The Student News Site of The Webb Schools

Webb Canyon Chronicle

The Student News Site of The Webb Schools

Webb Canyon Chronicle

The Student News Site of The Webb Schools

Webb Canyon Chronicle

Why do no girls take physics? An in-depth study of STEM at Webb

Stephanie Ma
Behind the door of the science office, the Mission Statement for the Webb Schools Science Department reminds students and teachers of the purpose and priorities of Webb’s science department. The statement emphasizes empowering students to be global citizens with the intention of serving their community. Looking at the mission statement, increasing diversity in the workplace aligns with this message, encouraging female students to take advanced courses.

As course selection season nears, you might find yourself scrolling through the course catalog, browsing the over ten different science class offerings. Your final course selection decision is a balancing act of many different factors: The difficulty of the class, its field of science, the prerequisites, and department recommendation. Would the gender ratio of each class ever make its way onto that list? 

Over past years, Webb has consistently seen a trend of only a small percentage of female students opting for math-based, higher level physical science STEM classes. The most striking example is AP Physics C, with only three VWS students enrolled in a class of 18 this year.  

Between 2018 to 2022, the gender ratio of physical sciences (Advanced Studies AP Physics C and Advanced Studies Experimental Physics) at Webb has been 68 :32 male to female while the gender ratio in computer science and advanced math classes is 60:40.  

These statistics are worrying. Professional STEM fields are already known to be heavily male dominated, with men in roughly two thirds of all STEM based employment. With fewer female students taking classes in physical science at the high school level, the cycle of gender discrimination in STEM continues to be perpetuated through levels of job development and Webb’s education system.  

Diversity in STEM is particularly important, because STEM is essential in shaping the direction of the future as it is involved in nearly every profession. Diverse workplaces pave the way for more  innovation and fairer representation.  

With all this said, why aren’t VWS students taking harder STEM classes?  

Many physical science classes require prerequisites in math, demonstrating that the women in STEM issue may track back to before high school begins. AP Physics C requires AP Calculus AB as a prerequisite, and Experimental Physics requires Integrated Math 2.  

Another factor is that women are discouraged from choosing classes when they know they are going to be the minority. Classes like physics are outweighed by other social and life sciences that lack the discomfort in these imbalanced environments. 

“It feels like I must be better [than the males in the class] because I must prove that I’m as good as them; I deserve to be there too,” said Aiperi Bush (‘24), a VWS student who took AP Physics C last year. “Even if there’s a few other girls there, it does still feel overwhelming; at least to me, you can feel that gender divide.” 

In addition to quantitative factors, preexisting gender norms, societal expectations, and cultural and family backgrounds also play a crucial part in these results. The most significant reason discouraging VWS students from taking these classes is not the lack of support from the school but rather the overall experience of women in the US when it comes to STEM.  

Women are taught to feel unwelcomed in STEM classes, to fear failure when accepted into these spaces, and constantly told that in the workforce, they must work twice as hard to stand out and prove themselves.  

Another factor lies in the gender stereotypes associated with different job options. Fields like environmental science and biology might be more popular with women because they are subjects perceived as more nurturing or caring, whereas physics and math are more associated with logic and facts. 

Even teachers have difficulty facing and navigating this phenomenon, as there is only so much one can do to reverse the entrenched cultural programming.  

“Whether you’re talking about an individual teacher or an individual school, you’re trying to overcome a lot of built in expectations about what it means to be in that class and the kind of pressures that will be on a person.” said Andrew Hamilton, science department faculty and AP Physics teacher. “I can’t imagine what it’d be like to walk into a classroom and not just think ‘am I going to do well.’” 

A step Webb has taken towards encouraging female students in physical sciences is the STEP-UP program. For the advanced studies classes, the teachers do a presentation on awareness and female representation at Webb. IPC students receive a presentation on possible careers for physics majors, highlighting influential female physicists and encouraging VWS students to continue with physical sciences.  

Two students expressed contrasting thoughts when interviewed about the STEP-UP program.  

“When you just do science, you don’t really get to look at what’s surrounding the science,” said Sehoon Kang (‘24), a WSC student who took AP Physics C, “In our classes, we don’t really care whether you’re a girl or not, because we’re all inclined students. I’ve never really thought about it that way.” 

But while intentions of classmates may be one thing, the actual experience of females in these classes may be different.  

“The conversation really devolved,” Aiperi said. “We ended up getting a couple of guys just denying that sexism existed, essentially. It’s scary because I would say I’m normally outspoken, but when there’s [so] many guys talking over you, it’s hard not to shut down.” 

The STEP-UP program sparks valuable conversations in the classroom, with a goal to build confidence in girls, enhance awareness in male students, and brainstorm solutions to the gender divide for further change. However, even during moments of advocacy and encouragement for women in STEM, difficult conversation arise. 

“Even if it’s a student who wasn’t really invested in the conversation at the time, maybe next time they’ll be more open to it,” Mr. Hamilton said. 

Even though these are small steps, it is worth acknowledging that they contribute to long term change. 

Although the STEP-UP program is a meaningful step towards long-term change, the status quo seems unlikely to shift.  Despite an even split between genders in the science department faculty overall, all physical science teachers identify as male. 

“It can be discouraging because especially when you look at the labs, they will be heavily male dominated and that can be a little off-putting and intimidating for a VWS student,” said Billie Guerrero, science department faculty. “How are we going to make sure that the girls are getting their space to be comfortable, to be able to flourish in those classes?” 

Webb’s next step to promote women in STEM should be increasing female role models in the field of physical science. 

“It helps to see teachers who are also women, and to see that they know what they’re doing,”Aiperi said. “When they’re women, it makes you feel more comfortable.” 

There is a lot that Webbies cannot control, such as cultural programming, historical patterns, and family influences. However, encouraging VWS students to pursue STEM should be a priority.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover
About the Contributors
Stephanie Ma
Stephanie Ma, Co-Editor of Opinion
Meet Stephanie “Steph” Ma ('25), a harmonious force within the Webb Canyon Chronicle and Webb Community. This past summer Steph leisurely sojourned in Korea, where she indulged in delicious street foods such as fish cakes and tteokbokki. She continued her summer melodiously with visits to Boston College and NYU’s Clive Davis Institute, where she immersed herself in the world of music, recorded her own songs, and had her soul serenaded by Masie Peters while visiting her brother in Canada. Looking through her Spotify, you are sure to find the ballads of Taylor Swift and Joshua Bassett. A talented instrumentalist, she plays a multitude of instruments such as the violin, guitar, and ukulele, yet her compositions extend beyond melodies. At Webb, the humanities strike a chord in her heart, especially classes conducted by Ms. MacPhee. As a maestro of leadership, Steph serves on the VWS Honor Cabinet When writing for the WCC Steph meticulously pieces together articles, most notably her compelling piece on the UC strikes. Finishing with a crescendo we can all look forward to seeing Steph thrive during her third year at Webb, while we take delight in her enlightened and empathetic articles during her second year at the Chronicle.  Favorite Song: "Cool About It" by Boygenius
Kristine Bisgaard
Kristine Bisgaard, Staff Writer
With a kind smile and calming voice, Kristine Bisgaard (‘25) is the embodiment of the Danish concept of “hygge: a word that cannot be directly translated into English but roughly means an atmosphere of comfort, coziness, and connection between people. Hailing from Denmark although she has moved around the world since she was seven years old, going from Northern Europe to the Bay Area, and now Claremont Kristine is no stranger to frequent change. Even her introduction to Webb was more sudden than most, as she simultaneously entered boarding school and the Webb Canyon Chronicle as a new junior. Despite the inevitable obstacles, Kristine has welcomed every opportunity to explore her new community with an open mind and easygoing personality. This year, Kristine looks forward to continuing to watch her favorite Danish TV shows, making new friends in her “home away from home,” and learning how to utilize journalism to make her own unique contribution to the Webb community by serving as a bridge between academic and social life. From embracing the creative freedom that Honors Studio Art offers to playing her best as a varsity tennis athlete, Kristine will no doubt delicately balance the rigor that Webb encourages with her love of “hygge and spending time with the people she cares about.  Favorite Song: "Ticking" by Zach Bryan

Comments (0)

All Webb Canyon Chronicle Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *