Girl Meets Physics

Popular culture would have you believe that to study science, let alone physics, you must possess a specific set of character traits. For the most part, these stereotypes mean the ideal prospective science student is anti-social, computer-like and nerdish beyond comprehension.

If one looks to the foundations of physics, however, these characteristics are not prerequisites for success. Curiosity in and about the natural world, a child-like fascination in our own unique world experience and an inbuilt desire to reason and question why the natural world is so inclined to behave a certain way are the crux of the discipline. This curiosity is innate, a catalyst for the success of our species and not limited to an elite few.

I completed my Bachelor of Science in Physics with Honours at Victoria University of Wellington, and am now pursuing my masters at ANU. I was drawn to physics because of the challenges it offered, and because I saw it as an opportunity to develop my reasoning skills and gain a fundamental understanding of the world around me. Physics is a challenging degree in and of itself; not one person, even the brightest and most analytically gifted, would come out of their degree having not being phased (pun intended) in some way. The learning curve is vast; the positive feedback loop and reward system are minimal. For me, the journey was uphill, but the sense of accomplishment made it worth it.

Throughout my degree, I have been surrounded by white heterosexual men: in my lectures, in my tutorials and in my labs. But the belief that men are inherently better suited to numerically rigorous fields has long been debunked and is no longer a widely held belief.

So why is a field of study that fully embraces something so uniquely human — problem solving — so dominated by a specific group of people? What limits the intake of women into the field? Is it intimidation, a lack of confidence or a lack of appeal? Would painting physics pink solve the problem? The answer to all the above is no.

The answer is complicated because it is cultural, and requires us to challenge the innate biases that we all possess (whether we like it or not). Cultural conditioning leaves the majority of women at a distinctive disadvantage. The association of femininity with meekness, a lack of guided logic and limited raw drive and ambition doesn’t leave women on high-ground. Placing people in boxes is easy; thinking about a person as a complex human being is difficult, and for the most part, not worth the effort for a complete stranger. It’s convenient to dump women in the pre-established ‘feminine’ box and walk away. In the same way, the inverse is true with men.

These personality categorisers are rigorous and fairly clear-cut. If you think you can escape them by adjusting your personality type, you will not experience much success — at least not in my experience. I would like to disclose that there is nothing unique or unusual about women studying hard-sciences — women have been doing this with and without approval, and with and without recognition, for centuries. These are my opinions, based on my own unique experience, on the current perception of women in physics.

Collage by Katie Ward

There are two main factors to control in any situation: internal and external problems. In the context of education, this involves dealing with your emotional problems, commonly derived from the educational system itself, as well as problems in your surroundings, which can be human or arbitrarily conceived. One glaring external problem for a woman studying physics is the tokenistic nature of it. Those who are expected to pursue a career in this field are those who have been groomed and coaxed towards it for most of their lives. Egos are volatile, false confidence is encouraged and interpersonal skills are underdeveloped. It is difficult to survive in a system that fosters such behaviour, and it is only made harder when you’ve been raised to be conscientious and self-doubting.

Being a token woman means you are held to a higher standard than that of the majority. Your intelligence and the legitimacy of your presence will be questioned by others, and also by yourself. In the first year of my degree, I distinctly remember feeling like my failings were being interpreted as representing the failings of all women. And the fact that you do feel like you are representing the ‘sisterhood’ means extra weight on your shoulders, which is not pleasant. You feel like average achievements do not legitimise your presence, even though being average is entirely fine. You fear being ‘found out’ as an imposter, and can quickly become paralysed by self-doubt. To minimise these feelings of inadequacy, I have actively sought out supervisors with attitudes that I aligned with throughout my education.

Female supervisors in physics are far and few between, and searching out a female supervisor comes with both benefits and drawbacks. Naturally, people of the same sex are more likely to relate to and understand your emotions and experiences. Working with a female supervisor enhances the likelihood of your experiences overlapping, setting the foundations for an empathic supervisor-student relationship. The positives of this relationship far outweigh the negatives, which manifest in the way you feel you’re being perceived. It is not unheard of for women who get pulled up by other women within the workforce and academia to feel a sense of ‘unworthiness’, as if they don’t deserve their position and everyone else knows it. Other members of their professional group may indeed feel this way, but their opinions in this instance are null. In my experience, the impact of these feelings of unworthiness are mostly internal, and can be extinguished almost entirely by working to develop an entitlement complex that is common among other better-represented students.

No student lives in a vacuum, however, and personal internal struggles always impact your education. During my undergraduate degree, I was diagnosed with endometriosis, which exasperated the difficulty of my studies to a point that it became unhealthy and self-destructive. My constant need to assert my worthiness meant I never requested extensions and always met deadlines. My illness was severe, impacting my physical and mental wellbeing. Studying physics, in my experience, does not leave much room for any weakness, rest or self-pity. Painkillers were effective enough to medicate my physical symptoms, but left me emotionally off-balance. These hormone imbalances heightened my feelings of anxiety and depression, which worked in tandem with the self-deprecating nature of the hard-sciences. In physics, there is minimal room for understanding the personal struggles of others, which is largely because physics, and other fundamental fields in science (in the western world) are dominated by white, middle-class, physically privileged men.

I can’t help but think of the behavioural shift that would occur if a woman, like myself, found themselves surrounded by some similar faces and mannerisms in their physics class. I anticipate the fear of judgement would be greatly reduced, and the environment would probably foster a greater degree of vulnerability, which is imperative for a successful learning process.

The most dangerous thing a woman can do is internalise negative ideas about trial and error from a young age — this renders all their ‘quirks’ and mistakes open to being interpreted as an inability to live up to an impossible gold-standard. Instead, young women need to be taught that mistakes are an opportunity to learn, as opposed to being an opportunity for others to ‘find you out’. Ultimately, everyone needs to be taught that failings are not indicative of unworthiness, and should only be seen as what they are: human error.