Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Gender, Context, and Physics Assessment

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Gender, Context, and Physics Assessment

Article excerpt


A persistent gender gap exists on one of the most commonly-used physics conceptual tests, the Force Concept Inventory. The test includes many stereotypically male contexts such as hockey, rockets, and cannonballs. A revised version of the test was created using stereotypically female contexts and both versions were randomly administered to 300 college students. While the total correct score did not change for men and women, significant results were discovered when test questions were examined individually. Results suggest that context can affect performance on a physics assessment for both men and women. One implication for instructors is that they should be aware of how their examples and problems can elicit different performance among women and men.

Key Words: science education, assessment, context


Issues of gender inequality and science have been under discussion for many years. Despite ongoing concern on the subject, the physical sciences remain heavily male-dominated, with physics demonstrating one of the most severe under-representation of women (NSF 2002). In an increasingly scientific and technological world, society needs to encourage all people to learn and study science and technology. To make educated choices about public officials and politics, and to make the best choices about their health and well-being, people need to understand the basics of science. In general, we are not doing a good job with our women and girls. Women fear or are feared by the culture of science and in consequence are not getting an adequate scientific education, which in turn means that they are not always in a position to make the most informed choices for themselves and their families. It follows that actions to specifically enhance learning for women need to be taken, as well as actions to encourage women to seek careers in these fields.

In the United States women do well in education at a general level. They earn 57% of all bachelor's degrees and 44% of doctorates. Yet in the sciences those numbers drop dramatically, particularly in the physical sciences and engineering.

In physics, about 50% of high school physics students are young women (Ivie & Stowe, 2000). This is encouraging, although the advanced placement courses are still more heavily populated by men. But at the college level only 22% of physics bachelors degrees are earned by women. That number drops further to 14% at the doctoral level. The statistics for participation in physics and other fields in the U.S. are available from the National Science Foundation (2002).

Teachers of physics also illustrate this gender discrepancy; at the high school level, only 29% of physics teachers are women (Neuschatz & McFarling, 2003). In college, women make up only 11% of assistant professors, 10% of associate professors, and 5% of full professors of physics (Nelson & Rogers, 2004). This means that young women have few role models and female mentors available in physics.

Across the world, the percentage of women in physics is not much better (Ivie, Czujko, & Stowe, 2001). France has one of the highest levels, with 27% of physics PhDs going to women. Many Asian nations are lower in ranking, with China at 13% and Japan at 8% of PhDs in physics going to women. This is a worldwide problem, and all countries need to focus on promoting the participation of women in science.

Why is there such a strong gender disparity in physics? Part of the answer lies with physics education. Poor pedagogy is a large factor in students' decisions to leave science (Seymour & Hewitt, 1997). Physics education should be examined closely for biases that may exclude particular learners. Classroom education of any sort consists of three general parts: curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Science curriculum and instruction have been closely scrutinized for gender bias and many positive changes have been made. …

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