Gender Gap Update

The JCC day care is closed today for one of the fall cluster of Jewish holidays, which means I’m spending the morning with The Pip before Kate comes home to take the afternoon shift so I can teach my class. Thus, this is more of a tab clearance sort of exercise than a thoughtful examination of the underlying issues. But having spent a bunch of time in the recent past on gender gaps of various sorts, these are some recent links that struck me as interesting enough to pass along.

— Via Crooked Timber, Anca Gheaus offers cheers for being the “token” woman at academic conferences. This is mostly in the form of a list of reasons other than merit why particular speakers get invited to present, a list which the Timberites expand. The idea here is to allay concerns on the part of women who might be invited to speak that they will be looked down on, which otherwise might lead them to decline invitations. It’s a reminder that getting invited someplace is contingent on all sorts of odd factors.

I can confirm this from personal experience, by the way. I’ve given a lot of talks at a lot of different places, and most of those invitations have come through some weird connection– people who happen to read my blog being on the speaker committee, somebody reading a write-up I did of one of their experiments and filing my name away as a future possibility, etc. I got offered an invited talk at DAMOP a couple of years ago because I was the one who passed on a suggestion from somebody else (who, it should be noted, had made the suggestion with an explicit “I couldn’t give this talk, but somebody should…”). So the point that there’s more to these decisions than pure meritocracy is a good and useful one.

— In a very similar vein, a post from TEDxCanberra including a video about the problems they have trying to get women to speak. As in a past discussion of this, they note that women are much more likely to decline invitations, which makes it harder to achieve any kind of reasonable gender balance. I thought it was particularly interesting that in the video, June Cohen said that contrary to conventional wisdom, she gets about as many men as women refusing invitations because of family obligations (and, in fact, that’s the reason I decided to deal with this particular set of open browser tabs on a morning when I’m home with the Little Dude…). She attributes the difference to a combination of a more hands-on management style and a lack of confidence in the material– she says women regularly decline on the grounds that they’re not ready in one way or another, but men never do. Which probably ties this back to the point above.

— On an only tangentially related note, somebody on Twitter posted a link to this forthcoming paper in Physical Review Special Topics: Physics Education Research. The text isn’t up there yet, just the abstract, but you can find the full paper on the arxiv. This is a kind of meta-study of lots of published research on gender gaps in introductory physics test scores, and the abstract gives you the basic idea (as it should):

We review the literature on the gender gap on concept inventories in physics. Across studies of the most commonly used mechanics concept inventories, the Force Concept Inventory (FCI) and Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation (FMCE), men’s average pretest scores are always higher than women’s, and in most cases men’s posttest scores are higher as well. The weighted average gender difference on these tests is 13% for pretest scores, 12% for posttest scores, and 6% for normalized gain. This difference is much smaller than the average difference in normalized gain between traditional lecture and interactive engagement (25%), but it is large enough that it could impact the results of studies comparing the effectiveness of different teaching methods. There is sometimes a gender gap on commonly used electromagnetism concept inventories, the Brief Electromagnetism Assessment (BEMA) and Conceptual Survey of Electromagnetism (CSEM), but it is usually much smaller and sometimes is zero or favors women. The weighted average gender difference on these tests is 3.7% for pretest scores, 8.5% for posttest scores, and 6% for normalized gain. There are far fewer studies of the gender gap on electromagnetism concept inventories and much more variation in the existing studies. Based on our analysis of 26 published articles comparing the impact of 30 factors that could potentially influence the gender gap, no single factor is sufficient to explain the gap. Several high-profile studies that have claimed to account for or reduce the gender gap have failed to be replicated in subsequent studies, suggesting that isolated claims of explanations of the gender gap should be interpreted with caution. For example, claims that the gender gap could be eliminated through interactive engagement teaching methods or through a “values affirmation writing exercise” were not supported by subsequent studies. Suggestions that the gender gap might be reduced by changing the wording of “male-oriented” questions or refraining from asking demographic questions before administering the test are not supported by the evidence. Other factors, such as gender differences in background preparation, scores on different kinds of assessment, and splits between how students respond to test questions when answering for themselves or for a “scientist” do contribute to a difference between male and female responses, but the size of these differences is smaller than the size of the overall gender gap, suggesting that the gender gap is most likely due to the combination of many small factors rather than any one factor that can easily be modified.

I occasionally think about trying to start up some sort of PER research, and to this point I’ve always stalled out, for two reasons: one is that this is a highly developed community with its own jargon and methods that I would have to learn basically from scratch, and I have too many other things going on to devote the necessary time. Not to mention that some of the more education-school-ish jargon makes me twitch.

The other problem, though, is related to this paper: particularly given where I work, I don’t have any confidence in my ability to generate meaningful results. Even our largest enrollment courses barely break 100 students in a term, and the most I’ve ever taught in a term is 36. It would take forever to generate any kind of meaningful statistics to evaluate a change in teaching methods. And while it’s possible to do some more intensive interview-type assessments in smaller groups, it’s next to impossible to lift that from plural anecdotes to useful data. As this kind of review shows– lots of results that look really interesting in small studies don’t hold up in other work. I’m not sure there’d be much value in me adding to the world’s stock of small anecdotal reports with no statistical power.

So, you know, that’s where things stand. And the cartoon I put on to distract The Pip while I finished this up is nearly done, so he and I are going to do… something. Go to the library, maybe.

One thought on “Gender Gap Update

  1. this is a highly developed community with its own jargon and methods that I would have to learn basically from scratch

    A little bit of ignorance might actually be a good thing. Yes, there’s a danger of people reinventing wheels or embarrassing themselves with dumb mistakes, but sometimes a field benefits from people who don’t make the same assumptions as everyone else. When I hear PER people speak, a lot of what they go on about seems remote from my concerns as a theorist who teaches a fair bit. Their field has some built-in assumptions about What Matters In Physics, and they design their work around trying to optimize classes to hit those targets. There are some people who approach things differently (the authors of Matter and Interactions spring to mind, ditto for U. Minnesota), but overall the people in that field seem to share a lot of assumptions.

    If you decided to go into that field, learning methodology is one thing, but I think it’s OK for you to decide that you want to look at a different question, a different aspect of physics, something closer to how you, as an experimentalist, think about the subject.

    The last thing the world needs is one more PER person wandering around showing that interactivity improves conceptual understanding, and preaching that point to not-yet-converted colleagues.

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