IOP CEO Paul Hardaker speaks out on gender inequality in science

It’s very disappointing to see the reported comments of Professor Strumia still talking about long discredited ideas. Progress on breaking down barriers to inclusiveness is hard enough without reported comments like this, which really don’t represent the views of our community and take us backwards.

The physicists that I know and work with really do understand the value of a diverse and inclusive physics community and are working hard to bring that about. It’s great to see how the community has responded to these reported comments. I have signed the online petition as have other IOP trustees and I would encourage others to sign it.

As the professional body for physics, inclusiveness is a top priority. We know that physics offers huge benefits to individuals and to society – opening doors, broadening horizons and driving innovation. It provides powerful and beautiful explanations about the workings of the world – explanations that have huge value to industries and research communities. And it develops ways of thinking and reasoning that are rewarding and highly valued by employers.

Between 2010 and 2016, the number of people studying A-level physics grew by more than 15%. However, in England, only one fifth of the candidates entered for A-level physics are girls, and this has changed little over the past three decades. We believe that although girls and boys do choose subjects differently, there is no evidence to suggest there are any intrinsic differences in preferences or ability.

Gendered stereotypes are pervasive in our culture, ingrained by long-standing biases – both conscious and unconscious – influencing the expectations of boys and girls from a young age. In fact, generations of innovative, talented and brilliant girls are being led to believe they can’t be engineers, scientists, programmers or technicians. Sometimes it is idle comments that have the deepest effect in discouraging girls from taking physics to a higher level. An ill-judged quip that girls ‘can’t do’ maths, or physics is ‘too hard’, can lead to girls making life-changing decisions that alter the subjects they study and the career they pursue. Women in physics are still in the minority, and this lack of visibility also preserves the myth and cements the fact that physics is simply not a subject for girls.

Why does this matter? In our schools, the lack of girls choosing A-level physics means many women have been steered away from routes that would have been a good match for their interests, wishes and capabilities. Losing all this talent contributes to a shortage of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills in the workforce, a problem that concerns governments and employers alike. The Social Market Foundation recently found that, despite recent increases, there remains a huge shortfall of STEM graduates in the UK each year. If as many girls studied A-level physics as boys, there would be an additional 15,000 young people each year qualified to move into medium and high skilled roles across the economy.

Removing the barriers to girls studying physics – as IOP seeks to do – does not just address the skills need. It makes our science communities more rich and diverse – and our society fairer. The success of physics in the UK relies on our ability to recruit, nurture and retain the richest mix of talent.

Last week, Donna Strickland became only the third ever female Nobel Laureate in Physics, and the first woman to win the prize in 55 years. On receiving her award, Strickland said: “We need to celebrate women physicists because we are out there … I am honoured to be one of those women.” It is very special to see a female physicist recognised in this way, but I want this to be the norm and not the exception.

Gender equality is a top priority for the Institute of Physics and we are championing this cause in many ways. We know, of course, that when the right environments are created, girls and women thrive in physics.

In the right conditions girls take physics in large numbers. There are schools, such as Kendrick School in my home town of Reading, where over a quarter of the girls in a large sixth form choose physics every year – fifteen times the national progression rate. When asked why they chose physics, one of the girls replied: “Why wouldn’t we?”

And, having chosen physics, girls succeed in it. At a national level the proportion of girls getting each of the top grades at A-level is comparable to the proportion of boys, with 52% achieving A* to B compared to 49% of the boys.

To help increase girls’ participation in GCSE physics, IOP ran a series of pilots funded by DfE and the Drayson Foundation. In six schools, a project officer worked with girls to build their resilience, with physics teachers to improve their confidence and physics expertise – and with the whole staff, to tackle gendered expectation arising from stereotyping and unconscious biases. The results showed that this approach worked – the number of girls choosing physics across the six pilot schools saw a threefold increase. We are now rolling this out across the UK with help from both Education Scotland and the DfE in England. Increasing participation at schools is the first step to improving diversity in the physics workforce.

Meanwhile, our project Juno recognises and rewards physics departments, institutes and organisations that can demonstrate they have taken action to address gender equality in physics and to encourage better practice by all staff. Juno has had high impact – more than 84% of physics academic staff in the UK now work in a Juno Champion or Practitioner department.

And this year, the introduction of the Juno Excellence Programme and Award will recognise exceptional Juno Champions who develop a programme of activities designed to showcase and embed successful and innovative practice. Juno Excellence aims to build a step-change in diversity and inclusion across the physics community – encouraging a community-led approach to furthering equality in physics and encouraging ambitious and inspiring activities to disseminate and embed best practice in equality more broadly across our community.

By investing in the issues, we can change the environment positively for everyone and retain high quality women in physics – and influence national imperatives for action in gender equality in science more widely.

Whilst physics continues to have problems of diversity, there will be no more committed organisation to address this than the IOP.

IOP President Professor Dame Julia Higgins said: “In our culture today, gender stereotypes unfortunately remain pervasive, damaging a whole generation of scientists, technicians, engineers, mathematicians and programmers whose talents lie undiscovered because of their experiences at school.

“There is no evidence to suggest any intrinsic differences in ability or interest to explain why girls and boys choose technical subjects differently. As a trusted voice in the science community, our work is at the centre of an imaginative debate on how we can tackle barriers to equality. Our role is to make sure that every girl not only has a chance to pursue physics but that they feel they can pursue physics.”

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