What racial, gender, and sexual orientation bias still exists in physics and what can I do about it?

posted February 10, 2016 and revised May 20, 2016
by Ramón S. Barthelemy

As physicists we often believe that our field is a place where anyone can succeed regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. Although overt discrimination has decreased, many kinds of unintentional and intentional bias still run rampant [1]. Fortunately, many of these biases are identifiable and there are actionable steps your department can take to prevent and address them.


Interpersonal bias: stereotype threat, microaggressions, and harassment

Interpersonal biases are discriminatory acts and beliefs that happen between people. These biases can be both intentional and unintentional and occur in many social situations like the classroom, office hours, research group meetings, and in student study lounges. Sadly, harassment often goes unreported, or is not addressed even after a report [2]. Three well-researched and understood forms of interpersonal bias have been identified in physics in the literature: stereotype threat, microaggressions, and harassment [2-7]. All of the examples listed below are real examples from physics departments that are reported in the literature.

Stereotype threat describes a situation in which we identify people as part of a negatively-stereotyped group, leading to them to feel anxious that their performance will confirm those negative stereotypes. Because anxiety depresses performance, they may then perform worse, in an unpleasant self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, research shows that when women and people of color are told that a hard math test discriminates against their group, they will actually do worse when tested; the effect is dramatically decreased when they are told that the same test is unbiased [3, 8]. These stereotypes can be unconscious but are often embedded in strong personal beliefs about certain groups.

Examples of situations cited in the literature that could lead to stereotype threat:

  • A female student being told she won’t succeed in particle theory because it is too hard [2]
  • A female high school student who wants to be a physics major being told that she’ll become a waitress [2]
  • Being the only woman, person of color, or LGBT person in the room [2, 9]

Microaggressions are small actions, beliefs, or comments that tell another person they do not belong, do not have anything to add, or are incompetent because of their identity (e.g. gender). These are often times unconscious, but can also be purposeful. These acts seem small but create a pervasive negative climate that is stressful and discouraging – “death by a thousand paper cuts.”

Examples of microaggressions cited in the literature:

  • Making homophobic remarks; LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) persons who hear these remarks frequently will feel less accepted on campus [10]
  • Ignoring a female student’s ideas in your research group meeting, but listening closely to your male students [2]
  • Ceasing communication with a fellow faculty member after he comes out as gay [11]
  • Repeatedly mispronouncing a student’s name and making fun of how it sounds [unpublished data]

Harassment is explicit and purposeful discrimination or harm of someone based on their identity (such as gender, race, or LGBT status). Unfortunately, over half of all women in the workplace have experienced harassment [7]. The proportion in the sciences is even higher (71%) [6].

Examples of harassment cited in the literature:

  • Telling a female graduate student that women should be at home rather than doing physics [2]
  • Joking about rape, domestic violence, and sex in the lab [2]
  • Screaming at your student and punching the wall because she is not sexually interested in you [2]

Structural bias

Structural biases are institutional conditions that hinder student performance or restrict their participation. The fact that physics is mostly white cis* gender straight men [12, 13] and that physics culture is highly masculine [14-16] is itself a structural bias that may deter others from participating. For example, Hispanic women who walk into a physics classroom will quickly notice the lack of students like them and may feel they don’t belong.

Structural biases may also be located in departmental or institutional practices. People of color, women, and LGBT students may not be targeted for recruitment into physics. Many departments depend on the GRE for graduate admissions, even though GRE scores do not predict ultimate success in graduate school; these departments, unfortunately, are systematically discriminating against women and people of color [17].

*Cis gender means that you identify your gender with the one you were assigned at birth. For example, if a person were born and said to be a man, and they identify as a man, then they are cis gender. Trans gender people are people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. For example, a person who was assigned man at birth but identifies as a woman is trans gender.

What can I do about it?

Even though significant bias still exists in our culture at large and within physics, there is a lot that you can do to improve your department. Many of these actions are free or low cost, and could provide huge benefits for your department, since they may help you attract and retain diverse physics students. Physics is a global community. Let us build our own standards for respect and inclusion so that all people can participate.

Addressing microaggressions and stereotype threat

  • Invite physics speakers who represent many kinds of persons, but only ask them to talk about their background if its something they are known to do.
  • Take down historic photos of cis white male physicists and put up diverse pictures of modern working physicists and your students.
  • Place LGBT “safe space” stickers to show your department’s dedication to inclusion.
  • Embed discussions of equity in the physics classroom and department with explicit conversations about gender, race, and sexuality. Invite in experts to conduct these conversations.
  • On fliers for your major, explicitly encourage women, people of color, and LGBT persons to apply.

Addressing harassment

  • Require training on sexual harassment for everyone so all students and faculty are aware of what is inappropriate and not tolerated. Many departments have already instituted strong policies and training to address sexual harassment.
  • Require mandatory reporting by faculty if they see harassment.
  • Address and punish harassers.
  • Never ignore the experiences of students.


  1. Des Jardins, J., The Madame Curie Complex: The hidden history of women in science. 2010, New York: Feminist Press.
  2. Barthelemy, R., M. McCormick, and C. Henderson, Gender Discrimination in Physics and Astronomy: Graduate Student Experiences of Sexism and Microaggressions Physical Review Special Topic s- Physics Education Research, In Press.
  3. Steele, C.M., A Threat in The Air: How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Identity and Performance. American Psychologist, 1997. 52(6): p. 613-629.
  4. Barthelemy, R., M. McCormick, and C. Henderson. Understanding Women's Gendered Experiences in Physics and Astronomy Through Microaggressions. in Physics Education Research Conference. 2014. Minneapolis, MN.
  5. Sue, D.W., Microaggressions and marginality: Manifestation, dynamics, and impact, ed. D.W. Sue. 2010, Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  6. Clancy, K., et al., Survey of academic field experiences (SAFE): Trainees report harassment and assault. PLOS one, 2014. 9(7).
  7. Ilies, R., et al., Reported incidence rates of work-related sexual harassment in the united states: Using meta-analysis to explain reported rate disparities. Personnel Psychology, 2003. 56(3): p. 607-631.
  8. Murphy, M.C., C.M. Steele, and J.J. Gross, Signaling threat: How situational cues affect women in math, science, and engineering settings. Psychological Science, 2007. 18(10): p. 879-885.
  9. Cech, E.A. and T.J. Waidzunas, Navigating the heteronormativity of engineering: the experiences of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students. Engineering Studies, 2011. 3(1): p. 1-24.
  10. Woodford, M.R., et al., "That's so gay!": Examining the covariates of hearing this expression among gay, lesbian, and bisexual college students. Journal of American College Health, 2012. 60(6): p. 429-434.
  11. Patridge, E., R.S. Barthelemy, and S. Rankin, Factors Impacting the Academic Climate for LGBQ STEM Faculty. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, 2014. 20(1): p. 75-98.
  12. Mulvey, P. and S. Nicholson, Physics bachelor's degrees. 2012, American Institute of Physics: College Park, MD.
  13. Mulvey, P. and S. Nicholson, Trends in Physics PhDs. 2014, American Institute of Physics: College Park, MD.
  14. Harding, S., The Science question in feminism. 1986, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
  15. Traweek, S., Beamtimes and Lifetimes. 1988, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  16. Hermanowicz, J.C., Lives in science: How institutions affect academc careers. 2009: University of Chicago Press.
  17. Miller, C. and K. Stassun, A test that fails. Nature, 2014. 510: p. 303-304.

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