What is gender research, what are gender studies in physics?

A contribution of the AG Gender Research in Physics to the # 4genderstudies on 18th December.

Gender research is not a discipline of its own, but an approach that is distributed across many disciplines and deals with the relationship between gender and culture, society or science. Gender research asks how gender influences human communities and how communities in turn shape gender [1].
At first glance, gender research seems to be located primarily in the cultural, social and human sciences, but it also finds many open questions in interdisciplinary research areas related to medicine or the natural sciences.

What can gender research do in physics?

Physics is the field of knowledge that explores the inanimate cosmos. It deals with the fun-damental phenomena of nature, with matter and its properties, and explains their behaviour in space and time through laws. Cognitive progress results in a slow, often tough process of speculating, experimenting, rejecting and discovering. Women have always played a key role in this process of cognition, even if only a few of them are known today. Who knows Hypatia of Alexandria, Emilie du Chatelet, Agnes Pockels, Lise Meitner, Maria Goppert Meyer, Joce-lyn Bell Burnell or Marie Curie? All of them have pioneered physics with new discoveries [2,3].

Even today, fewer women than men are studying physics; for a variety of reasons, they often decide to opt out and against a career in physics. The number of women in leadership posi-tions in physics in Germany is still below ten percent [4,5].

This fact provokes the question of whether physics is a subject in which gender equality or gender justice has not yet found its way. Is physics really as gender neutral in content, form and scientific habitus as the objects of physical research are?

This question, which is located at the interface of scientific culture and social context, can only be answered by and with the knowledge of a discipline and in interdisciplinary research.

Our working group deals with questions of the basics and applications of nonlinear photonics from biophotonics to nanophotonics to information optics. In addition, we also work with an interdisciplinary, diverse research team empirical on gender issues in the context of physics. By doing so, we treat an important and hardly explored area of social phenomena and prob-lems.

This field of research, which has been established internationally for several years [6], is still very little known in the German higher education landscape. In physics, the few professions that deal with this topic enter new territory.

Our goal is to improve the career options of women in this field by analysing gender issues in physics. For this purpose, we apply numerous methods from the manifold methodology of the social sciences so that gender issues can be answered reliably based on hard scientifically proven facts and direct results for the everyday life of scientists emerge. In this way, we con-tribute to social education through scientifically excellent research and contribute to more equality in our society. Our diverse projects and publications prove the success of this ap-proach.

Our example shows that excellent physical research combined with innovative gender research work together. Physical and gender research can be combined very well under one roof for mutual benefit.


[1] Christina Braun, Inge Stephan (2000). Gender Studien: Eine Einführung. Metzler, Stuttgart/Wismar.

[2] Cornelia Denz, Annette Vogt (2005). Einsteins Kolleginnen - Physikerinnen gestern und heu-te. Kompetenzzentrum Technik – Diversity – Chancengleichheit, Bielefeld.

[3] Cornelia Denz (1994). Von der Antike bis zur Neuzeit - der verleugnete Anteil der Frauen an der Physik. TU Darmstadt, Darmstadt.

[4] Christine Mayer, Agnes Sandner (2013). Physikerinnen: Zahlen und Fakten. Presentation Deutsche Physikerinnentagung, Link

[5]  Christine Mayer (2015). Physikerinnen: Zahlen und Fakten. Presentation Deutsche Physikerinnentagung, Link

[6] Gender in Physics. A special collection highlighting the current state of the field of physics education research as it relates to gender in physics (2016), Physical Review Physics Education Research 12.