The national equity, diversity and inclusion survey shows minorities are underrepresented in physics
Darsh Sangha was in grade 11 when she discovered her love for physics. She appreciated that the principles taught in physics are all things that come into play in everyday life. While her friends would dread the class, she held positive anticipation and excitement to learn more about the world around her.
But during her first year at Ryerson University studying biomedical sciences with a minor in physics, she began to see how the intelligence of women and men were perceived differently in the field. Now in her fourth year, Sangha said it’s been challenging to navigate the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) as a woman of colour.
According to a new Canada-wide study, the physics field is sorely lacking in diversity, with the majority of people in the field identifying as white and male.
The study, conducted by CanPhysCounts, surveyed 3,000 respondents including undergraduate students, graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, faculty, members of research institutes, and industry and government workers.
The preliminary data released in March shows that the largest group of respondents in all categories were white men, and only one per cent of respondents identified as Black.
In each category, gender diverse people — meaning those who identify as non-binary, gender non-conforming, genderqueer, transgender and those who self-describe another gender identity — were the least represented. Black, Indigenous, and other women of colour were second last in terms of representation in each category.
This data is not surprising, said Sangha, who is co-president of Ryerson’s Association of Undergraduate Women in Science (AUWS), which aims to unite and amplify the voices of women in science fields. She said the club has brought her comfort and community while navigating STEM as a visible minority.
In her daily interactions, Sangha said she feels like her intelligence as a woman is perceived differently than that of her male peers, finding herself constantly having to prove her worthiness to be there.
“They make assumptions about (me) before they’ve even spoken to (me). People will tell me, ‘you’re a lot more intelligent than I thought you were.’ And a lot of the times that’s coming from men,” she said.
“It shows how they perceive women and their intelligence in science. I’ve never felt like they saw me as an equal.”
Sangha said the reason women are regarded differently in the field is in part because of the lack of diversity in the way physics is taught.
“All of our science textbooks mostly talk about men, more specifically white cis men and their findings. We’ve always highlighted the voices and achievements of men; they’re kind of seen as the fathers of science and the fathers of physics,” she said.
Sangha points to the erasure of female scientists’ contributions and educational institutions crediting male scientists for work done by female scientists as a reason why the modern-day physics learning environment can be unwelcoming to women.
“That sort of process (of erasure) has translated over the years into people of colour, especially women of colour, feeling discouraged to go into the field,” she said. Not only is it white men that mostly get recognized for their work, but it’s also the fact that they don’t acknowledge that women even contribute to the field.”
The lack of diversity in physics can also impact work environments. Jean Chen, an associate professor of medical biophysics at the University of Toronto, says women in physics at all levels of their school and career face challenges unique to them.
“In my undergraduate classes, the majority of students were male and all the professors I had were men … not even a single woman. So there (is) this lack of role models for women who want to become researchers in physics and engineering and other types of quantitative science,” said Chen.
“For those of us that end up being successful in a research career and end up being scientists, we are also the minority,” said Chen. She said women working in the field can be treated differently due to skewed perceptions of them by peers and trainees.
“There’s sometimes this age-old prejudice against women: men seem more sure of themselves and they don’t show their imposter syndrome as clearly, so they seem to carry themselves with more confidence.”
Minorities in the field will be on the receiving end of either conscious or subconscious bias at some point in their careers, said Chen.
Lack of diversity in a field like physics can not only impact the treatment minorities working within the field face, but also in the way research is conducted.
When people from marginalized backgrounds are not able to give their input, they cannot help identify underlying biases that are often incorporated into experiments. Diversity among researchers adds an intersectional perspective that can bring about more accurate and interesting research, said Chen.
“Some of the best researchers I know in my field are women… Although men and women are all physicists (in the same way), they sometimes approach problems slightly differently,” she said.
“Bringing diversity into the conversation will actually present more innovative solutions.”
But because the field of physics is traditionally geared towards men, men are more likely to pursue it as a career path, said Sarah Kadhim, a biomedical physics master’s student at Ryerson.
As masculinity presides over academia and the general work environment, femininity is less likely to find a place. Studies have shown that when women are more feminine presenting, such as wearing colourful makeup and clothes, they are less likely to be deemed suitable for a career in science.
Equating femininity to lacking capability in physics results in a perception of STEM as an inherently masculine field. Studies have shown that when adolescent girls see hypermasculinity predominating STEM, it can impact their interest in entering the field.
By introducing physics as a possible career path to younger students, women and people from diverse backgrounds would be more likely to enter the field, said Kadhim.
Providing opportunities for high school students to speak with people who are studying and working in the field would dispel their hesitancy and encourage them to join, she said.
“Especially for women, we want them to know that they can do physics. Starting from high school, we want them to know more about the field, so they can be interested to join and to talk to us about it,” she said. “This will give them the courage to apply to these kinds of programs.”
Despite the study’s low diversity statistics, Kadhim and Chen said representation for minorities is getting better.
With organizations like Ryerson’s AUWS, students who are minorities in the field are provided a sense of community. For Sangha, it’s been a space to talk about the common issues faced by women and minorities in the field, and to give and receive support.
The data collected by CanPhysCounts is the first ever comprehensive survey of the physics community in Canada. Now that this data has been collected, it makes space for more conversations around improving diversity.
Chen is optimistic that meaningful change can happen with more resources, opportunities and mentorships in the field.
“Although the numbers are still so low, I do feel a shift in mentality and I feel very encouraged,” she said. “The minorities who have not yet contributed to the field can bring about paradigm shifts. They can be the future of this field.”