Subliminal matter

Professor’s book highlights unconscious barriers to women in physics

December 21, 2016

University of Wisconsin-Stout Professor Laura McCullough has published “Women in Physics,” highlighting research on unconscious barriers to women in physics.

Walking into her first physics graduate school class of 24 men and no women besides herself, unconscious barriers to women in science were more evident than ever to Laura McCullough. She decided to use her experience as a female physicist to bring those barriers into the limelight: Recognition could bring about change.

Years later the University of Wisconsin-Stout physics professor culled data, analysis and conclusions from more than 200 sources to produce “Women in Physics,” a 48-page book in the IOP Concise Physics series published by Morgan and Claypool in April 2016. Focused on trends in English-speaking countries, it’s packed with factors that affect girls’ decisions to continue studying science, women’s struggles in the physics field, gender progress made in the field and potential improvements for further reducing barriers.

In the U.S., the gender ratio in high school physics classes is almost equal. In college, women earn about 22 percent of physics bachelor’s degrees, and the numbers dip further for master’s and doctorates. The trends are similar in other English-speaking countries.

Sex differences aren’t a factor in learning physics, she said. “The biological factors have been disproven. It’s not that women can’t do physics or are worse at it; it’s that we approach it differently than men do.”

Research spotlights biases

Many factors in the discrepancy are cultural, McCullough said.

In education, instructors’ styles of teaching and personal hesitation toward the sciences play a role.

“Research suggests that females’ dislike of science starts as early as elementary school, even age 6 or 7,” she said. “A lot of early childhood and elementary teachers are afraid of science, and since they’re mostly women, they spread that fear of science to the young girls in their class. They haven’t had a lot of science. They haven’t been taught how to teach science, and since they’re not comfortable with it they tend to rely on rote learning instead of an explorative approach to gets kids interested in science.”

Hannah NewmanHannah Newman, of Cary, Ill., and a packaging major in McCullough’s physics class, remembers a seventh-grade teacher who wasn’t comfortable teaching science. “She definitely wasn’t suited for what she was teaching. No one was really encouraged to do science in that class. ”

Newman credits a male high school teacher, however, for encouraging her to pursue an engineering-related career. “He said, ‘You’re really good at this. You should stick to it and continue going all four years. I know you’ll really do well based on what you’ve done before,” she said. No sexism was allowed in his classroom, she said.

Though UW-Stout doesn’t offer a physics degree, physics classes are required as part of many majors. Newman is also a board member of UW-Stout’s Society of Women Engineers.

At the college level, McCullough found, the barriers are more subtle and harder to measure and fix. A student might be the only female in the class. An instructor might not be supportive of female students. Female instructors might be given a less desirable office location or teaching assignment.

One cultural prevailing belief lingers from the 1990s: “We still fight the idea that math and science are hard for girls,” McCullough said.

“We have parents who still believe that they don’t need to encourage their daughters to go into math and science because that’s not for them. They don’t bring them to the science museums or science fairs; they don’t get them to camps or after-school programs that encourage the STEM areas. It starts really, really young, unfortunately, so it means we have a lot of work to do.”

Family support made a difference for Newman, whose parents and a grandmother recognized her interest and potential. They took her and her cousins to science museums. Her grandma urged her to explore the changing world of science. During a high school orientation event, her dad firmly steered her toward tables promoting science and engineering classes, where she first met the male teacher whom she had for four years of classes.

Professor Laura McCullough works with student Miranda Danzeisen during a physics lab at UW-Stout.From McCullough’s perspective, tapping implicit bias research on people’s unconscious biases is key to breaking down barriers.

“It doesn’t matter if we’re a good person or a bad person: We all have these unconscious biases that our upbringing or acculturation has given us, and those biases affect how we interact with people of that population,” she said.

Computer tests can measure the level of a person’s unconscious biases. Acknowledging and counteracting them is a step toward reducing them: For instance, frequently looking at pictures of women in physics instead of a male in a white lab coat.

“I think that’s the most useful research for getting more women into physics, to get people to recognize the unconscious biases that they have and how those are going to affect the women who are trying to get into physics,” she said.

Those biases are what McCullough calls filters in the “leaky pipeline phenomenon” — at each stage in education, cultural filters pull some girls and women out of the pipeline until only a few are left at the college level. “We leak women out at every stage.”

Her book gives examples of filtering:

• A little girl waits patiently at a science exhibit for another child to finish. Her brother butts in when he comes over to see it, and she never gets her turn.
• A young woman in high school physics is always relegated to be record keeper and never gets a chance to use the equipment.
• An assistant professor is placed on every departmental committee in order to have female representation.
• A woman makes a suggestion at her weekly research group meeting. Her idea is ignored. Minutes later, a man makes the same suggestion and is applauded.
• In the workplace, research shows, women get fewer resources even in work environments that strive for equity.

The leaky pipeline phenomenon also happens to males who pursue female-dominated careers like nursing, she said.

Progress shrinking barriers continues

In the past three decades, McCullough found, most overt sexism has diminished while subtle barriers linger. Progress has been made. For instance, realization has grown for the need to encourage girls in science at young ages.

More biographies featuring women in science are being published. National Science Foundation and other agency funding has increased to empower elementary teachers to teach science. “The funding agencies realize that we shouldn’t be blocking talent from this field,” she said.

At the upper levels, women must be aware of what they might face and find a mentor, adviser or advocate to support them, McCullough said.

Newman stays in touch with her high school mentor. “To this day we still email back and forth. I’m still the only girl who’s taken all four years of engineering classes there, and I’ve been gone three years.”

As society changes, the issues change. “Thirty years ago, women were fighting blatant bias. Now it’s more microaggressions and implicit bias. We have to keep researching to highlight what needs to be changed,” McCullough said.

“Women in Physics” is available on Amazon and through the IOP Science website at



Top: University of Wisconsin-Stout Professor Laura McCullough has published “Women in Physics,” highlighting research on unconscious barriers to women in physics.

Middle: Hannah Newman

Bottom: Professor Laura McCullough works with student Miranda Danzeisen during a physics lab at UW-Stout.