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Regarding gender bias by physics students

I was not surprised by the research described on the sciencegeekgirl blog the other day showing that both male and female physics students systematically rate female instructors more poorly than male instructors regardless of their own success in the class.

She linked to research published here.

The abstract of this article concludes:

Such a bias may negatively impact female students and contribute to the loss of females in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields.

I have felt this bias before and I have to say — it certainly did impact me negatively and it certainly did contribute to my fear of teaching physics in a classroom F2F situation.

Back when I was a TA at Caltech, I taught a recitation section of sophomore wave mechanics. Almost every student in this class was a sophomore, and many of them were non-majors — with the exception of three senior physics majors.

These three seniors decided to take this sophomore class not because they needed to learn the material, but because they needed a few extra units to graduate and they wanted to earn those units in the most pain free way possible.

I know this for a fact because they told me this when I advised them that the course, being aimed at sophomores, was not going to be taught at a senior physics major level.

These three seniors didn’t once ask a question in class. They didn’t participate in the solving of any in-class problems. They didn’t speak up to help any of the sophomores in the class who were asking questions and trying to understand the material.

The only thing these three seniors did was sit in class and stare at my breasts and pass notes to each other, every single course session, for the entire session.

But all three of these seniors did show up on the one day Caltech set aside for students to air grievances about their instructors.

What was their grievance with me?

I taught the class at too low a level, they claimed. That was my sin. That was why they got out of bed that morning and brushed their hair and shaved and got dressed — so they could show up just to complain about me.

They were seniors — complaining that my recitation section for sophomore non-majors wasn’t tough enough for senior majors.

Since I was just a TA, I wasn’t even the one to decide the level of difficulty of the course. The textbook, assignments and exam questions were all chosen by the male professor. Yet the students didn’t complain about him. They complained about me. The seniors acted like I was the one who made the outrageous decision that a class for sophomores should be taught at a sophomore level.

This distressing episode scared me away from teaching physics in a university. I learned that people interested in learning physics aren’t always the nicest people in the world.

Some of them have strong prejudices against women and other groups they perceive to be inferior. Sometimes they lack the emotional capacity for understanding how their prejudice impacts the people they target.

What I love about my website superstringtheory.com is that I can teach physics to everyone in the world and I don’t have to listen to any of the people who are out there who might be looking for some easy opportunity to intimidate or devalue a woman.

My commitment to physics education comes from my heart, and I will not have my heart broken by sexism.

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2 comments to Regarding gender bias by physics students

  • [...] on this…I am very thankful for the very delightful posts from expertvoices.nsdl.org, schooloftheuniverse.com, gbsoracle.com – all of them 3 helped me forming my [...]

  • SilverTiger

    As an ex-teacher (languages, later computing), I read this story with indignation. I have known unjust and – let’s be frank – stupid students making ridiculous and vicious complaints. I am very sorry you had to endure this.

    I came across your wonderful Web site when looking up string theory – I am a non-scientist trying to understand it at least in outline. So thanks for the “Basic” bits! You have a talent for explaining complex things with clarity and humour.

    I have added your Web site to my “Favourite Sites” list and your blog to “Blogs – Specialized”. I hope that’s OK; if not, please get in touch – there’s an email address on my blog which is at http://tigergrowl.wordpress.com/.

    Oh yes, and I have added your blog to my RSS reader so am looking forward to updates – novel (good luck with that) permitting, of course!