“Would you like to study Physics”, Tanja Tajmel and Zalkida Hadzibegovic


A comparative study on the intentions of female students in Germany and Bosnia-Herzegovina to study science


Tanja Tajmel1, Zalkida Hadzibegovic2


1Department of Physics Education, Humboldt- Universität zu Berlin, Germany

2Faculty of Science, University of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina


Corresponding author’s e-mail: tajmel@physik.hu-berlin.de


1 Introduction

In this article we present a comparative study on intentions of female students in Germany and Bosnia-Herzegovina to study science. A comparative analysis on the percentage of women working in the field of physics in Germany and Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) pointed out, that the gender gap in physics is remarkably lower in BiH than in Germany. We investigate possible reasons for this finding and started a survey among female German and Bosnian students on interests and on the views on science as well as on intentions to study science. We considered the background of migration of these women in order to investigate differences between women, who migrated from a low income country (former communist or newly industrialised) to a high income country and women without background of migration. The research was carried out in the framework of the PROMISE project – PROMISE (Promotion of Migrants in Science Education) [1] – an international project within the 6th Framework Programme of the European Commission. The purpose of the project is to provide equal opportunities in science education and in the choice of science careers for female students and migrants. As girls and migrants are underrepresented in science, the project activities focus on these specific groups.


2 The status quo of women in physics

One of the research purposes of PROMISE has been to enhance the knowledge about the numbers of females in physics and to compare the PROMISE-partner countries according to this parameter. The data is based on the university-statistics of the respective partner countries. We found that the proportion of women in physics in Germany and Austria is lower than their proportion in society, whereas in contrast, the proportion of women in physics in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Turkey is equal or even slightly larger than the respective proportion in society. Thus we assume that women are underrepresented in physics in Austria and Germany, which both are countries of residence for migrants. Underrepresented means: The proportion of a group in a certain field does not reflect the proportion of this group in society. In the following we focus on Germany as country of residence and Bosnia-Herzegovina as country of origin. Figure 1 illustrates the differences in the numbers of female and male students, who were enrolled at the department of physics in the year 2006/07 (source: University of Sarajevo). Figure 2 shows the numbers and proportion of women in physics at different academic levels at the physics department of Humboldt-University Berlin (source: Humboldt-University Berlin). This comparison reveals that there is a significant gap between the over-all proportion of female students (21%) and the proportion of female PhD-students (5, 3%) and professors (4, 2%).


















Figure 1 The numbers of female and male students at the

University of Sarajevo in the academic year 2006/07



  Total Women Percentage of women
Students (enrolled in 2004/2005)      
Physics diploma 115 27 23,5%
Physics teacher 38 9 23,7%
Students (2005)

Diploma and teacher, all semesters







PhD degrees 2004/2005 19 1 5,3%
Professors 24 1 4,2%

Figure 2 The numbers and percentage of women at the

Physics Department, Humboldt University Berlin, academic year 2004/05


The under-representation of women in Germany raises 3 general questions:

  1. Why is the proportion of female university students lower than their proportion in school?
  2. Why does the proportion decrease in the progress of an academic career?
  3. Why are there differences between the proportion of women in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in Germany?

A lot of research efforts have been driven on the field of gender and physics education since the 1980s [2, 3]. Guidelines and suggestions have been developed on how to equally consider both girls and boys in the physics lessons [4, 5]. Nowadays, young women seem to be emancipated, which rises another question:

  1. Will this situation of under-representation of women in physics change within the next generation?

We focussed our research on this question.


3 Survey among girls “Would you like to study physics?”

We developed a survey and distributed it among female students of grade 10-13 in Bosnia-Herzegovina (N=150) and Germany (N=119). Questions of research of this survey have been:

  1. a) Which subjects do female students choose in school?
  2. b) What future aspirations do female students have?
  3. c) Who or what influences on their decision?
  4. d) Are there differences between migrants and non-migrants?


  1. a) Which subjects do female students choose in school?

The figures below illustrate the choice of the major subjects in Bosnia-Herzegovina.




Fig. 3. Choices of majors of female students in Bosnia-Herzegovina, grade 10-13, N=150



Fig. 4. Choices in detail


Figure 3 illustrates that more than 50% of the female students choose science as major subject. Science includes physics, biology and chemistry. Figure 4 illustrates in detail, out of these three subject physics was chosen by most of the students (21%) followed by biology (16%) and chemistry (13%).

Figure 5 Choices of major subject of female students of grade 10-13 in Germany, N=119. 71% have background of migration (students and/or both parents not born in Germany).


Figure 5 illustrates the choices of majors in Germany and distinguishes between migrant and non-migrant female students. In total, science (physics, biology, chemistry) was chosen by 45, 2% migrants and by 17, 9% non-migrants. Physics was chosen by 11, 9% migrants and by 3, 6% non-migrants.


  1. b) What future aspirations do female students have?


In the second part of the questionnaire the students were asked if at all and what in specific they would like to study at university. They were asked to give reasons for their choice. We were especially interested if the students feel that their parents support their choice. Table 1 summarizes the results of these questions. Again we distinguished between students who attended German schools, migrants and non-migrants.


  1. c) Who or what influences on their decision?


In Germany the students indicated the interest in the subject as the most important reason for their choice (43%), followed by good results in the certain subject (38%). In Bosnia-Herzegovina the most important reason was the usefulness of the subject for the future career (25%) followed by the interest in the subject (18%) and the “good teacher” (18%).


  1. d) Are there differences between migrants and non-migrants?


In the group of German female students we distinguished between migrants (students not born in Germany and/or both parents not born in Germany) and non-migrants. Moreover, also the students in Bosnia-Herzegovina exhibit a background of migration. They emigrated during and returned after the war. In average, each student spent 3,5 years abroad. Amongst the Bosnian students there was none, who had a country of origin different to Bosnia-Herzegovina, they were repatriates, hence we did not categorize them as migrants. The majority of the migrant girls we asked in Germany were of Turkish origin.

If we compare migrants in Germany (most of them of Turkish origin), German non-migrants and Bosnian non-migrants, there appear certain differences: Migrants in Germany seem to be more motivated to enrol and study at university than non-migrants, which is similar to non-migrants in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Migrants in Germany seem to get less approve of their parents for their choice to study than non-migrants in Germany. Parents of non-migrants in Bosnia-Herzegovina seem to approve the choices of their daughter similarly to non-migrant German parents.

Migrants and non-migrants in Germany are NOT aspiring to study physics, whereas for Bosnian students studying physics is an alternative.


Table 1 gives an overview of the results on questions b), c) and d).

  Germany Bosnia-Herzegovina
Do you want to study? YES

Non-migrants: 71%

Migrants: 91%



What do you want to study? Pharmacy, medicine: 19%

Languages: 15%

Physics: rather NO

Sciences: 56%


Physics: rather YES

What are the reasons for your choice? Interest in the subject: 43%

Good results: 38%

Good teacher: 8%

Useful for future career: 25%

Interest: 18%

Good teacher: 18%

Do your parents approve your choice? YES

Migrants: 56%

Non-Migrants: 80%




4 Interpretation of the data

This comparative study is supposed to be a first step to explore the research field of future aspirations of young women in physics. We took into consideration the influence of the background of migration, which has not been done in this form in the field of physics education research. The collected data and results could give important hints for further research approaches. The data show very clearly the following fact: The under representation of women in physics in Germany will not change in the next generation. Only 1 out of 119 female students in Germany can imagine studying physics. This student has background of migration. However, none of the interrogated non-migrant German students aspires to study physics. In Bosnia-Herzegovina the representation of women in science will probably stay the same, as for more than the half of the questioned students studying physics is an option.

We assume the following reasons as possible explanations for this finding:

In Bosnia-Herzegovina the situation can be seen as heritage of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1945-1991). In this era strong foundations were created for the equality of women, like benefits for mothers, e.g. year of paid maternity leave. In Bosnia-Herzegovina generations still live, which were part of that era. This generation is teaching its children that women can do just about any job that men can. The young women of today who are entering university have mothers and female cousins in a wide range of professions and hence they readily choose similar professions. Therefore there exist role models for women in science.

In contrast, in Germany these role models do not exist (cp. Fig.2). Furthermore there is no tradition of support to foster women or parents (male or female) to choose academic careers.


5 Conclusions

We assume that the under-representation of women in physics in Germany will not change unless there emerges a significant influence of role models of women in physics. To increase the number of role models already within the peer group of students, meetings of female high school students and university students can be arranged. Further international co-operations on student level of countries like Germany and Bosnia-Herzegovina can raise the awareness that there exist female role models in other countries. As one specific support action the so called CLUB LISE [6] shall be mentioned (named after Lise Meitner), which is a working group of female high school students interested in science together with university students. The Club was established in Berlin, Sarajevo, Vienna and Istanbul as part of the project PROMISE with the objective to support young women in their choice of studying science and physics.


6 References

[1] Tajmel T and Starl K 2005 PROMISE- Promotions of Migrants in Science Education – Berlin and Graz (online: www.etc-graz.at; Occasional paper No.18)

[2] Hoffmann L 1985 Differences in the subjective conditions of interests in physics and technology for boys and girls. In: Girls and Science and Technology. The third international GASAT conference. Supplementary contributions. Chelsea College, London, 70 – 78

[3] Ormerod M B 1981 Factors differentially affecting the science subject preferences choices and attitudes of girls and boys. In: Kelly A (Ed.) The missing half. University Press, Manchester

[4] Herzog W and Labudde P et al. 1997 Koedukation im Physikunterricht. Schlussbericht zuhanden des Schweizerischen Nationalfonds zur Förderung der wissenschaftlichen Forschung – Bern

[5] Lorenzo M, Crouch C H and Mazur E 2006 Reducing the gender gap in the physics classroom, Am. J. Phys., 74, 118-122

[6] Tajmel T and Starl K 2005 PROMISE- Promotions of Migrants in Science Education – Berlin and Graz (online: www.etc-graz.at; Occasional paper No.18), 41-42


PROMISE project information and acknowledgements: The underlying idea, work plan and structure of the EU-funded project PROMISE was developed by the Department of Physics Education, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (Germany), and the Human Rights Institute ETC Graz (Austria). The project started in October 2005 and ran until September 2007.

PROMISE has been coordinated by the European Training and Research Center for Human Rights and Democracy (ETC), Graz (Austria) and was scientifically and substantially implemented by the Physics Education Department, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (Germany). Project partners were the University of Vienna (Austria), the University of Sarajevo (Bosnia-Herzegovina), Yildiz Technical University of Istanbul (Turkey) and the Employers Association of the German Metal- and Electro Industry.



A version of this article was presented at the GIREP/EPEC-conference “Frontiers of Physics Education”, Opatija, August 2007.