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Cultural expectations may keep Western women from pursuing physics degrees

Cultural expectations may keep Western women from pursuing physics degrees

March 7, 2021 at 11:37am

Western countries like the U.S. might have fewer women pursuing physics degrees compared to Muslim-majority countries because of identity conflicts caused by cultural expectations in the physics community and in society.

 “In the US you’re expected to be a physicist or a woman,” said Saeed Moshfeghyeganeh, a distinguished postdoctoral researcher whose work was supported by FIU’s College of Arts, Sciences & Education and the Mohsin & Fauzia Jaffer Center for Muslim World Studies. “What we found in Muslim-majority countries is that there isn’t as much conflict in cultural expectations of being feminine and being a physicist."

Moshfeghyeganeh and science education Professor Zahra Hazari wanted to understand why physics continues to be such a male-dominated field in the West compared to several Muslim-majority countries so they interviewed female physics professors from across the U.S. who earned their physics degrees in Muslim-majority countries to see what those countries are doing differently.

It might come as a surprise to many that several Muslim-majority countries have a higher percentage of physics majors who are female than many western countries.

They gleaned several insights from their interviews, published on International Women’s Day in an American Physical Society journal, Physical Review Physical Education Research.

“What’s seen as feminine in those countries is different from what’s seen as feminine in western contexts,” Hazari said. “And what’s seen as feminine in those contexts was more congruent and less in conflict with their physics identity or their notions of what it means to be a physics person.”

One participant, a  professor from Pakistan, noted she chose to pursue a career in physics because it better aligned with the gender expectations of her country. By working in theoretical physics, she could do more of her work from home without having to work late in a lab.

Researchers also noted the study participants also found that studying physics was not in conflict with their religious beliefs. Instead, it was an opportunity to learn about the creation of the universe and God.

“There’s a stereotype that physicists are not religious or if you are a good scientist you can’t be religious,” Moshfeghyeganeh said. “Many of the participants expressed that religion was part of their motivation to pursue physics so there was no conflict with being a scientist and being religious.”

Moshfeghyeganeh and Hazari plan to continue their research on this topic, especially by comparing the perspectives of undergraduate students in the US and specific Muslim-majority countries where women make up more than half of the physics majors. 

Hazari herself is partnering with the American Physical Society on STEP UP, a national initiative to change the culture of physics in the United States by mobilizing physics teachers to encourage young women to pursue physics careers while they are still in high school.