‘But you don’t look like a physicist!’

Hi, Lily here! For this week’s post I am going to be talking about the reactions I have faced when talking to people about the fact I did a physics degree. My thoughts on the conversations I have had, how the responses have and continue to affect me and ultimately why I think working to tackle stereotypes is so important!

A few years ago whilst I was studying at university a question I was often asked (and often felt uncomfortable answering) was – what do you study? Early on in my degree I would reply almost shyly, bashfully …’umm I study physics’ and it usually shocked people to some extent. But why? This is what I want to explore in today’s blog post!

Over the past few years being on the receiving end of this exchange many times I can pretty much group people’s reactions into the following:

  1. ‘Woahhh you must be really clever … I dropped physics as soon as I could!’
  2. ‘Cool that must be really interesting!’
  3. And third and finally – ‘No way! But you don’t look like you would study physics!’

As I worked through my physics degree I became more and more confident in my ownership of the word physicist. I hadn’t studied physics for 3 years, put ALOT of hard work into it to not feel worthy enough to be a ‘physicist’. And I think in some way this made me analyse the reactions I got to telling people I was ‘a physicist’ even more closely!

So let’s break down these reactions! Firstly number one, something along the lines of ‘that must be soooo hard’, or ‘I never got on with physics at all’. This is probably the most common response I get – which is really sad! People that have had such a rubbish experience with science and physics in particular at a young age that they ‘dropped it as soon as they could’ or ‘always remember it never clicking’ or that ‘they just never got it’.

I think there is something pretty important to think about here! Are people scared off from subjects when they are younger because they are told by friends, family sometimes even teachers that they are ‘really hard’ or maybe that ‘they haven’t quite got what it takes’? Now I am not saying that physics isn’t difficult, but I believe passionately that the majority of people who study physics or perceived ‘hard’ subjects are not naturally good at them! They don’t ‘just get it’ – they work really bloody hard and they slowly improve their knowledge over time. It is not magic! I think it is really dangerous to perpetuate this idea that certain subjects are only for people who show extraordinary intelligence or brilliance – this is not the case, what you need is a passion for the subject, lots of determination and the willingness to put a lot of hard work in!

The second reaction is great – it is always brilliant when at the mention of physics people respond positively! Usually they might have an interested in something science-y themselves or they may have seen or read a physics or science related documentary/film or book. This is why science communication and science in the media is so important! People’s whole perception and view of what I do is usually based around what they see through the media – for instance people often talk about Brian Cox and what they think of his documentaries.

The third and final response I frequently got (and initially really feared) is ‘No way! But you don’t look like a physicist!’. This response is usually preceded by a look of shock/confusion and is by far and away the most difficult to reply to. This response is the reason for years I was shy and often nervous to have this conversation. What am I expected to reply to that? When someone looks at you in disbelief when you tell them what you do/ what you study – it really does make you question yourself! It shouldn’t, but it does – does this person think I’m lying? Do I look incapable? Do I look too young? Is there something wrong with what I’m wearing? Is it because I’m a woman?

I know I do not look like society’s stereotypical physicist or scientist e.g. a caricature of Albert Einstein – mad scientist vibe! But the shock, disbelief and judgement from others can make you feel really self conscious! And this is something I really don’t want other young women in STEM to have to deal with.

This is why female representation in STEM is so, so important! Anyone no matter what they look like can be a physicist or work in STEM! Diverse role models working in STEM are so important and this is where social media really comes into it’s own. You can find such a wide variety of people working in all sorts of STEM careers, and this is only going to keep improving. We need as many people as possible sharing their stories to keep pushing for wider representation. This will hopefully lead to more people realising that physicists and people working in STEM come in all shapes and sizes, from wide ranging backgrounds, career paths and life experiences. That we are not all – a certain age, a certain sex, dress a certain way, talk a certain way – but that we are varied and unique and that this diversity and continuing to work to improve representation is what will push Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths forwards.

Working to tackle stereotypes is extremely important and this is one of the reasons why I started this blog! The more people there are talking about their experiences the more role models there are for young people aspiring to work in STEM. If young people can align themselves to people already working in the field this will hopefully give them the belief that they can do it too!

Let me know if you have had a similar experience ( ‘But you don’t look like a …’ )? And what more do you think we can do to continue to smash stereotypes of what a physicist or someone who works in STEM looks like?

Thanks so much for reading!

Lily

2SistersinSTEM

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