The Construction of Physics as a Quintessentially Masculine Subject: Young People’s Perceptions of Gender Issues in Access to Physics

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Abstract

The present article investigates explanations for gendered trends in Physics and Engineering access, reporting findings from a large-scale study funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council and drawing primarily on data from interviews with 132 15–16 year-old adolescents and their parents. Survey results in our study and elsewhere show strong gender disparities in anticipated pursuit of Physics after completion of compulsory education. In order to explore the constructions of gender and Physics underlying these trends, we focus on qualitative interview data, applying Foucaultian analysis of discourse to investigate gendered narratives underpinning adolescents’ and their parents’ articulations. This analysis reveals three key discourses at work on the topic of women’s access to Physics: (a) equality of opportunity, (b) continued gender discrimination in and around Physics, and (c) Physics as quintessentially masculine. We additionally identify five distinct narratives supporting the discourse of physics as masculine. These various discourses and narratives are interrogated, and their implications explored. We conclude that it is only by disrupting prevalent constructions of the Physical sciences as a masculine and “hard” domain will we increase the presence of women in the sector. Working with young people to analyse and deconstruct the discursive assumptions made in relation to gender and Physics, as well as further work to increase accessibility and broaden representation in Physics, may be fruitful ways to challenge these longstanding associations between Physics and masculinity.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)156-176
Number of pages19
JournalSex Roles
Volume76
Issue number3
Early online date6 Sept 2016
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2017

Keywords

  • Gender equality
  • STEM
  • Education policy
  • Gender
  • Physics
  • Masculinity
  • Femininity

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