News & Analysis Physics World  April 2017

Women prefer biology after taking basic physics

Different feeling A survey of students in New Zealand suggests women are overall less confident than men in studying physics. (iStock / skynesher)

A survey of almost 10,000 undergraduates in New Zealand has found that women are more likely to choose to study life sciences after taking a first-year physics course rather than progressing further in the physical sciences (arXiv:1702.06249). Carried out by physicist Dion O’Neale and colleagues at the University of Auckland, the study – to be published in Research in Higher Education – did not find the same effect in men. The authors conclude that women may not feel that their participation in physics is as valued or valuable and it could also help to explain why women are significantly underrepresented in fields such as physics, but not in subjects such as biology or medicine.

The authors examined the records of all students at the University of Auckland who took at least one physics course between 2009 and the first semester of 2015, looking in particular for relationships between gender, course selection and performance. The researchers found that male students were twice as likely to go on to study physical science subjects after taking a stage one Advancing Physics course, while women were around 2.5 times more likely to progress in life science subjects instead.

Despite typically entering university with a higher average grade than men, women were outperformed in stage one physics. This gender difference was, however, reversed among those students who progressed to higher levels. Furthermore, women entering university with a high average grade were five times more likely than men to take the lower-level introductory course – Basic Concepts for Physics – before the stage one course, suggesting women feel less confidence than men in studying physics.

The researchers propose that women are socially discouraged from seeing physics as a realistic and suitable study option. They also say that female students may feel they would be better off in the life sciences, where there are more women to act as role models, a perception of greater work–life balance and the sense that stereotypical women’s traits might be more valued.

“All aspects of society from family, to school, to popular media contribute to how students build their ideas about what are suitable subjects for ‘people like them’,” explains O’Neale. “Our findings, and those of previous studies, suggest that by the time students enter university, these impressions are already well formed.” O’Neale adds that to normalize the idea that women can play an equal role in the physical sciences, these influences need to be changed. “Such societal changes are hard, and slow; role models within schools and on popular media would seem like a good place to start,” he says.

Laura McCullough from the University of Wisconsin-Stout in the US, who was not involved in the study and whose research interests include physics education and studies of gender and science, says that the large sample size and novel theoretical approach make it “an especially valuable study” in gender and science. “It’s disappointing to see the confirmation of similar gender differences to those we see in the UK and US, if not surprising, given the common cultural heritage,” she adds.

Ian Randall

Auckland, New Zealand