Gender balance in physics has come a long way. When Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell studied at Glasgow University in the 60s, she was the only woman in a class of 50.
She came from a school in Northern Ireland where girls were only allowed to study science after parental complaints, and overcame a huge amount of bias to top her class there and go on to make a ground-breaking discovery in astrophysics.
Many would argue that, nowadays, there is nothing standing in the way of girls who want to study and pursue a career in physics or engineering. Undoubtedly, the obstacles are not so big, but there are still some major trip hazards. Unconsciously, students are picking up cues from everyday life – from their friends, family, TV, teachers – about what is and isn’t acceptable for them to do.
Unfortunately, we still live in a society where there is a strong link between science and engineering and the pale, male and stale stereotype, which is one factor contributing to the low number of female students taking physics.
This is not the only cause: some students see physics as dull, uninspiring and irrelevant. “What is the point in being able to draw a speed time graph?”, they wonder. It is also seen as hard, and students with low confidence worry that they won’t be able to achieve, while parents worry that their offspring will be unhappy if they have to struggle. But, in truth, it’s no harder than any other subject provided students put the work in and are taught well. There are physics topics that are awe-inspiring (the universe!) and topics that teach transferable skills, like using models to make predictions and logical thinking.
There have been many attempts to address the gender imbalance in physics over the years, largely focusing on one-off events and female role models, to little avail. In Scotland, for example, numbers have remained fairly static, with girls making up around 27% of the physics Highers cohort and around 23% of the Advanced Highers cohort.
Improving Gender Balance Scotland is different, as it’s a sustained approach with the aim to change school culture. It is built on evidence, accumulated by years of work in the field by the IOP and others – work that has proven to have a positive impact on uptake of physics among girls. This is a project that aims to tackle the above problems by working with teachers across their schools to highlight these issues and empower all of the school community to take positive action. Rather than treating girls as an audience to which physics must be sold, we are instead helping schools to clear the way for all students with an interest in science.
As IGB Scotland is a partnership between Skills Development Scotland, Education Scotland and the Institute of Physics, it’s in a great place to make a real difference to education in Scotland. Our previous work has highlighted that gender stereotypes play a big role on the subject and career choices that students make, which makes Skills Development Scotland a natural partner in this work. The project feeds in to SDS’s wider work, which aims to tackle the skills gap in technical industries and encourage the uptake of Modern Apprenticeships. Working with Education Scotland has really helped integrate our work into the Scottish Education framework, helping ensure its lasting legacy.
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