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STEP-UP to change the underrepresentation of women in physics

July 23, 2017

If you’re reading this blog, you probably know that women are underrepresented in physics—women make up only 20% of undergrad physics majors. You may not know that every year, about 15,000 students choose to major in undergraduate physics (3000 of those are women). So what would it take to bring women’s representation in undergraduate physics up to parity? Just 9000 additional women choosing to major in physics. And here’s where you and the other 27,000 high school physics teachers in the United States come in.

All it takes for women to reach parity in undergraduate physics is for each high school physics teacher in the US to recruit one additional woman to major in physics once every three years.

When you think about it this way, it sounds simple. Surely we high school teachers can reach this modest goal. This is why when I was approached to be a part of an NSF grant to Mobilize Teachers to Increase Capacity and Broaden Women’s Participation in Physics, I was thrilled to participate.

Earlier this week, I and 8 other teachers from around the nation met in Miami to work with researchers from Florida International University, Texan A&M Commerce, APS and AAPT to offer feedback on two lessons that are designed to encourage women to pursue physics majors. The first lesson is designed to help students see that majoring in physics gives students a broad set of skills that are applicable to a wide range of careers, and the second is a specific intervention to address underrepresention of women in physics and the role that unconscious bias plays in this underrepresentation.

This is going to be a multi-year project, and I will be sharing more about it as our work continues, but for now, I did want to pass along a few great resources I discovered during our meeting.

First, here’s a great one page summery of research proven strategies you can employ in your classroom engage and encourage female students in physics.

Here are a couple of papers from Professor Hazari’s research group about her research into encouraging women to study physics:

Finally, I want to say that this work is much harder than it sounds, especially when we think about how deeply ingrained unconscious bias and sexism are in our culture. At one point in our conversation, we had been discussing ways to successfully recruit women for about an hour, when one of the researchers pointed out that for the past hour, men had been speaking for 75% of the time—this is a room of teachers and researchers with strong understanding of gender bias and a common goal of increasing women’s representation in our field. A number of people in the room quickly tried to justify this result, noting that only 3 out of the 8 teachers in the group were women. But, after about 45 minutes more discussion, the ratio had dropped considerably—men only spoke for 66%. These statistics were provided by the awesome website, Are men talking too much? , which lets you quickly track the gender composition of any meeting.

Screen Shot 2017 07 23 at 2 22 57 PM

My takeaway: we need to use tools like this to make ourselves more aware of gender bias and to hold ourselves accountable to do something about it.

I’m very excited to be a part of this project and look forward to writing much more about it in the future.

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