Talking About Gender and Physics: Supporting Female Students’ Identity Trajectories into Physics

Despite decades of research and concern about female representation in the physical sciences, physics continues to fall behind the other sciences in both the recruitment and retention of women to post-secondary degree programs in Canada, the United States and internationally (Francis et al., 2016).  Speculation as to why the gender gap persists ranges from reports of unsupportive classroom environments (Hasse, 2002), and ‘chilly climates’ for women (Blickenstaff, 2005), to characterizations of physics as a masculine field (Gonsalves, Danielsson and Pettersson, 2016).  Overwhelming evidence suggests that by the time students are faced with making decisions about pursuing physics as an option for post-secondary study, girls have developed negative perceptions about the masculine nature of physics, and do not see it as a possible career choice (e.g., Francis et al., 2016). 

A recent large-scale study surveying over 7500 high school students in the United States revealed that the only interventions shown to have a significant effect related to girls’ ongoing identification with physics were explicit classroom discussions about the under-representation of women (Hazari et al., 2013). In a follow-up study, Lock and Hazari (2016) found that classroom discussions about the under-representation of women in physics provided opportunities for students to expand their own understandings of post-secondary physics careers, and to challenge their implicit assumptions about how the world of physics functions. 

Thus, in this preliminary study, it is reasonable to hypothesize that explicit discussions about gender and physics may encourage more long-term participation in physics.  It has been shown that development of a physicist identity correlates with persistence in the field (Hazari et al., 2010), and that seeing oneself as an insider to physics can be hampered by discourses of gender in various ways (Gonsalves, 2014). Following this, an identity framing will inform this study’s understanding of how discussions about gender in physics impact students’ sense of membership in the field. From this theoretical orientation emerges the following research questions:  

1. How do discussions about the under-representation of women in physics (re)figure students’ perceptions of physics?

2.  How do these discussions influence students’ identity development in relation to physics?

Gender-consciousness (Francis, 2000) workshops have already been piloted and are under revisions.  Data collection will include pre-workshop surveys, video documentation of workshop conversations, and post-workshop interviews with participating CEGEP students.  Analysis of data will help to determine whether and how participating in gender-consciousness workshops enables increasing identification with physics fields, and intention to persist into physics at the university level. 

Years active: 2017-2018

Research assistant:  Chris Gosling


  • Blickenstaff, J. (2005). Women and science careers:  leaky pipeline or gender filter?  Gender and Education, 17, 4. 369-386.
  • Francis, B.  (2000). The Gendered Subject: Students’ subject preferences and discussions of gender and subject ability. Oxford Review of Education, 26, 1. 35-48
  • Francis, B., Archer, L., Moote, J., DeWitt, J., MacLeod, E., and Yeomans, L. (2016).  The construction of physics as a quintessentially masculine subject.  Sex Roles (online).
  • Gonsalves, A. (2014).  “Physics and the girly girl—there is a contradiction somewhere”:  doctoral students’ positioning around the discourses of gender and competence in physics.  Cultural Studies of Science Education, 9, 2. 503-521. 
  • Gonsalves, A., Danielsson, A., and Pettersson, H. (2016). Masculinities and experimental practices in physics:  The view from three case studies.  Physical Review Physics Education Research, 12, 020120.
  • Hasse, C. (2002).  Gender diversity in play with physics: The problem of premises for participation in activities.  Mind, Culture and Activity. 9(4), 250–269.
  • Hazari, Z, Potvin, G., Lock, R., Lung, F., Sonnert, G., and Sadler, P. (2013). Factors that affect the physical science career interest of female students: Testing five common hypotheses, Physical Review Physics Education Research. 9, 020115
  • Lock, R., and Hazari, Z. (2016).  Discussing underrepresentation as a means to facilitating female students’ physics identity development.  Physical Review Physics Education Research, 12, 020101.

Contact: Allison Gonsalves, PhD

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