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Issues related to gender identity and the expression of femininity are key to understanding the high representation of women in physics in Muslim majority countries.
According to a popular myth, women are not good at physics. While the results of many studies contradict this fiction (see Breaking the Myth “Men Are Better At Physics”), the idea persists [1, 2] . In many western countries there is a considerable gender gap in the faculties of physics, with far fewer women than men taking the subject. But not all physics departments suffer from this problem. For example, at universities in countries where the majority of the population identifies as Muslim – so-called Muslim-majority countries – women are often more numerous than men in undergraduate studies. Now, Saaed Moshfeghyeganeh and Zahra Hazari of Florida International University are discovering possible cultural reasons for this difference  . The results could help countries with a physics gender gap problem expand women’s participation, which is important to achieve gender equality in science and, more generally, to ensure social justice and a strong economy  .
Many groups have studied the physics gender gap problem and identified a number of possible causes. For example, researchers have reported subtle and blatant stereotyping of women in physics laboratories in the United States, Canada, and Europe, and have shown that such stereotyping has negatively impacted women’s careers  (See also Point of View: How Stereotypes Influence Women in Physics). These and other studies have all focused on western countries where physics is a human-dominated field. In the US, for example, women make up 21% of undergraduate students and 20% of PhD students  . However, such common sense does not exist in all parts of the world when it comes to science (Fig. 1). In countries with a Muslim majority, such as Iran, women make up more than 60% of undergraduate and postgraduate physics students and 47% of PhD students  . So far, the possible causes of the higher prevalence have been poorly understood by female scientists in these countries. The new study helps fill this knowledge gap by examining the congruence of gender and physical identities in Muslim cultures.
In their study, Moshfeghyeganeh and Hazari interviewed seven female physicists between the ages of 30 and 60. These women all studied physics in Muslim majority countries and then moved to the United States for academic positions. The women come from Bangladesh, Iran, Jordan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – countries where over 95% of the population are Muslim. The duo asked the women questions about their lives from childhood to adulthood to find out why they had studied physics and why they felt successful in the field. The interviews included questions about what cultural expectations – from friends, family, and physics colleagues – these women felt.
In the interviews, five cultural areas were highlighted where women and physicists fit together. These areas were religion, social interactions, community goals, femininity, and family life. In Muslim-majority countries, social interactions with the opposite sex are less common and less encouraged than in Western countries. Most of the seven women were brought up in gender-segregated classes. As a result, they did not feel out of place in a physical setting because of their gender. The women also found that interacting with male physicists did not make them feel like they had to suppress their femininity in order for their intellect – and not their appearance – to be the focus of the interaction. They attribute this to their cultural norms of modest clothing and jewelry.
With regard to family life, the interviews showed that the parents of all study participants attached great importance to learning and had high educational expectations of their daughters, a factor which, according to the women, influenced their choice of study and career. The women also found no incongruity between practicing religion and working in science, two acts that can be contradicting in other cultures. In Muslim cultures, physics is viewed as a subject that serves societal goals, such as advancing technology or saving humanity, that are consistent with religious goals.
Despite the high proportion of women studying physics in Muslim-majority countries, it should be noted that these countries suffer from “pipeline leaks” in terms of employment  . The cultural expectations placed on women change dramatically after graduation, with their focus usually shifting to personal and family responsibilities rather than gainful employment.
Studies like these by Moshfeghyeganeh and Hazari are important in identifying the factors that attract and divert women from physics. And the duo shows that when physics and gender identity match, women will begin their physics education and graduate successfully. There are other ways to encourage women to study physics; Universities, for example, could design courses that focus on the societal relevance of physics; they could work with companies that appreciate diversity to offer internships for female students; and they could use pedagogies that emphasize project-based learning. These changes could all help increase women’s participation in physics, which will be beneficial for many reasons. For example, scientific teams made up of people with different levels of experience and expertise tend to be more creative and innovative  . Scientists from different backgrounds also often ask different questions, leading to unexpected insights that only propel physics forward.
Find out more about the experiences of women physicists in countries with a Muslim majority in these questions and answers: Where women scientists are the majority.
- E. Pollack, “Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?” The New York Times Magazine (October 2013).
- B. Francis et al., “The construction of physics as a thoroughly male subject: The perception of gender issues in young people when accessing physics”, Sex roles76, 156 (2016).
- S. Moshfeghyeganeh and Z. Hazari, “Impact of Culture on Career Choice of Women Physicists: A Comparison of Muslim Majority Countries and the West”, Phys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res.17th, 010114 (2021).
- OECD, “Draft Background Report on Promoting Gender Equality in Eurasia: Better Policies for Women’s Economic Empowerment” (OECD Eurasia Competitiveness Program, 2019).
- S. Thébaud and M. Charles, “Segregation, Stereotypes and STEM”, Social science7th, 111 (2018).
- A. Porter and R. Ivie, “Women in Physics and Astronomy, 2019,” Report from the American Institute of Physics.
- A. Iraji zad et al., “Improving the Status of Iranian Women in Physics”, AIP conf. Proc.1697 (2015).
- SI Islam, “Arab Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics: The Way Forward”, World J. Educ7th, 12 (2017).
- L. Smith-Doerr et al.“How diversity matters in the academic and technical workforce at the university: A critical review taking into account integration in teams, fields and organizational contexts”, Involve science, technology and society3rd, 139 (2017).