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Challenging stereotypes in physics

Influencing young people is key to making the physics community bigger and more diverse and inclusive. However, research from Education and Employers indicates that stereotypes have a limiting effect on children’s career aspirations from as young as seven years old. 

Image text reads: How to promote good physics on social media. Elevate the voices of others: Make sure to keep online spaces inclusive and showcase the diversity of physics. Accessibility considerations: Use alt text, pic and video descriptions. Don’t use special characters or ‘fancy fonts’. Ensure text on images is high contrast. Keep text large and clear. Limit emoji use. Use subtitles in video. Use CamelCase in hashtags, for example #LikeThis. Use inclusive language, for example “hey everyone”

You can't be what you can't see

Improving representation is one of the ways we can help improve access to physics. By having a more diverse range of people discussing physics on social media, we can help more young people identify with the physics community.

A diverse set of voices is a good start to addressing issues of inequality, through increasing the diversity of people we see and hear doing science. This can widen the impression of who can do science and therefore the number of young people who see science as 'for them'.

Challenging stereotypes

Research into what attracts or deters young people in respect of STEM subjects shows that the dominant educational and social representations of science are still overwhelmingly 'masculine' and focused on 'cleverness'.
Whilst it may seem positive to praise young people for having interest in a 'smart' subject, this can however put off young people who feel that they are not 'naturally gifted' or who think that these subjects are only for the smartest kids in the class, rather than for anyone. This reinforces the idea of physics being an 'elite' subject rather than a subject you can work hard at like anybody else.

We know that stereotypical or negative representations of physicists encountered on social media influence young people into thinking that physics isn’t a subject that they should explore. This is reinforced when most of the physicists that people see and hear about are from a narrow pool of society.  This fails to display the diversity currently within physics and limits the growth of the discipline.

“As students get older, more of them tend to draw male scientists: In kindergarten, children draw roughly the same number of male and female scientists—girls tend to draw more female scientists while boys tend to draw more male ones. But by the time they’re in high school, students—males and females combined—draw four times as many male scientists as female ones.” - 50 Years of the Draw-a-Scientist Test - Edutopia

“…equity and social justice should be at the heart of the STEM education; if not we will just reinforce the inequalities that already exist” - ASPIRES

Does your content pass the Finkbeiner test?

When discussing scientists, there can sometimes be a tendency to discuss men and women in different ways. Journalist Christie Aschwanden developed the Finkbeiner test to challenge gender bias in media. To pass the test, your description must not mention: 

  • That she is a woman
  • Her husband's job
  • Her childcare arrangements
  • How she nurtures her underlings
  • How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
  • How she is a role model for other women
  • How she's the "first woman to..."

This kind of writing can reinforce difference, highlighting successful members of marginalised groups as exceptions to the status quo.

Elevating diverse voices in physics

What can people do to increase the diversity of voices that are heard on social media?
Although most social media platforms are very protective of their algorithms, evidence indicates that platforms that rely on recommendations can often end up recommending the same kind of people, posts and videos over and over again making it harder for a diverse range of voices to be heard. Add to this that it is easier for established users to be heard, and it makes it harder for less well-known and newer influencers to reach out.

It can be easy to fall into the trap of only collaborating with, or promoting the content of, people like you. This occurs because our existing circles are often very similar to us – similar place of work, education, upbringing, but also similar ethnicity, neurodiversity, gender, sexual orientation, or class. People can often defend a lack of diversity by saying they just don’t know any “______ physicists”. Just because you don’t know any doesn’t mean they aren’t out there! Increasing the diversity of people you work with is not only good for representation, but it can also increase the diversity of thoughts and ideas.

Tips for sharing and collaborating

  • Ensure that screen time and speech are shared fairly
  • Sharing posts, articles, tweets, and videos from a diverse range of creators can help show your audience the variety of people discussing physics on the internet.
  • Giving shout-outs and recommendations to your audiences about other creators that you think they should follow too.
  • You can also invite other creators to collaborate with you, such as writing blogs for each other’s websites and featuring in each other’s videos. This also provides an opportunity to reach new people who may be part of each other’s audiences.

Look at the roles in your content

We conducted a meta-analysis of 47 science channels on YouTube, with a combined subscribership of over 160 million, when channels were presented by individuals, white male presenters outnumber non-white-male presenters nearly 2:1.
Even if videos are animated, they are often still narrated by male voices. If you are choosing a narrator for a video, it is also important to consider accents – even if you can’t see a person, people infer a lot from someone’s voice, and therefore the accent of a presenter can be used to reinforce or counter a stereotype.

If you are producing content as a group, it is important to pay attention to roles - getting a good mix of people on screen is not enough. Is the person leading an experiment always male? Is the person presenting always white? Having a diverse cast but keeping roles very rigid can reinforce power imbalances and place minoritised groups in subordinate roles.

Avoid tokenism

In broadening representation in videos, avoid the appearance of tokenism or ‘shallow diversity’. An example could be adding a disabled physicist into your video but not giving them a speaking role. It can also be seen as tokenistic if an individual is included merely because of their identity and not because of their expertise. When including a more diverse range of physicists in your social media, it is important to emphasise their interests and field of expertise. Recognise people as physicists first and foremost.

It is also important that diverse voices are not brought out to talk only about diversity. They should be heard talking about the field they work in too. It is unfair to expect individuals to be experts in diversity and inclusion just because of certain identity characteristics they may have, and you shouldn’t demand people from underrepresented and underserved groups to share their lived experiences or educate others. Providing opportunities for people to discuss these issues is good but making it an unpaid responsibility is not.

Groups currently promoting and elevating diverse voices in physics

If you are a group working in this field and would like to be added to this list, please email us here: [email protected]