in physics be designed?

The present study was designed to test the extent to which such support for female physics students can be achieved with a specifically designed learning environment. The Physics Olympiad provided the framework for designing the gender-inclusive learning environment. Extracurricular programs such as the Physics Olympiad provide an ideal testbed for developing and evaluating appropriate support measures. They are especially targeted to attract students to physics, yet at the same time they are characterized by the typical features of physics-related learning environments. However, as extracurricular activities, they are subject to fewer restrictions in terms of designing a gender-inclusive support intervention. Aiming to promote the perceived competence and sense of belonging of young women in particular, the support measure was designed with respect to the relevant structural characteristics as follows.

Form of instruction: A gender-inclusive form of instruction can be achieved through action-oriented or cooperative forms of work. Action-oriented forms of work are preferred by female students in physics lessons. Through application and actual experience, they directly promote an image of physics in which discovery and comprehension of concepts or physics theories are not pursued for their own sake. In addition, the cooperative exchange formats create more space for discourse, which appeals to female students.

In the actual implementation, the participants were given the opportunity at various points to work out abstract concepts such as the wave concept of light with the help of engaging experiments. At the end of the program, the participants developed a tiny electric motor from a list of everyday materials: a screw, candy bar paper, a magnet and a battery. The participants always worked in groups of two of the same sex, to prevent the boys from dominating the equipment and conversation.

Social arrangement: Students are especially sensitive to characteristics of their immediate social environment. Aspects such as the gender composition of the group or the gender of the teacher(s) in charge play an important role in students' sense of belonging to a group. Like physics classes, the Physics Olympiad is male-dominated in terms of numbers, and activities are often led by male instructors. However, when the gender distribution in physics was changed in favor of female students, female students took more responsibility in experimentation, contributed more often to the discussion of content, and could even be strengthened in their career aspirations to become physicists.

To achieve this in the support program, students were invited in equal numbers and female experts were engaged as mentors. The mentors were successful former participants, so participating female students perceived them as being as similar to themselves as possible. Furthermore, the group work phases were organized in such a way that initially same-sex group members worked together to allow female students a higher degree of participation.

Content: Traditional physics classes often focus on technical applications such as motors or electrical circuits. These contexts are comparably uninteresting to female students. However, if physics content is embedded in biological or medical contexts, this is equally interesting for female and male students. Here, it is particularly important for female students to find out where the content to be learned relates to their own lives and what the social applications of the content are.

Therefore, problems situated in biological and medical contexts were chosen as a starting point in the support program. For example, analogous to the structure determination of human DNA, the participants were instructed to determine the structure of a wire mesh that modeled the typical double helix structure of DNA. The participants were asked to illuminate the wire structure with a laser beam and determine the geometry of the wire structure from the resulting diffraction pattern. Information was also provided on Rosalind Franklin's role and the significance of an analogous experiment that she performed in the context of the decoding of human DNA structure in order to emphasize its relevance for the participants' own lives and for society.


Testing and evaluation of the support program

The support program was offered parallel to the 2016/17 Physics Olympiad and comprised a total of four seminar dates, the first and last of which were classroom events lasting a weekend, with two online events held in between. A total of 58 teenagers (of whom 26 were female and 32 male) took part in the support program. A further 30 teenagers (of whom 12 were female and 18 male) served as a comparison group. They participated in an analogous program where all four seminar dates were offered as online events.

The quality of engagement with the learning environment was recorded to evaluate participants' direct engagement by having participants rate the forms of instruction, the social arrangement, and the content of the support offered. Perceptions of competence and the participants' sense of belonging in physics were recorded at each of the seminar dates using established instruments. Willingness to continue in the Physics Olympiad and physics, as well as participants' actual re-participation in the Physics Olympiad, were recorded in order to investigate longer-term effects of the support program on participants' physics-related decisions.


What effects were found?

Regarding the quality of engagement with the instructional format, the social arrangement, and the content of the support program, the study found that both the students and the mentors rated the design of the support program across the seminar dates very positively. The (female) mentors received a particularly good evaluation - from both the male and female students.

However, the participants' perception of competence and their sense of belonging did not change during the course of the support program. This was also true for the participants in the comparison group. Initially, no gender-specific differences could be identified either. Nevertheless, the design of the training program had an effect. Those participants who retrospectively rated the design positively developed a stronger sense of belonging over the course of the measure than those who rated the design less positively; this effect was independent of gender and was not evident for the development of competence perception.

Finally, the students who had taken part in the support program showed that they tended to take part in the next Physics Olympiad more often than students who had not taken part in the support program. About half of the participants stated that their renewed participation was motivated by the support program.


Conclusion: Strengthening engagement and physics identity

The goal of this study was to develop and evaluate a support program that would provide female students with positive interaction with physics to encourage a commitment to physics and promote the development of a physics identity.

With regard to direct involvement in the support measure, it was first shown that the evaluation of the instructional format, the social arrangement and the content was above average, so that the overall support concept can be judged to fulfill its purpose. Specifically, the (positive) evaluation of the support program by the participants was shown to have an influence on the development of the sense of belonging. No gender-specific effects appeared. Lack of gender-specific effects should be viewed positively, because they suggest that the support measure promoted students of both genders equally and thus made a contribution to the gender-inclusive design of the Physics Olympiad. Also, in terms of longer-term involvement in the Physics Olympiad, participants - regardless of gender - seemed to have benefited in their motivation to participate again and tended to participate in the Physics Olympiad again, which suggests that such a support measure can indeed contribute to compensating for the disproportionate dropout of female students.

Engagement: The immediate engagement with a learning environment depends on the instructional, social and content design, which should address the needs (cognitive, social, affective/emotional) of the learners as optimally as possible. Qualitative engagement of the students with the design elements of the learning environment leads to students’ engagements with the specific situation, which is seen as a necessary condition for the development of a physics identity.


Wulff, P. (2019): Supporting young women's physics engagement - Evidence from an intervention in the context of the Physics Olympiad. Dissertation an der CAU Kiel. Online: