Girls in Physics: The Difficulty Default

As a teenager studying physics and chemistry at school, and then going on into engineering, before now studying science, I have had the following conversation a number of times with girls a few years younger than me. Conversation on science with younger girls That I have this conversation with anyone is not ideal, but the thing is, I have only ever had it with females. Ever.

This worrying attitude to science is not just a one off situation either, it is a widespread societal issue. There is a general consensus that more girls are needed in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), even simply at a high school level. It is not an access issue, as most girls in the developed world do have the same opportunity to study science.  But they are choosing not to.  For some reason girls are being dissuaded from science, and in particular physics, but why?

Just like a Rubik’s cube, an adaptive leadership challenge is a complex situation, requiring many twists and turns to solve all sides. Girls not studying science, and in particular physics is a perfect example of an adaptive challenge.  Despite the many interlinked elements, I am going to focus on the default perception of difficulty.

Physics has a terrible reputation amongst girls.  Girls believe they cannot do it.  They often believe it is a boy’s subject.  This is a groundless belief, as there is no actual difference in cognitive ability between boys and girls as shown in the following infographic. Infographic on women in science So why is it seen as “sooo hard”?  Why is physics dropped without a good attempt?

Girls are not born saying, “physics is too challenging a pursuit for the feeble female mind.” Yet somewhere along the way society cultivates this mindset.  Pollack (2013) hypothesises that, “boys are encouraged to tough out difficult courses in unpopular subjects, while girls, no matter how smart, receive fewer arguments from their parents, teachers or guidance counsellors if they drop a physics class or shrug off an AP exam.” This attitude is coming from the very same society saying more girls need to study science and it suggests a systemic issue rather than one with just the girls themselves…

Dealing with adaptive leadership challenges can be explained in terms of “collective and individual disequilibrium” (Heifetz, Grashow & Linsky 2009), which is analogous to the challenging process of learning. Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky (2009) explains that with disequilibrium comes pain from deep change, and it can cause conflict, panic and fear of losing something dear. These are difficult emotions to manage without the support of people around you.

The thing is, most people find physics challenging, but the surrounding support ensures that males remain within the “productive zone of disequilibrium” and go on to learn and understand the material. Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky (2009) explain this is the range of pressure in which things get done and changes get made.

The lack of support for girls, and the personal risk confronted when learning in a discipline where they need to overcome gender bias, means the disequilibrium experienced often moves beyond the limit of tolerance so the girls drop out.  They experience the “individual disequilibrium” as they engage with science.  Girls are not simply battling thermodynamics and wave particle theorems, but also pushing against traditional gender roles.  With so much obstruction to success, is it any wonder girls tend to opt for something else?  Difficulty in English for example, could be put down to lack or study, or lower individual ability. Whereas in physics, a girl may be accused of straying from her own domain.

Adaptive leadership is needed to deal with this.  Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky (2009) comment when disequilibrium is experienced as a result of dealing with an adaptive leadership challenge, those people exercising leadership must have compassion for the trials faced. We need to help girls navigate the difficulties they experience in studying physics.  Society currently dampens disequilibrium for males in science, by conveying a sense of capability, yet does the opposite for females, heightening fears and insecurities.

So why have we not already dealt to this difficulty default?  The status quo in science and physics has arisen from a wider inequality in genders. The inequality is self-propagating, as the “collective disequilibrium” that would arise from change is significant.

We need to turn this situation around and put society into a productive zone of disequilibrium by questioning the basis behind these gender stereotypes.  Then we might be able to help girls through the individual disequilibrium they struggle against in their studies of physics in science.  Let’s change girls’ default perception from to “difficult” to “doable”.


Heifetz, R, Grashow, A & Linsky, M 2009, The practice of adaptive leadership. Harvard Business Press, Boston, Massachusetts.

Pollack, E 2013, ‘Why there are still so few women in science?’, The New York Times, 3 October, viewed 4 May 2015, VCAA

2014, ‘VCE Graded Assessment 2013’, Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, viewed 4 May 2015,