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De-Gendering STEM - Lessons Learned From an Ethnographic Study of a Physics Laboratory

Petra Lucht

Abstract


This paper presents an ethnographic case study of a physics laboratory1 in Germany, which has the striking characteristic that, at the PhD and postdoc level, women outnumber men. While such a clustering of women in male-dominated fields may occur frequently in local settings, such an inversion in workplace gender balance has escaped the notice of gender studies in STEM. In Germany, the participation of women at all stages of the academic career in physics has increased since the turn of the 21st century, but on average women make up only 20–25% of physics students at the bachelor, master’s, and PhD levels. It is concluded that this physics laboratory exemplifies an exceptional assemblage of norms and policies of gender equality, processes of recruitment, work organization and professional culture of physics that is inclusive for women and men with different biographical backgrounds. Prior investigations in gender studies have shown that the professional culture of physics is constituted by interwoven ways of “doing gender” while “doing physics”. In contrast, this case study shows that “doing physics” and “doing gender” might become disentangled in this local setting. Therefore, this study contributes to challenge perspectives on gender and STEM research that seek to de-gender STEM fields.


Keywords


physics, science, sociology gender studies, ethnography, assemblage, clustering of women

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