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A physics lab at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California.

A physics lab at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California.

Harvey Mudd College

Gender lawsuit stimulates discussion of ways to improve undergraduate science

A suit against the University of Cincinnati (UC) in Ohio for allegedly segregating students by sex in a physics lab course points to the widespread confusion among academics over how to increase women’s participation in science.

The suit, filed 1 July in U.S. District Court by UC undergraduate Casey Helmicki, claims that physics professor Larry Bortner’s practice of grouping women together violates Title IX of a 1972 federal education law prohibiting gender discrimination in higher education. Helmicki says that Bortner’s teaching assistant told the class “women and men should not be working together in science” after a student asked why the class was being placed in single-sex groups on the first day of class.

"Physicists are predominantly male,” Bortner wrote last September in an email to Jyl Shaffer, then the university’s Title IX coordinator, after Helmicki expressed her unhappiness with the lab rule. “To change this, we try to make the educational environment open to females. Studies have shown that females do better in small lab groups (three or four) that contain more females than males than more males than females. I train instructors who teach the labs and have told them to rearrange groups if there is one female with three males [and] if at all possible [to] have all-female groups."

Bortner declined to discuss the case. But Kenneth Petren, dean of the university’s college of arts and sciences, told ScienceInsider that the practice is not institutional policy.

There is research showing that women may benefit academically from being in the majority. A 2014 study by Nilanjana Dasgupta, a social psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, found that undergraduate women in engineering participate more and show less anxiety in solving problems in a group if they comprise a majority in their study group. She found that putting women together reduced their anxiety levels and that women spoke up less when in a male-dominant group. She said avoiding having women be alone can help create a more welcoming learning environment.

Educators who have been successful in increasing women’s participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics say there are much better ways to achieve that goal than by segregating them in the classroom. At Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, where women made up 52% of last year’s physics graduates, President Maria Klawe says that faculty members employ a variety of strategies to reduce the intimidation factor for women in fields where they have traditionally been underrepresented. To avoid having classroom discussion dominated by students who feel more confident about the subject, for example, teachers use index cards to call on every student in the class. The college has also tried to provide more role models and mentoring for female students by using more women as teaching assistants, hiring more female faculty members, and promoting them into leadership positions.

Allowing students to choose their own lab groups is not ideal, Klawe adds, as the students with the most self-confidence tend to clump together. Instead, students are encouraged to work with people who are different from them. “If you work as a scientist or an engineer, you’re always on a team,” she says. “That’s just the way it is. I think that it’s actually better for students to learn to function well in an environment where there are lots of different perspectives and different backgrounds.”

“I’m not saying there shouldn’t be any affinity groups,” Klawe notes. “I’m saying that in the classroom, we’re probably all better off figuring out a way to teach that makes everyone feel embraced, without having to segregate.”

Helmicki said she filed the suit to end the practice and speak for classmates who have remained silent. “Being a woman in science, we’ve come a long way,” says Helmicki, who will begin her junior year next month. “We’ve won Nobel Prizes. We’ve discovered cures. And I don’t think any of that would have been possible if we had been told how to discover them or who we were allowed to discover them with.”