Identifying the Stereotypical Who, What, and Why of Physics and Biology

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Supporting efforts to grow the scientific workforce means articulating and comparing the content of science field stereotypes. To do this, data were collected from the general public [undergraduates (n=121) and Amazon Mechanical Turk workers (n=223)] as well as from people within science [attendees of an undergraduate conference for women in physics (n=34)]. Participants were randomly assigned to consider either biologists or physicists and then produce both spontaneous judgments and rate various person traits (e.g., ratings related to looks and personality and hobbies) and field characteristics (e.g., ratings related to the working conditions, norms, and expectations for the field). Analyses show stereotypes of the scientist and the science field were statistically significantly negative overall, with stereotypes about physicists and the field of physics more negative than biology. Compared to biologists, physicists were perceived as statistically significantly more competent, but statistically significantly more unattractive, tech oriented, awkward, and loners. Furthermore, compared to biology, a job in physics was viewed as having fewer opportunities for working with and helping others, but more opportunities for agency, a greater requirement for innate brilliance and effort to succeed, and as more difficult. That said, physicists were more envied than biologists. Data were triangulated with open-ended responses illustrating that across samples, people are more likely to reproduce science stereotypes for physicists. Implications for stereotype research and broadening participation of the science workforce are discussed, with a focus on the utility of role models and classroom interventions that negate stereotypes such as writing activities and encouraging students to approach physics with a growth mindset. Instructors are encouraged to consider what stereotypes students have about the field of physics and physicists. At the department level, instructors are encouraged to consider hosting a Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics sponsored in part by the American Physical Society.




Bruun, Megan, Shannon Willoughby, and Jessi L. Smith. “Identifying the Stereotypical Who, What, and Why of Physics and Biology.” Physical Review Physics Education Research 14, no. 2 (December 12, 2018). doi:10.1103/physrevphyseducres.14.020125.
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