Why Aren’t More Girls Attracted to Physics?

NPR brought my attention to this great research by Catherine Riegel-Crumb from the University of Texas. The bottom line: “fewer girls may be taking courses that lead to tech careers when they don’t see female role models already in tech careers”. The reporter described it as a chicken and egg problem. Go listen to the piece (c’mon, you have 4 and a half minutes to spare…) then we’ll come back and discuss.

Why Aren’t More Girls Attracted to Physics? (NPR, 4 min 34 sec)

Maybe because of this:

ht_childrens_place_subjects_tshirt_kb_130806_16x9_608

Seriously, though, the NPR piece and the original research[1] suggest that girls are more likely to enroll in physics if there are a significant number of female role models working locally in STEM careers. Ok, so we need some trailblazers who are willing to go out there and be the first role models for young women. We need to encourage young women starting early that math and science are worthy of their attention, despite what the shirt says.

Wait, wait, wait, I feel like we’ve been having this conversation for 30+ years. The trailblazers in tech fields were in university in the 70s. Why are we still talking about this problem? Where are the women?

The saddest part of this problem is that I feel powerless to help because I’m not a role model.[2]

My hypothesis: a female physics teacher isn’t a role model for future physicists because the kids mentally drop the physics and see only female teacher. That’s a shame.

Case in point: I’m one of those non-role models. Female, engineer, physics teacher, robotics coach, and geek. So is my colleague, also named Meg(h)an. I think though, that the fact we hold the title of Teacher negates most of the role modeling we could be doing. We’re still working in a traditionally women’s role.

I’m left with only questions at this point.

  1. How can I become a role model for future physicists, engineers, and mathematicians?
  2. How can I encourage just a few women to be the trailblazing future role models?
  3. How can my male colleagues do the same work? Is it even possible?

[1] Ok, so I don’t actually know what the research says after the first page because it’s paywalled in an academic journal. Don’t get me started on that.

[2] Oh boy, y’all are going to jump all over this statement. Keep reading and you’ll see why.

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