Girls in physics: where are we now?

This summer’s A-level results suggests one the trickiest problems of modern physics may be coming closer to a solution.

2018 has been an excellent and rewarding year for our efforts to remove barriers to girls choosing physics. We have made positive strides and forged great school relationships, and the A-level results indicate that something is having an impact.

At the IOP, we want to see more girls making the decision to pursue physics past 16, both for the sake of those individual girls and their life ambitions, and also for the health of the field of physics. We know that an increase in the number of girls opting for physics is an indication – in fact an exciting harbinger – of wider positive changes. People don’t take decisions in vacuums and all our evidence since the mid-2000s tells us that the environment students are in affects the decisions they take.

A-level results day is a time to scrutinise patterns and make comparisons, and see what’s working. And this year, we can celebrate these signs of progress:

In England

  • an extra 599 girls took A-level physics since 2017
  • there was over an 8% rise in the number of female physics entries since last year
  • female students made up 22.2% of entrants – up from 21.5% in 2017.

Across the UK, this year saw the largest number of female A-level physics entries since 1993. And from all genders, entries to physics A-level increased by 3.4% on 2017 entries.

But these aren’t just stats. Let’s think about these individuals. How will they be using what they’ve learnt in their next steps in life? Who will they go on to influence? What other seemingly entrenched trends will they stand up to?

Each one of these girls took a decision to pursue physics against a societal backdrop superbly illustrated in this graph:

As one of our teachers commented: “When you give…students the support, you make them brave enough. We can’t make them do anything, that would be wrong, but we can empower them…We are building the students up to challenge gender stereotypes.”

The more we can work to break down all barriers – including those perpetuated by the stark impression of ‘girls’ subjects’ and ‘boys’ subjects’ – the more we will see genuinely equitable cultures in schools and beyond.

We know we’re lucky to work with some exceptional teachers and great schools. So well done and thank you to anyone having an influence on students to take positive decisions.

Our next plan is to learn more about these figures (as a team and as an organisation, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that we love data, facts and evidence).  Can we map these increases onto activity we and others are involved in? Are there clusters of schools making a huge difference, or is the increase evenly spread? Knowing what makes these small changes happen allows us to be agile and increasingly spread knowledge of what works – and how – to everyone working for gender balance in education.

The Improving Gender Balance team works in partnership with the DfE in England.

  • We work with groups of students, exploring their science identities and supporting them to be science communicators to younger pupils
  • We work with all teachers of physics, supporting them with teaching inclusively, and removing hidden and unconscious gender stereotyping from the subject
  • And most crucially, we work with whole staff bodies to change school cultures – highlighting the effects of gender roles on the individual and their choices

To find out more, visit iop.org/genderbalance

Beth Bramley

Beth is the IOP’s Gender Balance Manager.

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