Physics helped the first aircraft break the sound barrier in 1947, but a Franklin & Marshall College professor is helping to break a barrier in physics that keeps the field less diverse than it could be.
“Some people will say, ‘Well, it’s because women are just interested in other topics’ or ‘There is some sort of cognitive difference that makes women interested in some things,’” said Amy Lytle, associate professor of physics. “I think there’s lot of implicit bias and discrimination that happens.”
Lytle said that despite decades trying to break down identity-based barriers in order to study and work in science, physics remains stubbornly and overwhelmingly white and male. This fall, she offered a half-credit directed reading course on “Race, Gender, and Identity in Physics” to explore the issue.
“The course culminates in one or more group community projects intended to promote and support inclusivity of underrepresented identities in F&M’s Department of Physics and Astronomy,” the professor said.
Each Wednesday during Module 2, 14 physics majors – nine women, five men – explored through in-class discussion the skewed representation of identity groups, its root causes and manifestations, and the roles and responsibilities of individuals in society.
“I've always thought of physics as something objective, something only based on numbers and discovering the truth about the way our universe functions,” junior Alicia Eckley said. “However, the more I read about it, the more I realized how discrimination truly impacted the field.”
From his perspective, senior Conor Larison said, “In society, there seems to be this ubiquitous idea that physics is a subject only a few, genius people can really master, and that major breakthroughs are made by individuals, not groups. It is easy to see why this is the narrative, as most of the fundamental laws of physics that we all know are attributed to individual scientists, all of the same race, gender, and social class.”
Physics has many accomplished women, but only four have earned the Nobel Prize, including one this year, which she shared with two men. Less than 50 percent of the students majoring in physics or astrophysics at F&M are women. Nationally, 20 percent of those earning bachelor’s degrees in physics are women, said Lytle, who described a perception of identity between masculinity and science.
“Part of the idea of the class is to try and dispel this myth that physics is somehow just independent of subjectivity or independent of the human aspect or the social aspect. It’s a very distinct-like culture and way of thinking. There’s no escaping that,” Lytle said. “Physics is thought to be very fundamental and very objective way of looking at the world, but it’s still done by human beings.”
During one class, based on an article about how experimental physics is closely tied to masculine identity, the students talked about barriers to success, implicit bias, stereotype threat, micro aggressions and sexual harassment.
“One of the men commented after reading it, ‘I had heard female physics majors sort of talk about this, but I didn’t really get it until I read this and then I saw more concrete examples and I thought, ‘Wow! My mind is blown.’ Of course, that would be exclusive,” Lytle said.
The course appears to have provided students new insights and greater appreciation of diversity and inclusion.
“Diversity in science means the success of science,” Larison said. “When we neglect to include members of our society from different backgrounds with different experiences, we are losing the wide range of talents that these individuals can offer, as well as their unique perspectives that can challenge our homogeneous understandings of a problem.”
In Eckley’s view, “Even without the legal barriers keeping minorities out of STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] fields, the social ones are just as difficult to overcome and even harder to break down. In order to claim that there are equal opportunities for everyone in STEM, we have to create an environment where all members feel like they don't have to change who they are to be taken seriously.”