Gender Imbalances in Free-Inquiry Physics Labs

June 2, 2020

Men and women assume different roles when participating in low-structure, inquiry-based physics labs, says a new study in Physics Education Research. Men also show observable behavioral differences in single- and mixed-gender working groups in the inquiry-based labs. Without being prompted, men in the mixed-gender undergraduate subject groups tended to handle physics lab equipment more, while women worked on laptops. By contrast, and with implications for students' well-rounded training, men and women don’t show these clear gender differences in highly structured traditional physics labs, according to the study.

“Our results highlight the importance of structuring equitable group dynamics in educational settings, as a gendered division of roles can emerge without active intervention,” wrote a team of researchers led by Katherine Quinn, who is now a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Physics and Biological Function. “As the culture in physics evolves to remove systematic gender biases in the field, instructors in educational settings must not only remove explicitly biased aspects of curricula but also take active steps to ensure that potentially discriminatory aspects are not inadvertently reinforced.”

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