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IOP looks to improve gender balance in A-level entries

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A-level results day arrived yesterday, invariably illustrated with images of young women jumping for joy at their results. But if the press are biased in favour of girls, entries to A-level physics are skewed the opposite way.

Over the past 10 years, the number of students taking A-level physics has increased, with nearly 8,000 more students taking exams in 2016 than in 2006. This is encouraging news for those of us promoting physics and science to young people, but there is still a huge issue with gender balance. Of more than 35,000 students sitting physics exams this year, only just over a fifth were female.

This matters, not only because the UK has a shortage of scientifically trained workers, but also because girls themselves are largely missing out on the benefits that studying physics brings. The skills it develops are lost to us. The doors that it opens are locked to them.

So, why don’t more girls choose to study physics? It’s a question that we at the IOP have been trying to answer for years. We’ve published a number of reports and reviews, looking at what physics teachers can do and the influence of schools. More recently, we moved beyond physics to look at gender balance across a range of subjects. Our analysis of the National Pupil Database showed that it is unusual for a school to have a good gender balance in their A-level physics classes unless they also have a good gender balance across the other subjects that we measured. We concluded that it is likely that school culture has a strong influence on students’ choices.

Pulling together our own research and the findings from the latest academic research into science aspirations brought us to one conclusion: we can’t solve this problem just by thinking about physics. The reasons for the gender imbalance are complex, with cultural and social expectations of feminine behaviour and interests throwing up barriers to girls’ participation in physics from an early age. What happens in the physics classroom is only one small part of that.

In 2014, we moved well out of our comfort zone and started to support schools to deliver whole-school gender-equity programmes, as well as working with female students to boost their confidence and resilience. We also provided tailored advice and training to physics teachers on inclusive teaching techniques. These pilot schemes saw 26 schools offered some form of support, after which we assessed the effectiveness of the various interventions. By far the most impressive results came from the six schools which combined all the different approaches. AS physics numbers increased from a total of 16 female students (10% of the total AS level cohort) in 2014, to 52 female students (27% of the cohort) in 2016.

Our approach is about far more than making physics fun for girls. We want to work with schools to understand and remove the gender stereotypes that hold students back. This goes far beyond girls and physics, but our results so far show that schools can make a real difference to gender balance in physics by working to creative a more equitable and inclusive culture.

Over the next few years, we’ll be working with more schools directly and continuing to produce resources for schools and teachers. We hope that our work will help to break through barriers and enable all students to make an informed, unbiased choice about what they want to study beyond the age of 16.

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Natasha Plaister

Natasha Plaister

Natasha is the Institute’s schools diversity coordinator, responsible for managing gender equality projects and data analysis. She worked for a range of educational charities before joining the IOP in 2010, and is currently working towards an MSc in applied statistics.
Natasha Plaister

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