'You do Physics?' - Breaking Stereotypes

Updated: Nov 13

Day 4 and 11 of #thephysicistchallenge on instagram: The 'I do physics' reaction and 'worst stereotypes' and exclusively for this post, a little on identity crisis...

"So what are you studying?" - Peoples Reaction

This is my favourite game to play, especially at parties or when meeting new people, and especially when I was a fresher, which was a long time ago now ... *cries*. Most of the time it's 'You're an Art student?!' or 'geography' or 'fashion', I've even had history before, which is more shocking, but I think it's mostly because of my gender and posh 'Surrey' accent. I don't blame people for judging, I do it too, not intentionally, but I think society has done enough damage that we all do it to some extent, even if we don't mean to. But it doesn't take away the fun (or shock) of being on the receiving end. And I don't feel bad for enjoying it, or for people getting it wrong either! We only have history to blame for the existing stereotypes. But we have to learn to accept that things are changing - for the better!!


We have to break down barriers and with each person's shocked and confused reaction, 'YOU do physics!?' I am proving that physics is for everyone and anyone! Even blonde, (albeit fake blonde!) tall, chatty girls who love nice clothes and makeup (and parties for that matter!) Each new person I meet and surprise with 'I do physics actually', I'm saying 'this is what a physicist looks and acts like, Hi!' I've had this reaction and people stumbling over their words to justify it as some sort of compliment. But, just to clarify.. Because I don't want people to be scared of complimenting others and being generally nice - I feel like there are so many things to be politically correct about, people are actually scared to say anything these days.. But if person A wants to compliment person B's appearance or personality, outfit... whatever, go ahead! Everyone loves compliments, but don't make it about their profession or job. This is a strange thing to talk about because stereotypes exist, and that's why mostly I don't mind these reactions - I don't blame them, as I said before, we all do it. I am happy to let them know that a girly girl can do physics. Just don't be rude about it...que, next experience...

"Physics is a mans subject"

But isn't that just sexist?

As I said, people judge, we all do it and their intentions aren't bad. And I am glad I get to be the one to see peoples face, watching them and educating them that physics is for girls too. But, it's not always so light and fun...I think it's fun to keep people guessing, and to happily surprise them, but then there's just plain old sexism and rudeness. The most shocking at all, was back in my hometown during my masters year. I was visiting home with my boyfriend and we went to the pub with my dad and a couple of is friends (I know, I get down with the oldies). On introductions, one man asked "So what do you two do then?" I replied first, "We both did physics at university". He looked me up and down in confusion and replied bluntly "Physics is a mans subject". I replied, slightly chucking at the ridiculousness of it "Physics is for everyone, I'm a girl and I'm doing it". He totally discarded me altogether. He went on to question my boyfriend about his research project. After explaining his project, and with more politeness than the man deserved, Alex attempted to bring the conversation round to my research too and what I was doing, but the man had no interest. I put this down to him being 'old fashioned' and set in his ways. In this situation, I didn't want to add any drama, because I could feel it getting heated and myself quite upset. I avoided the man for the rest of the evening. I don't have to be polite to people who are just plain rude, but I also don't have to be rude back. Best just to move on with your head raised high and smile in the face of people who just don't get it.


Side note: what do you guys think is the best way to deal with this? Let me know in the comments below.


Can we break the worst stereotypes - and should we?

Back to my time at uni... Being an innocent fresher, little did I know what I was in for. How the life of a physics student would change and shape me. Yes, I still confuse people about what I do. I promise you there were moments where I questioned myself and didn't recognise who I was. Was I trying to fit in? Was I just so busy I didn't have time for appearances? Did I really not have the time and money and too much work on to go to that event, or did I just not want to? Did physics really warp me into a classic stereotype? Yes, and No.


What do we reckon a physicist should look like? If we type in 'famous physicist' on google, we get a pretty good idea..

So, mostly men with either glasses, or some phenomenal facial hair (Although I do love the fact Marie Curie has snuck in at the bottom left here!) Well, being a woman, I couldn't do much on the facial hair part, and nor did I want to really. But did I need to switch it up a bit to be taken seriously?


My personal reaction (an unfortunate and subconscious one) to becoming a physicist

When I was doing my A-Levels and I found out I needed glasses to see the board, I was so excited. "OMG, I have to get the really geeky big chunky ones, and I'll really feel the part then!" I put on my brand new, GOK WAN glasses and I felt smarter, and it definitely gave me the confidence to do physics! I mean, I looked the part!!


Now, not so much. Unfortunately I still wear glasses (have to), and am actually even more blind (probably too much late night coding or reading), but the novelty definitely wore off.. Now I'm just bored of being bloody blind all the time. I promise you, I am not giving you evils, I just can't see and I hate wearing my glasses. But my hearing is pretty good, so please shout at me if you see me and want my attention!

It's a hard life for an introverted-extrovert-come-physicist.

I wasn't always confident though and I definitely tried to look and act like a physicist. Over time though, it actually happened by accident! Rocking up to lab, massive rucksack, glasses too big for my face - they fell off, and absolutely no time for fashion or makeup - the lift door opened and there I was in the mirror. The reality hit me. I became the classic stereotype physics student I never intended to be! There's nothing wrong with this, (hey I actually really appreciate a good rucksack, they're SO handy!) but I didn't feel like myself. I didn't even try to be antisocial and ended up never going out just because I had so much work (and no money)! It's a hard life for an introverted-extrovert-come-physicist.

"You're the dumbest, smart person I have ever met"

I doubted my own ability, and sometimes I do still, and I'm not sure if its my gender, my bubbly attitude, the silly things I say, or just my brain. I know friends, both men and women, who have questioned the way they look and act because of their subject or job. We feel we have to fit into the stereotypes that we have put ourselves in. We have to look 'geeky' enough and even talk smart enough. People have literally said to me "You're the dumbest, smart person I have ever met" and this hurt. But hey, I can take a joke and that statement says more about the person who said it than it does about me. Using fancy long, 'smart' words (aka jargon), is not essential in being a physicist, or being smart for that matter.

"If you can't explain something in simple terms to someone else, you haven't understood it fully yourself."

I've actually found the ones that are trying too hard are often the ones that are less confident in their own abilities and use big words to make themselves sound smarter than they actually are. So don't worry about being in a room and not understanding jargon. If you don't understand something, ask about it. They're probably just putting on a front and hoping no one questions their intelligence. It's not a competition either, unless you are genuinely curious about what they're on about, just drop it. The nature of people (not only in physics) trying to 'one up' each other, is very toxic, and sometimes it's best to leave it. You've probably heard this before, but if you haven't, listen and remember. If you can't explain something in simple terms, you haven't understood it properly yourself.


Advice to 'the reaction'

FOCUS ON YOU.

I definitely found my way back to being 'me', that chatty blonde girl at the parties. I genuinely think the pressure of being accepted got to me, and I think I also let myself go (literally) due to the pressures of third year. It was also a very stressful time and priorities changed. But not for the better. Looking after yourself is about looking after all the things that are important to you. Things that make you feel good. Seeing friends, wearing nice clothes, hair and makeup, eating what you want (in moderation ;) ) and doing well at what you do! My fourth year of uni, and this year in lockdown has been such a wonderful time. I really focused on me. My studies, projects, work, my mental health, self care, my friends and my family, and I have never felt better. I have become so much more confident in myself. I wear what I want to wear, I speak how I want to (and although, my grammar is shocking, it's not something I worry about), and I have a head full of highlights and a wardrobe full of pink fluffy jumpers and dresses! I am still a physicist. I even upgraded my glasses to pink ones (yay)!


BE KIND.

I can understand some people might get tired of the surprised reactions of people, and maybe frustrated that there are stereotypes, labels and expectations depending on what we look, sound and act like. But its rooted in society and a working progress to change things. My advice would be to own what you do and how you look, and to take on these interactions with a positive attitude. Don't be disheartened by the reactions of others, take it as an opportunity for a good chat and maybe even to educate them. Afterall, you are representing your tribe and if we want to shut down these stereotypes we have to be our authentic selves as well as take responsibility for our own prejudice and judgements and reactions to others.


DON'T GIVE UP.

Looks, clothes, accents, background, ethnicity, sexuality. Whatever. Be yourself. Your ability to be brilliant is not measured by your ability to fit a stereotype! Being a physicist (or anything for that matter) just needs drive, passion and determination...and a lot of hard work!! P.S.

I'd like to add, I met so many amazing people throughout my degree, all different and beautiful in their own individual ways and we're a huge inspiration to me in more ways than they will ever know. They certainly helped me believe that stereotypes only exist in the movies! (p.s.s and while we're on breaking stereotypes... physics students can PARTY HARD!)

Alice Eleanor Matthews Blog @astroally.co.uk

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