What does it take to be the ‘exceptional girl’ who studies physics?

Why is it only the exceptional girl who pursues an education in physics?

A new study in the American Educational Research Journal (The ‘‘Exceptional’’ Physics Girl: A Sociological Analysis of Multimethod Data From Young Women Aged 10–16 to Explore Gendered Patterns of Post-16 Participation) blames a masculine “cultural arbitrary” for the huge gender gap in engineering and the physical sciences.

“The pervasive construction of physics as masculine and hard becomes internalized by girls/women who come to see physics as being obviously ‘not for me,’ without realizing exactly where this viewpoint comes from,” write researchers from King’s College London.

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu described “cultural arbitrary” as the socialized acceptance of the legitimacy of the culture and principles of those in power.

“A field such as physics contains its own logic of practice, such as commonly understood rules, traditions, and ways of being, and determines who and what counts as valued, valid, or authentic,” write the authors of the “exceptional physics girl” study. “Within any particular field, some groups or social actors will hold more power and be seen as more legitimate than others.”

Even the girls who stake out a place for themselves in this male-dominated field may consciously or unconsciously accept that men have superior ability, interest, or aptitude for the subject, the researchers write.


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Tension between being female and a physicist

For this study, researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 7 girls who planned to continue their studies of physics past the age of 16. The 15-16 –year-old girls were identified as part of the Aspires2 project, a 10-year longitudinal study that investigates children’s science and career aspirations from the age of 10. The nationally representative survey of 350 schools in the UK was completed by 13,421 students.

The “exceptional girls” at the focus of this study reported many identity issues as they struggled to be recognized as both physicists and females. They were comfortable, even proud, to be different from other girls, highly competitive and reported having a reputation for being “brainy.” Interestingly, the girls shared a preference for theoretical over practical aspects of physics. All were aware of how “girly” or “not girly” they seemed to others. While one participant liked girly clothes and makeup, the other girls played with a “geek chick” identity that blended the masculine and feminine.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a particularly feminine person at all. I mean you know like I swear quite a lot (laughs)….I swear like a sailor, it’s ridiculous. You know I don’t … I don’t dress particularly feminine, like I tend to wear jeans and like band t-shirts and hoodies and stuff and I wear like boys’ skater shoes. So I mean yeah I’m not …. I don’t have a particularly feminine voice either.”

It requires a lot of effort and energy to act like a physicist who is a girl and a girl who is a physicist, the authors point out. These social performances are especially challenging for working class students who also must negotiate differences in class with their better-off classmates.  Many of the middle-class girls were supported by “strong family science capital”,  e.g. parents who held STEM degrees and prized science.

Masculine culture needs to be changed

In a 2015 position piece, the Institute of Physics in the UK appealed to schools to challenge the popular view that physics is hard, instead of promoting a view that all subjects are equally challenging. (Opening doors: A guide to good practice in gender stereotyping in schools.)

“It is often claimed that getting more women into physics will change the culture. However, our analyses suggest that it might not be that simple,” the authors write.

Unless the cultural arbitrary of physics and other male-dominated fields like engineering are changed, the number of women who continue in the field will continue to be low, the authors predict.

The ‘‘Exceptional’’ Physics Girl: A Sociological Analysis of Multimethod Data From Young Women Aged 10–16 to Explore Gendered Patterns of Post-16 Participation,” American Educational Research Journal, February 2017, Vol. 54, No. 1, pp. 88–126.

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