Most high achieving female students studying physics at university choose to discontinue physics as a core subject, not because they aren’t good at physics, but because they pursue further study in the life sciences.
This is one of the key findings of a paper published in PLoS One co-authored by Te Pūnaha Matatini researchers Steven Turnbull, Dr Dion O’Neale and Dr Kirsten Locke, and colleague Dr Frédérique Vanholsbeeck, all from the University of Auckland.
“We found that the majority of high achieving female physics students were actually studying physics for life sciences, which is needed for medicine and bioscience, and not actually for core physics,” says lead author Steven Turnbull, Te Pūnaha Matatini PhD student in the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work.
“More importantly, of those students who do pursue further study in physics, we see higher attrition rates for female students after controlling for achievement level, with the exception of higher achievers.”
“The implications of this are potentially career-limiting for women,” says Dr Kirsten Locke, Te Pūnaha Matatini investigator at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work.
“Higher achieving women are tending to opt for physics engagement strongly associated with specific career pathways, in ways that differ from their male counterparts”.
Sociological methods uncover reasons behind gender difference
It is well known that female students are under-represented in university physics. However, the reasons for this are not so well understood.
“Importantly, our findings debunk any kind of idea that there’s a lack of high achieving female physics students out there. It’s not that they aren’t doing well in physics or aren’t interested in physics, because they are,” says Dr Dion O’Neale, Te Pūnaha Matatini Principal Investigator in the University of Auckland’s Department of Physics.
One of the unique aspects of this study was the combination of sociological methods (Pierre Bourdieu theory) and quantitative network analysis to understand the contexts in which students were making enrolment decisions.
Out now! @turdbull & I asked the ghost of Pierre Bourdieu why there are so few women in physics & where they go when they leave. Then we wrote about it with @FredVanH & Kirsten Locke. Read it here: https://t.co/p5VPNkHO0v
— Dion O’Neale (@droneale) September 13, 2019
“Using these tools to frame the results gives one the chance to come up with hypotheses [explanations] as to why things are a particular way or mechanisms for taking the next step,” says O’Neale. “[From a scientist’s perspective], you’ve got something that you can start to test, as opposed to just saying yeah sure there aren’t many women in physics.”
In terms of their data set, the researchers analysed administrative data from 8,905 students enrolled in University of Auckland undergraduate physics courses from 2009 to 2014.
Implications for New Zealand’s education system
Turnbull says the study’s findings have implications for the New Zealand education system, particularly with respect to the way in which physics is presented to students at school.
“We would suggest that work to address gender disparities in physics also needs to be conducted before university level, even as far down as when students start forming their academic identity around 10 or 11 years old. Most importantly, we need to shift attitudes, both inside physics and in society as a whole, so that all students feel like physics is a field where they belong and can contribute.”
The Head of Physics at the University of Auckland, Prof Richard Easther, said he was excited that his Department had hosted this work.
Easther said it had an immediate impact locally as, “It helps us to make evidence-based changes to our own practice, and the ways we present our subject to students.”
Of note, the Physics Department at the University of Auckland was recently recognised by the Astronomical Society of Australia with a Silver Pleiades accreditation for its progress toward building a culture of equity, diversity, and inclusion.