So, Girls Don’t Study Physics.

So, the Institute of Physics (IOP) recently released a report looking at the progression of girls going on to study A Level physics after their GCSEs. As well as looking at the percentage of girls taking the subject – a figure that stands just below 30% – the study also looks at the progression of girls from different types of school.

Science ClassThe report shows that 49% of coeducational state schools fail to send a single girl on to study A-Level physics each year. Interestingly, the report also found that single-sex girls’ schools sent on average 2.5 times as many girls on as mixed schools. To put it another way, almost half of mixed state schools in England don’t manage to enthuse female pupils sufficiently to make a single one of them to want to take physics at A Level. Not ideal.

Looking at potential reasons behind the stats, the fact that many physics teachers don’t have degrees in physics has been cited. Well, quite, but if teachers lacking skill or confidence in the subject were the reason for poor progression, then surely the figures for boys would be comparable. They’re not – only 12% of co-ed state schools failed to send any boys on to physics A Level. As the title of the report itself states, ‘It’s Different for Girls.’

Other arguments to explain the statistics include ‘Girls just don’t like physics.’ To me, this just doesn’t cut it as an explanation. The fact that single-sex girls’ schools send 2.5 times as many girls on to A Level Physics as mixed schools disproves it. It appears that there is something in the coeducational environment that discourages girls from seeing physics as a valid course choice at A Level.

Personally, I think these statistics are due to the fact that there are low numbers of women working in physics. This makes the visible stereotype of a person working in or studying physics male. Teenagers are sensitive to stereotypes and I don’t think it too much of a stretch to see girls seeing this stereotype and opting for subjects seen as more ‘normal’ for women. Teachers, therefore, have a big part to play in ensuring that such stereotypes aren’t projected in the classroom, and in creating a supportive school environment where girls are empowered to pursue whatever interests them.

Interestingly, Athene Donald, writing in The Guardian recently, suggests that external pressure on schools can ensure that girls are encouraged, saying that:

‘Few parents may know what their daughters are interested in when they look around to choose a secondary school, but it would help to keep the pressure up if they asked questions about each school’s record as regards the subjects girls choose to proceed with to A Level. The schools inspectorate Ofsted may also have a role to play in ensuring that gender equality is considered during inspections.’

I can see where Donald is coming from here. If the current system discourages girls from considering physics as a suitable course choice, then they are not being treated fairly. A Level choices can impact on what students do for the rest of their lives (they inform options at degree level, career choices etc), so it is important that girls (and boys) are supported in their choices at this pivotal time.

Beyond school, it is well-known to those working in Higher Education (myself included) that as a country, we are not producing enough STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) graduates to satisfy the needs of the UK’s employers. At an economic level, I’m sure that encouraging girls into physics would be a way to increase the pool of students likely to STEM at degree level, as well as a way to increase diversity in the workplace – something proven to be a positive influence on outcome, including profit.

As things stand, I think a lot needs to be done to give girls genuine equal opportunity at school, including ensuring that subjects are not weighted toward a particular gender or conveyed as being inappropriate. If we can find a way to succeed in doing this, UK science may look very different in years to come, which can only be a good thing.

Photograph by Kingsway School.

One Response to “So, Girls Don’t Study Physics.”
  1. Canada says:

    I am doing a PhD in applied mathematics and computer science, and there are very few women working with / around me in the field.

    This doesn’t surprise me; I still meet a lot of people with the attitude “of course a women couldn’t do computer science”. This is utter BS, obviously. But whilst this attitude pervades, women are not going to be attracted into the field.

    A great shame it is too.

    There is no ‘women just don’t like doing physics’. There is just self-perpetuating institutionalised sexism.

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