Reducing Gender Bias in Physics Lab Courses

Men and woman in lab

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The gender gap in STEM fields is much discussed—and physics is one of the least gender-diverse fields in STEM. Differences even play out in physics lab courses, where women frequently end up taking on communication and computer tasks, while men more often handle the equipment. But does this behavior reflect actual gender bias, or just a gender-specific difference in task preferences?

A recent study of the experience of 100 US physics undergrads sought to answer that question (Phys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res., doi:10.1103/PhysRevPhysEducRes.18.010106). The researchers found that these divisions of labor in physics labs are not explained by personal preference, but instead reflect implicit biases. The team suggests reframing the role of a leader in these settings as one way to correct such gender inequities in physics lab classes.

Assessing equity in the lab

The team behind the new work—including researchers at Cornell University, Loyola University New Orleans, and Kansas State University—interviewed or surveyed a total of 100 undergraduate students, with 70% of the students labeled as physics majors. Approximately 30% of the students identified as women and 70% as men. The researchers defined equity in the lab as everyone having access to all aspects of the learning environment and everyone’s voice being heard.

When asked about what jobs students preferred to take on in a lab, the researchers found that women did not take communications or computer work out of preference, but were just as interested as men in hands-on experimental work. The interviews revealed that students implicitly found themselves taking on certain roles. “I don’t feel like we explicitly talk about it—it just comes about,” one student said. “Someone just starts building the experiment, someone just happens to have Excel open. Sometimes people volunteer so you let them do it. Otherwise it arises naturally.”

The researchers suggest that this unequal task distribution in labs may come from bias, stereotypes or microaggressions when there’s no discussion of role assignments. That’s worrisome, as women may miss out on the hands-on experience that’s crucial to take advantage of future career opportunities.

The research team also found that students preferred that there be no leader in charge of a lab group, or students preferred to take turns as leaders. Digging deeper into this, the researchers found that it may come from a fear that a single leader may dominate and create inequalities in the group. When students are not intentional about their roles or avoid having a leader, unequal gender dynamics and implicit biases can seep through the cracks, the team writes.

Advice for instructors

Since a fluid instructional environment can open the door to biases and inequalities, the research team offers several strategies for how professors and researchers can intervene to avoid gender disparities in lab courses while keeping students’ preferences in mind.

For starters, the team writes that leaders in a group are important, but students can interpret them as bossy. To overcome this, a leadership role can be framed as someone who ensures that everyone’s ideas are heard, or professors can emphasize to students that each group member is accountable for ensuring that all voices are heard.

The results also indicated that students don’t have a strong preference for their lab’s gender composition. Therefore, the researchers suggest that assigning intentional groups may not be necessary. Instructors could conduct a presurvey to gauge how students prefer the gender group composition be set up before creating lab groups.

Last, the team found that women were more likely to prefer working on roles together and that some students preferred working on tasks that they were comfortable or confident doing. While past research has recommended that students rotate through group roles, this evidence indicates that the same teaching styles are unlikely to be favorable for all students.

Finding the right learning environment

The researchers write that structural change is key to creating equitable group dynamics. But, the perfectly structured learning environment is not so easily found. Moving forward, the team believes that research should focus on testing structural interventions in an effort to intervene and eliminate inequalities in the lab.

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