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The Representation of Women in Irish Leaving Certificate Physics textbooks

Updated: Feb 7, 2022

I read this excellent article by Karen Pillion and Shane Bergin over the weekend, which reports on their own research into how women are represented in 4 different Leaving Cert Physics textbooks. The article is both very clear and readable and I hesitate to attempt a summary of their findings here for fear of mis-representing them, but they conclude with this:

'This study has highlighted the overwhelming underrepresentation of women and girls within Irish physics textbooks, both in images and in-text references. This underrepresentation is consistent across all textbooks examined and also extends beyond scientist characters. This study also shows that when women are referenced in-text, the language used to describe them is different from the language used to describe men. Francis et al (2017) argue that such imbalance contributes to the 'continued prevalence of the discourse of physics as quintessentially masculine', where 'the lack of representation of women in physics simply becomes further evidence to support the "naturalness" of men's domination of physics' '

I read the paper with more than a little interest, as I had a little involvement in producing one of the textbooks studied, and I was keen to know how well we'd done. The paper sadly found that how we had done was - in summary - not very well. I found this a little surprising, because gender equality was something we had in mind as we produced the book, and my first response was to be a little defensive.

I had diligently worked my way though the text, after all, making sure that when a question named a person, we alternated between typical male and female names - and I was careful, too, to avoid obvious clichés, like making women passive and men active in problem-setting scenarios. And I was meticulous when suggesting which images should be taken from the available photo-libraries, making sure that as much as possible they showed a decent gender balance, and that they again avoided stereotyped roles. So, If I did all that, I wondered, how could we not score more highly?

One reason is very simple and reasonable. Research has shown, apparently, that pronoun equality - if we can call it that - in problem setting is probably a good thing. But that it is of little significance to students compared to the images in the book. So that dismisses one defence.

But what of our image selection? the image libraries are both amazingly large and oddly limited. It can be very hard to find the sort of image you might have in mind to illustrate a question, but nonetheless, I thought, surely we had scored highly there? The article is very polite and only refers to books A, B., C and D but the scores for all are quite similar, and it seems we had done poorly on this point too. Sigh.

So I flicked through a few chapters last night, and initially felt vindicated: many photos didn't clearly show anybody - but when they did, there was a bias to showing females. But then I looked again. I was only checking photographs. And the book also contains a large number of drawn, cartoon-like images - skilfully put together by graphic artists who I never got to meet or speak to directly. And those images are overwhelmingly male!

Doh! I never even thought to check that.

But, in terms of the visibility of characters within a textbook with identifiable gender, the biggest issue is also the most complex: how do we deal with the history of science? Can a physics book cover the material it needs to cover without dwelling on the figures who are central to that material? Has there ever been a physics book that doesn't talk about Galileo, Newton. Boyle, Hooke et al. at some length And should there be? And if they're to be included, how do we address the obvious image this creates - that science is, or at least used to be, the preserve of men?

There are so many issues intertwined there. There is the fact that many women's contribution to science wasn't acknowledged at the time and was thus lost to history, the fact that even when they were recognised at the time, many female figures were subsequently written out of history. And there is the fact that due to the sexism of the time (and quite probably of the present) many women were never allowed to make the contribution they could have made.

Alongside this is the sad reality that sexism is only one issue within the vast Venn diagram of prejudice and bigotry in which we live. Anybody looking for a fair representation of African or Asian scientists, for example, in a school science text are likely to be disappointed. And is it a co-incidence how many of the 'greats' were not only white, European men - but that they also came disproportionately from the well off and well connected?

I have to say that I wrestled with all of that when planning the text and came to the conclusion that it just couldn't be addressed. It was too much. As it was, the text was pared down (by skilful and not unsympathetic editors) from over 200, 000 words to something like 150, 000 - which is still equivalent to about two standard novels. And I am pretty sure that there would have steadfast resistance from those editors (on the grounds of available space) to any suggestion that we should add in a discussion of sexism in scientific history. We could have left out any discussion of the historic figures at all, of course - and I did consider that. But that would have meant jettisoning a lot of great stories too. And students learn from stories. In the end I decided to hope that students know enough of history and human nature to see through all of that complexity.

But does any of that complexity really matter to a 15 year old, leafing through a textbook and wondering if she should take this subject for Leaving Cert. Or to an 18 year old, who has done well in the subject and is just now contemplating their CAO forms and wondering if this is a world in which they could see themselves working? And fitting in? I suspect not.

I'm not offering any solutions here. Just sharing my thoughts. If I was involved again in a textbook, I know I would include more about modern figures, like Lise Meitner. And Marie Curie. And Jocelyn Burnell Bell. Who all had great stories too. And I'd keep an eye on the genders of the cartoon figures. But I also know that would only go so far to addressing the overall issue.

But anyway, kudos to Karen Pillion and Shane Bergin for raising the issue.

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