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Aristotle's daughters: a biographical study of six women's experiences of physics from three families across two generations

Aristotle's daughters: a biographical study of six women's experiences of physics from three families across two generations
Aristotle's daughters: a biographical study of six women's experiences of physics from three families across two generations
Since the First World War, there has been a concern about the dwindling number of physicists and engineers in the United Kingdom and the resultant negative implications for the economy. A’ level physics courses attract fewer students than biology or chemistry courses do. Since the Second World War, it has been noted that the recruitment of women into physics has been particularly poor. Whilst women have entered many occupations previously considered to be in the male domain such as medicine or law, very few are entering physics-oriented professions. Numerous initiatives from both the government and other interested institutions appear to have failed in this regard; despite these organisations’ investment, boys consistently outnumber girls on A’ level physics courses by approximately four to one. This scarcity of female A’ level students results in less women having the necessary qualifications to study physics and engineering at a higher level. Those women who do attain higher qualifications in physics are far more likely than their male colleagues to leave physics-oriented professions, are less likely to attain senior positions in physics or engineering, and are more likely to move from physics research positions to physics support occupations such as administration or teaching (Dainty et al., 2010).

This narrative study has explored how six women, belonging to two generations of three different families, developed a ‘physics literacy’ and ‘identified’ with physics. It has considered how the women’s experiences of physics have changed across the two generations studied. This research was conducted within a radical orthodox paradigm applied to a sociological context. Five of the participants took part in a semi-structured interview. These interviews were then transcribed, interpreted, and analysed using a hermeneutical-phenomenological approach. The women’s stories were then presented using a Bronfenbrennerian ‘Ecology of Human Development' (Bronfenbrenner, 2006) style framework, which was achieved by placing each of their stories in a micro, meso, exo, macro, and chronosystem. Using this framework enabled the study of interactions between the different influences on the participants’ lives.

What this study has revealed, contrary to the findings of many other statistical studies, is that the physics literacy of women is increasing as is their ability to identify with physics. However, there remain many cultural boundaries that continue to discourage women from pursuing a career in physics. Although it could be argued that the United Kingdom is a physics-based culture in that it assumes that the laws of physics underpin its existence, the study of physics is seen as a mysterious remote activity carried out by an elite minority of wealthy, white men. It recommends an approach to physics that will make it more exciting and accessible to a wider range of students, that physics be made less mysterious, and that families, especially those with young children, be encouraged to engage in physics-oriented leisure activities, in similar ways to which families currently engage in literature, music, and sports, to raise the overall physics identity and physics literacy of the population.
University of Southampton
Edwards-Hawthorne, Ceri Jane
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Edwards-Hawthorne, Ceri Jane
ea592882-bf73-4000-ac8a-a92950b23eea
Byrne, Jennifer
135bc0f8-7c8a-42d9-bdae-5934b832c4bf

Edwards-Hawthorne, Ceri Jane (2018) Aristotle's daughters: a biographical study of six women's experiences of physics from three families across two generations. University of Southampton, Doctoral Thesis, 343pp.

Record type: Thesis (Doctoral)

Abstract

Since the First World War, there has been a concern about the dwindling number of physicists and engineers in the United Kingdom and the resultant negative implications for the economy. A’ level physics courses attract fewer students than biology or chemistry courses do. Since the Second World War, it has been noted that the recruitment of women into physics has been particularly poor. Whilst women have entered many occupations previously considered to be in the male domain such as medicine or law, very few are entering physics-oriented professions. Numerous initiatives from both the government and other interested institutions appear to have failed in this regard; despite these organisations’ investment, boys consistently outnumber girls on A’ level physics courses by approximately four to one. This scarcity of female A’ level students results in less women having the necessary qualifications to study physics and engineering at a higher level. Those women who do attain higher qualifications in physics are far more likely than their male colleagues to leave physics-oriented professions, are less likely to attain senior positions in physics or engineering, and are more likely to move from physics research positions to physics support occupations such as administration or teaching (Dainty et al., 2010).

This narrative study has explored how six women, belonging to two generations of three different families, developed a ‘physics literacy’ and ‘identified’ with physics. It has considered how the women’s experiences of physics have changed across the two generations studied. This research was conducted within a radical orthodox paradigm applied to a sociological context. Five of the participants took part in a semi-structured interview. These interviews were then transcribed, interpreted, and analysed using a hermeneutical-phenomenological approach. The women’s stories were then presented using a Bronfenbrennerian ‘Ecology of Human Development' (Bronfenbrenner, 2006) style framework, which was achieved by placing each of their stories in a micro, meso, exo, macro, and chronosystem. Using this framework enabled the study of interactions between the different influences on the participants’ lives.

What this study has revealed, contrary to the findings of many other statistical studies, is that the physics literacy of women is increasing as is their ability to identify with physics. However, there remain many cultural boundaries that continue to discourage women from pursuing a career in physics. Although it could be argued that the United Kingdom is a physics-based culture in that it assumes that the laws of physics underpin its existence, the study of physics is seen as a mysterious remote activity carried out by an elite minority of wealthy, white men. It recommends an approach to physics that will make it more exciting and accessible to a wider range of students, that physics be made less mysterious, and that families, especially those with young children, be encouraged to engage in physics-oriented leisure activities, in similar ways to which families currently engage in literature, music, and sports, to raise the overall physics identity and physics literacy of the population.

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Aristotle's Daughters: A Biographical Study of Six Women's Experiences of Physics from Three Families across Two Generations - Version of Record
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Published date: May 2018

Identifiers

Local EPrints ID: 422164
URI: https://eprints.soton.ac.uk/id/eprint/422164
PURE UUID: abbe11c6-dd6b-4379-b31d-597c41b96127
ORCID for Jennifer Byrne: ORCID iD orcid.org/0000-0002-6969-5539

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Date deposited: 18 Jul 2018 16:30
Last modified: 25 Jul 2019 00:36

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