Plans to Study Physics
In England, compulsory schooling is concluded by GCSE examinations at the end of Year 11 at age 16. “A Level” qualifications represent the academic study route pursued by young people in Years 12 and 13, when they are 16–18 years-old, and they form the main entry route to university Higher Education. Our survey findings show that, of those 9216 students in our study planning to continue with full-time post-compulsory education, 23 % (n = 2143) planned to pursue Physics at A Level. This is a significantly higher proportion than is reflected in national statistics for the proportion of students pursuing Physics A Level (8 %: see Questions for Governors 2014a), likely reflecting our respondents’ aspirations rather than actual registration for the course and our sample’s apparent inclusion of a disproportionate number of pupils pursuing the Triple Science route (the curriculum route involving separate science qualifications for Physics, Biology, and Chemistry, which is usually open only to higher attaining students). Nevertheless, of the 2143 student respondents planning to pursue Physics, only a third (35 %, n = 756) were female (compared to 21 % nationally; Questions for Governors 2014b). Hence, even within our somewhat “science-focused” sample, the trend for male domination of Physics is strongly evidenced. This returns us to the longstanding question as to why more men than women pursue Physics study and careers.
Our quantitative findings also demonstrate that the pursuit of Physics is strongly related to social class, with almost all students planning to pursue Physics A Level coming from the highest social class 1 and 2 categories (85 %, n = 1820). Furthermore, students from certain minority ethnic groups (notably South Asian) are disproportionately represented (13.2 %, n = 282 compared to 9.7 %, n = 1306 for the whole sample). These different variables clearly intersect with gender in access to Physics. The relationship between gender and social class concerning identification with Physics (or otherwise) is explored further in Archer et al. (2016a).
Barriers to Pursuing Physics and Engineering
Although social class and ethnicity clearly pattern access to Physics in addition to gender, we did not find distinctive social class and ethnicity patterns in relation to the construction of Physics as gendered. Rather, students from different social and ethnic backgrounds appeared equally likely to subscribe to, or to reject, gendered constructions of Physics. Respondents from different ethnic and social class backgrounds also appeared no more or less likely to mobilise different discourses in their explanations. (Albeit numbers for different groups were small, so this finding should be treated with caution.) This diversity is illustrated by the quotes from the qualitative data we cite.
In contrast, some gendered trends in responses were evident. Asked “Do you think there is anything that is putting women off pursuing careers in Physics?,” it was interesting to see a gender discrepancy in interview responses: less than a quarter of young men (n = 7 of 30) felt there might be things that put women off pursuing careers in Physics, with more male adolescents (n = 12) either simply answering “no there isn’t,” or offering equal opportunities and individual meritocracy discourses to argue that there is nothing deterring women. This was in comparison to more than half of young women (n = 22 of 40) who felt there were things that put women off—with gender discrimination and stereotyping as notable explanations among these accounts. Only 10 girls said there was nothing deterring women from pursuing Physics careers (the remaining 4 girls, and 6 boys, gave ambiguous responses or said they did not know).
However, as Table 1 shows, young men were more likely to change their minds when probed about the case of Engineering. Although not all students were probed on this point (48 were asked the question, 22 not), in contrast with their responses concerning Physics careers, very few young men (n = 3) said that there is nothing putting women off pursuing engineering careers, and 12 said there were (various) reasons, with four additional young men providing ambiguous answers or “don’t know” responses. Sixteen young women agreed that there are barriers to women pursuing engineering careers, with only three saying there is nothing deterring women (a further three young women either did not know or provided ambiguous responses). These responses appear to chime with the particularly gendered profile of engineering (Perkins 2013).
Emerging Discourses and Narratives
Table 2 sets out the three key discourses identified in discussion of this issue, and the five different narratives identified as underpinning the third discourse (that of Physics as “quintessentially masculine”). Table 2 also provides details of the number of student and parent respondents using the various discourses and their gender.
The Discourse of Meritocratic Equality
Of the 22 (31 %) students and 12 (18 %) parents who claimed there is nothing deterring women from careers in Physics, those who elaborated their response tended to draw on narratives of individualism and meritocracy identified as highly prevalent in other studies (Francis et al. 2013). As Victoria2 (White Bulgarian, F, social class 4) explains: “I wouldn’t think that anything is putting women off specifically because if a woman wanted to study Physics then it would be her choice.” Likewise, Gemma (Black Seychellois, F, social class 3) supplants the structural implication of the question with a narrative of individuality and agency: “No not really, it depends on their interest and stuff.” CheekyMonkey (White, M, social class 3) exemplifies how the discourse of meritocracy interweaves this narrative of “individual” ability or choice by asserting that nothing precludes young women pursuing Physics: “I think they’re [individuals] just going to just work for it.”
These accounts rest on well-analysed and closely entwined discourses of (a) neoliberal individual agency (Francis et al. 2013; Rose 1999), a discourse which interpolates individuals as agentic authors of their own outcomes depending on ability, entrepreneurship, and/or diligence (Bauman 2005) and (b) equality of opportunity, which positions gender discrimination as a thing of the past (Francis et al. 2013; Hey 2005; Volman and Ten Dam 1998). The latter was also overtly articulated in the data: “Um … I think there probably would have been in the past. But now a lot more women are taking part in pretty much anything now. I don’t think there’s that divide anymore” (Lucy, White British, F, social class 1) (see also Jane2, quoted in Table 2).
As Francis et al. (2013) argue, it is important that this widely reported, monoglossic account of opportunities as equal according to gender be acknowledged by sociological researchers and that discursive investments in individual agency be appreciated as well as critiqued. They reflect rapid social shifts in recent decades, including the impact of feminism. Nevertheless, it remains a concern that the evidence (in this case, regarding women’s access to Physics careers) belies the discourse and the risk that these individualistic narratives which consign discrimination to history thus “responsibilise” (Rose 1999) young women for their “incorrect choices” and lack of access. For example, several respondents position access to Physics as coming down to individual attributes such as “motivation” and “willpower”:
I don’t really think there’s like a thing where it puts off like females, but maybe they’re intimidated perhaps like maybe of like men in Science and stuff like that. But I don’t really think … as long as they have the motivation it shouldn’t really be a problem. (Colin, Sri Lankan, M, social class 3)
Um, to be honest at the moment no, because like girl power has got really strong recently and I think it’s more girls and women are trying to put their names and faces into things that predominantly men are meant to like be good at, so I think it’s actually more of like a willpower to go into things like that (Georgie, White British, F, social class 1)
I think it’s just themselves and the confidence to be honest—I think it’s all to do with confidence. I don’t believe that it’s a man’s world and all that nonsense anymore, I think that’s well and truly died out—women are more than capable to learn what they want to learn. (Tasha, mother of Alan, Mixed Carribean/White, F, social class 3)
Hence respondents’ rejection of the idea that women are deterred from pursuit of Physics tended to rest on discourses of equality of opportunity and meritocracy. These discourses reject and deny gender discrimination, with the potential effect of positioning women as individually responsible for their lack of access to Physics.
However, as we observed previously, a third of young men and nearly two-thirds of young women asserted that there are impediments to women’s pursuit of Physics careers (and a greater portion of young men, and half of young women, felt that there are issues that deter women from engineering). These respondents provided a variety of explanations, drawing on two key discourses (and a variety of narratives articulating these): (a) continuing gender discrimination in and around Physics and (b) Physics (and Engineering) as quintessentially masculine. An additional recurrent theme was the disproportionate representation and domination of Physics by men as an explanation for women’s lack of participation. We explore each, with additional attention to this latter theme of lack of women’s representation in Physics: this theme could express both discourses, but it was largely articulated in critiques of sexism and discrimination and was notably recurrent in participants’ responses (it was used by 61 of the 132 respondents).
The Discourse of Gender Discrimination
As Table 2 shows, in keeping with their stronger articulation of discrimination in the Physical sciences, this discourse was used especially frequently by young women and mothers (50 % of the 40 young women used this discourse, as did 44 % of the 50 mothers, compared to just under a third of young men and fathers). Some participants maintained that gender inequality and discrimination in Physics has not yet been overcome, or is taking time to shift—what Blackbird (Father of Finch, White British, M, social class 2/3) refers to as “a historic and cultural hangover.” Poppy (White British, F, social class 1) likewise asserts that Physics remains “male dominated.” She goes on to elaborate the gender discriminatory and essentialist perceptions articulated by one of her teachers:
Like today in Chemistry … we have a different teacher to normal because the other one’s off … and my friend said that she wanted to do higher level Maths. And apparently that is really really hard to get a 7 in [“7” refers to a high expected “level” in the English National Curriculum, applied until officially abandoned by the Government in academic year 2015/16]. And the teacher said, (she’s a girl), she said “Oh I think you have to have a boy brain to do that” … Really?
The whole class was like “What?” (laughs) “You don’t say that at this school.” And like my friend now really just wants to do it because … to prove her wrong. We don’t really understand what she was saying by a “boy brain,” She said “Oh you get boys that tend to be really geeky and good at Maths” but we were like “Well you get girls like that too.” She’s a Chemistry teacher!
Indeed, several respondents had cautionary tales of sexism that female novices had experienced in seeking to access Physics and Engineering. For example, referring to the “great shame” that women are under-represented in Physics careers, Harris (father of Emma, English/Belgian, M, social class 1) recounts that one of his daughter’s friends “had a really rough time doing the Sciences (inaudible) at a good university and really struggled—she was the only girl on the course.” Likewise, Kate (White British, F, social class 1) explains that her brother’s girlfriend is studying Engineering at university and needed to undertake a year’s study in industry as part of the course:
She went … I’ve forgotten what company it was … but in the interview they asked her how will you cope as a woman in this male company. And she was just like “What?” And then they pretended that they hadn’t asked her like such a sexist question.
Kate’s conclusion illustrates the discursive impact of such ongoing discriminatory practices on other potential female applicants:
So I think you would face issues, but probably [...] So I don’t think it stops you doing anything – I think it just puts pressure on you not to. I think there’s probably any job you could do in Engineering as a girl, but you’re less likely to probably.
These “cautionary tales” of sexism from teachers and gatekeepers are especially worrying given the findings about the strong impact of teacher and other “expert” expectations and their communication on young women’ self-confidence and pursuit or otherwise of Physics (Seymour and Hewitt 1997; Spears Brown and Leaper 2010; Reiss et al. 2011).
Other respondents saw additional off-putting consequences to the male domination of the field: “I think that it is a male environment, so I don’t know. I think it would be harder for a woman. [...] I think it, she would feel that she has to be extra, you know work extra hard and prove herself more all the time to compete with a male” (Patsy, mother of Indiana, White British, F, social class 3; see also Sandra, Table 2). (It is worth noting that such perceptions of women’s experiences in Physics are borne out by research studies such as Danielsson 2012 and Ong 2005.) Hence these respondents articulated this discourse of gender discrimination still operating in and around Physics, underpinned by a discourse of equal rights (producing such inequality as unfair; Balbus 1987; Francis 1999), to explain the under-representation of women in Physics.
Many of the respondents articulating feminist discourses and that of continuing gender discrimination and lack of equality of opportunity in relation to Physics drew on popular social science constructs such as gender stereotyping, gender roles, and socialisation to explain their answers. Allusions to “stereotypes” that men and women are suited to different jobs were especially common: “Again, the stereotype factor, I think that plays a massive part in that [...] That only men do jobs in engineering and stuff like that” (Demi, White English, F, social class 2/3); and “Yeah all those stereotypes and that, that it should be men who do that kind of thing” (Chloe, White English, F, social class 2).
These social science constructs were used to explain how gender-distinct behaviours originate with, and are perpetuated by, society, supporting social rather than gender essentialist accounts for the lack of women in Physics. Joanne (White English, F, social class 2) provides an especially developed illustration of the application of explanatory social science constructs:
J: Well there’s a whole bunch of reasons really that I talked about in my essay sort of—stereotyping, women not being given jobs just because of being women [...] got some stuff about that in there. Toys can sometimes put women off science because … or particularly Physics … because boys’ toys tend to encourage more spatial awareness than girls’ toys do. There’s stereotype threat – I don’t know if you’ve heard of that.
J: And there’s –
I: What, sorry, “stereotype threat”
J: It’s when you feel that you’re covered by a negative stereotype in a situation where you may exemplify that stereotype, you will put extra pressure on yourself to try and defy it, and in the end choke and just end up exemplifying it in the end anyway. So a lot of women suffer from that, as well “imposter syndrome” where women feel like they’ve got where they are by luck.
Hence in contrast to the elevation of agency and the relegation of structural accounts of inequality to the past produced by equal opportunities/individual choice discourses, the discourses mobilised in these accounts positioned gender dualist and discriminatory practices as ongoing and as impinging on and/or determining women’s behaviour.
The discourse of continued gender discrimination and lack of equality of opportunity in relation to Physics was also expressed within an especially frequent explanation for why women are deterred from pursuing Physics careers—a theme concerning the numerical dominance of Physics by men and the consequent lack of representation of women. It was notable that the concept of “role models” was mentioned by only a few of respondents (three parents and one male student). However the issue of numerical domination by men, as well as the discouraging messages this conveys to women, was an extremely strong theme in our data.
There were a range of different versions of this explanation. Some young women presented the numerical domination by men as itself off-putting and intimidating: “Um … well I mean at the moment it’s mostly boys, so they probably get put off being like ‘Well I’m going to be in a class full of boys, so they don’t want to do it’” (Hannah, White British, social class 1); and “Um … I don’t know, it is definitely like a male job. Like I was looking about [college] like I told you, and my brother was like ‘Well if you’re going to do Physics you will be the only girl in the class’” (Kate, White British, F, social class 1).
Whereas these statements evoke isolation, and almost a fear of obliteration as “the only girl,” others highlighted the potential stigmatisation of being “odd” or “weird” as a minority: “people might you know think a woman doing a, you know a stereotypical man’s job like a builder they might find it strange or something […] that’s probably quite a big factor rather than like a small one, so…” (MacTavish, White, M, social class 4); and
because like in class yeah there’s all the boys who do Physics and like if you’re a girl and you’re good at it, it would be like it just seems a bit weird [...]. I think people just see it as a bit weird. [...] Like I think the boys just like … and because like a lot of boys do it as well, so I think it would just, it’s just like uncomfortable if you’re a woman and you try and go there and I think like the boys in my class they don’t really expect girls to be that smart, so like if you do it [...] you know. (Kelsey, Black Nigerian, F, social class 5)
Kelsey’s words evoke the common association between Physics, masculinity and “cleverness” to which we shall return later in our article. But her words also suggest visceral discomfort and vulnerability at “standing out.”
The lack of representation of women in science was also presented directly as excluding/precluding women’s participation: “Um, yeah there’s been sort of like a stigma with I don’t know. It [women in Physics] doesn’t seem like it’s as prevalent. You don’t see any female scientists being advertised in the same way that like you’ve got male scientists” (Bobster, White, M, social class 3/4); and
But I could imagine that there is still a bit of a kind of “Physics is a man thing.” Cos like for example if you take The Big Bang Theory [a television program] right, like if you think about … obviously well there’s Penny, who’s not even a scientist, but the two girls who are scientists—they’re both biologists. And then all the guys are Physics. So like there is kind of this underlying sort of thing where you’re a bit like “Mm, why is Physics not a girl thing?” Cos Amy Farrar Fowler could easily be a physicist right, and then like you know … for example, I don’t know, like Leonard could probably be a biologist, but they’ve just made it so that all the guys are physicists or engineers, and then the girls … so I guess there is kind of still a little bit of a kind of gender roles sort of deal going on. (Davina, White, F, social class 1)
These statements clearly suggest that the lack of women in Physics (both in actuality and as represented in popular media) sends a message about what is (in)appropriate for women. Here the theme of gender representation overlapped with the afore-mentioned concepts of gender stereotyping in young people’s accounts.
The frequency of references to the TV show “The Big Bang Theory,” especially from young women, to exemplify the gender stereotyping of Physics was highly notable.
um, like have you ever seen Big Bang Theory? [...] It’s four physicists and they’re all men and people don’t really think of that as being sexist, but it is because the female character Penny is like the one that isn’t smart, because she’s a girl and she’s interested in girl things and that’s a whole like running joke on the show, but it’s just sexist. It’s not funny. (Caitlin, White, F, social class 2/3)
The prevalence of the trope of the male scientist in the popular imagination was frequently blamed on the media, and was presented as perpetuating perceptions of science as “for males”: “I don’t really know, it’s probably just … I don’t actually know where my view of that’s come from, but it could be from like movies, the media. Like if you have a mad scientist – it’s always male, it’s never female. It’s just stuff like that I guess” (Poppy, White, F, social class 1); and “I think it’s more because like in the news you’ve got like mainly the people that do are seen as like physicists like Stephen Hawking and people like that. They’re all male overall. You don’t really see many female ones anywhere” (Celina2, White English, F, social class 4). Such statements are supported by research analysis showing the associations between science competence and men/masculinity in the media (e.g., Orthia and Morgain 2016). Indeed, Archer et al. (Archer and DeWitt 2014; Archer et al. 2015) have catalogued in detail the exclusionary power of such imagery and its debilitating impact on the science aspirations of those not inhabiting the projected “appropriate body” (i.e., not male, middle class, and White/South or East Asian).
Comments from Samantha (Indian, F, social class 1) also illustrate how this lack of representation can also be interpreted or conveyed as presenting a “natural” order wherein men are simply better at Physics:
I think in general it [Physics] is perceived as a much more male orientated area of Science. [...] I think I guess in the past women generally didn’t do that much Science. Obviously there are exceptions, but it’s very much like a lot of discoveries have been made by men and I think that’s just carried it on and I think also boys generally tend to have a slightly more kind of “Mathsy,” “Physicsy” brain like a lot of the intelligent boys, so …
Other students critiqued such narratives, maintaining that women’s presence in science has been actively masked:
I don’t see any reason why women should be put off Physics and you know there is no reason, but in a way … like in the same way that people view intelligence as an interest in Science, people view you know Science as all the men at NASA working at their computers with the men landing on the moon and you know people forget that you know there are several prominent women [..]. (Buddy, White English/Italian, M, social class 1)
The importance of representation of women in Physics for “evidencing” the possibility and hence facilitating equity discourses (“possibilising” the notion of the female scientist for respondents) was clear from many responses. For example, Mienie (South Asian, F, social class 2) supports her claim that women can be successful Physicists by highlighting: “because there’s. .. you know there’s a lot of female physicists out there, so—.” Yet equally, it was also noticeable how, rather than necessarily disrupting the monoglossic account of science as a naturally and wholly male terrain, the few heteroglossic cases of women scientists that are publically recognised or included in the curriculum could apparently be easily discounted or ignored, failing to disrupt the monoglossic facade: “Cos like when you see most like discoveries. .. they might just take credit, but like most of them you see them as male. There’s only a few like female scientists like we’ve heard of in science” (Alan, Mixed, White/Black Caribbean, M, social class 3).
Hence our data highlight the importance of representation in terms of “im/possibilising” imagined science futures for young women: their lack of representation in media and ‘real life’ science discursively positions (White and occasionally Asian, middle class) men as ‘naturally’ inhabiting the science terrain, and any women as interlopers, oddities or ‘impossible subjects’ (Butler 1993). In answer to the question as to whether anything deters women from pursuing Physics careers, Tom3 (White, M, social class 1) replies: “Um. .. well I’ve never seen a girl do Physics so I wouldn’t know.” Tom appears to present the lack of young women in Physics as explanatory in itself; a phenomenon that brooks no further speculation. Likewise, for Charlie, gender representation in different subjects naturalises a binary order:
Um, yeah I like I see it as more of a like guy thing. I don’t know why. I just like when I hear Physics I think of like the three nerdy, well I suppose nerdy boys in my year, but they’re really good at it, which is why I think of them, so I don’t really think of girls like because they’re all into beauty and that in my school. (Charlie, White, F, social class 2/3)
Hence, the issue of representation is shown to remain key in young people’s constructions of gender and science and in the im/possibilisation of Physics trajectories for girls and women. The relentless repetition of images that present male bodies in association with Physics, and hence work to embody Physics as male in the public psyche, may be identified and critiqued by respondents, but are nevertheless hard to resist—and impact material practices by constituting and reinforcing Physics as masculine. Our data illustrate the symbolic violence and impact of the repetitive motif of the male Physics body on young women’ perceptions of Physics as an inhospitable, “unnatural,” and potentially isolating route (see also Archer et al. 2016a).
The Discourse of Physics as Quintessentially Masculine (and its Supporting Narratives)
As well as being symbolically embodied as male, Physics was also presented by many students as a masculine subject and therefore off-putting and/or inaccessible to girls and women. (As Table 2 shows, this discourse was articulated by the 70 young people on 139 occasions in the data.) As Brittney (White, F, social class 3) explains: “I think because it’s seen as a masculine subject to do and not really feminine [...] It just doesn’t seem very feminine to want to do anything to do with Physics.” There were five distinct narratives supporting this discourse which emerged in response to our question as to whether anything deters women from Physics and Engineering careers: (a) Certain subjects are gender-stereotyped as being masculine or feminine (and hence as appropriate for different genders), (b) Men and women are naturally different and drawn to different subjects, (c) Femininity is antithetical to (masculine) manual work, (d) Femininity is superficial, and (e) Cleverness is masculine, and Physics is a clever/difficult subject.
Although a few students remarked on the construction of Physics as masculine without attributing a reason for this labelling, some drew on the concept of gender stereotyping to position this as an invalid socially perpetuated association. Others drew on the narrative of men and women as naturally different and drawn to different subjects to explain the dearth of women physicists as due to natural phenomena (an account supporting the monoglossic, binarised construction of gender duality):
But I also think that part of it is the way … it’s what interests the male brain as opposed to the female brain. For example computer games, you know we have Xbox in the house and my son plays computer games, and my daughter does rarely because she’s not interested. And so there’s no … it’s not anything to do with sexual discrimination or anything or lack of opportunities. I mean she played girly things … sounds terrible … you know female orientated games when she was younger, but she has no interest in playing computer games now. (Joseph, father of Georgie, White, M, social class 1)
It was interesting to see which subjects were considered appropriate for each gender here. Supporting previous findings, “caring” and “creative” subjects and occupations tended to be seen as appropriate for females (Francis 2002), in comparison to the produced “natural fit” for males with Physics and Engineering (Archer et al. 2012). For example, Hedgehog (White English, M, social class 4) considers that “young women, they’re more into like being like midwives and like beauty therapists and that,” and Cristiano (Black Nigerian, M, social class 5) considers young women “just have other interests,” which he exemplifies as “Probably healthcare.” Additionally, some respondents perpetuated the longstanding construction of Biology as a ‘more feminine’ science discipline: “When I think Physics I think it’s more manly and Biology is more feminine” (Carol, White, F, social class 3).
Biology could be classed a bit. .. not saying it’s more feminine, but women. .. or maybe the females would know more about biology, a) with what we all go through. .. not saying men don’t go through it, but you know we learn a bit more about our bodies and why are bodies are doing things from a lot earlier age with like periods and stuff—we get involved a little bit more about biology earlier on. And we could maybe go more into the medical profession or the caring profession—that side of things. So Biology maybe is a little bit easier or we understand. .. not understand it more, but we can get involved in it easier. (Sally Ann, mother of LemonOnion, White, F, social class 3)
As Sally Ann’s response illustrates, often when probed for rationales for these different gender “dispositions” for different subjects, respondents talked in rather vague terms about different gendered interests in relation to potential subject content in different disciplines. Interestingly, “circuits” were mentioned on numerous occasions as an exemplification of an element of Physics that might deter young women’ interest, either as reported by young women as a topic they didn’t like or as a topic which young men and young women suggested would not appeal to young women. Luna’s (British, F, social class 3) response is indicative here: “Cos I don’t think that electrical circuits really … for a lot of young women might not stand out to them and make them want to do it at A Level … which might be a reason why they don’t continue it.”
Hence, the narratives presented thus far interpolated males and females as different, as well as Physics as more appealing to males, whether due to (spurious) gender socialisation, or to “natural” inherent differences between males and females which render particular subjects more appropriate to one or the other gender. However, the power hierarchy at the heart of the monoglossic, binarised account of gender produced in the discourse of Physics (and Engineering) as masculine emerged more clearly in the three further, inter-related narratives articulated: Femininity is antithetical to (masculine) manual work; femininity as superficial; and cleverness as masculine (and Physics is a clever subject). As we reported previously, many students, especially young men, denied that there was anything deterring women from Physics, but reversed this view in the case of Engineering. For a few, this was about lack of representation. But for the majority, this was due to the association of Engineering with manual work, and manual work with masculinity: “Like isn’t that [Engineering] more manual? So there’d probably be more men in there just for the sake if it being manual labour” (Alan, Mixed, White/Black Caribbean, M, social class 3).
What was intriguing, though, was that none of the accounts positioned physiological differences (e.g., physical strength) as underpinning this envisaged deterrent of manual elements for women. Rather, overwhelmingly, respondents positioned the “problem” as being feminine avoidance of “dirt” or mess: “I was going to say they [women] don’t really like getting dirty and building stuff” (Football Master, White, M, social class 3); and
I don’t have a clear idea on that one, but I think people tend to associate Physics, well no not people, I’m not sure about the general view, but I associate Physics with Engineering and I’ve sort of got a view on Engineering as them building. I see it as a more practical subject with wires and rusty equipment and stuff like that. [...] It’s sort of in the same area in my mind as being a mechanic and stuff like that, so it’s different to Biology which you can see is a very clean and hygienic subject. (Finch, White, M, social class 2/3)
This positioning of femininity as primly “clean” was integrally connected to constructions of femininity as preoccupied with appearance and grooming: “and for a lot of women—they want to wear nice clothes and jewellery, and they just don’t want to wear hard hats” (Naomi, mother of Buddy, White, F, social class 1); “I think that’s why a lot more like men are mechanics and things because it’s hands on. Women don’t want to break their nails do they?” (Louise, White, F, social class 3); and
I do think there’s still a you know a lot of girls that want to do girl things. [...] you’ve still got that type of girl that think they should only do girl things and oh well I don’t want to do that, because that will be, you know they don’t do sport and they don’t do Sciences and they don’t do Maths and stuff like that, because “ooh no what do I want to do that for? I want to go and file my nails and you know do hairdressing and stuff like that.” (Colleen, mother of Caitlin, White, F, social class 2/3) (see also Ghost, Table 2).
What these extracts produce, especially via the vivid misogynist trope of the obsession with “broken nails” and the mimicking of voices, is a denigration of femininity as superficial. As many feminist researchers have recorded, this construction of femininity remains prevalent in educational environments (Francis et al. 2003, Francis 2010; Walkerdine 1989), and is fundamentally intertwined in turn with discourses that produce femininity as dim, vain, inane, and lacking in substance (Other). The counter side to this construction of femininity is of course the animation of the masculine (Subject) as profound, intelligent, reasoning—in other words, the production of intelligence, or cleverness, as masculine. As Walkerdine (1989); Walkerdine 1990) and others have shown, within the gender binary, science and rationality are positioned in association with intelligence and masculinity; the “creative arts” and emotionality, with femininity. “Hard” science is produced both as difficult and as masculine (Archer et al. 2012; Harding 1982; Walkerdine 1989), just as rationality and intelligence are positioned as masculine in the gender binary (Harding 1982, 1989).
The narrative of “Physics as ‘clever’ and masculine” was reported and/or articulated by some respondents, as an explanation as to why fewer women pursue Physics: “I think young men are just thought of to be the smart gender” (Caitlin, White, F, social class 2/3);
Yeah, because there is like some like stereotype things you see that like you can see that oh men are smarter than women, but that’s not always true and like if you want to do, become like a scientist or something like that a woman might be like self conscious and think well I can’t do that, because I will look kind of stupid in front of men, but that’s not always the case. Like women can be smarter than men. (Laura, White, F, social class 2/3); and
well like some young women in my year they act stupid. Like I don’t think they are stupid, but I think they act it. [...] So they think ‘Oh I can’t do it, cos I’m stupid’ – but they’re not at all. Mm, why do they do that? Uh … probably because they’re sitting near young men. (Hannah, White, F, social class 1)
Clearly, in each case these young women are reporting what they see as stereotypes, but Hannah’s words especially evoke the ways in which for young women to invest in “masculine/clever” subjects, and/or to actively position themselves as clever, involves a negation of the feminine which may be experienced as untenable (Walkerdine 1990) and indeed as an obliteration of the self (Butler 1993; Walkerdine 1990). As we discuss elsewhere (Archer et al. 2016a), such young women also risk being illegible to, and impossibilised by, others as authentic Physics subjects.
It is worth highlighting that narratives were far from always consistent in participants’ responses, illustrating the jostling, heteroglossic contradiction at play. Perhaps this is unsurprising given the nature of the three key discourses we have identified as operating in discussion of gender and access to Physics: (a) equality of opportunity, (b) continuing gender discrimination in and around Physics, and (c) Physics as quintessentially masculine. Clearly, each of these discourses is in direct tension with the other, hence providing discursive tension and heteroglossic shifts and contradiction within responses when different discourses are drawn upon by respondents to make particular points.