Picture the scene. Your average state-maintained school somewhere in England.
The bell rings to signal the end of breaktime. Two year-10 girls check their timetables.
“What you got next?” asks one of the other.
“Physics,” she groans in reply, and slumps off to her class, which she endures, bored rigid, until the bell goes off again an hour later and she bolts, happy once again, to a lesson that she actually enjoys.
Ask her if she plans on taking physics at A-level and she’d laugh in your face.
And yet. Fast-forward a couple of years, and there she is. Taking A-level physics. Enjoying it. Even thinking about continuing to study it at university.
The first part of that little scene is all too common. The happy ending? Painfully rare. But such a reversal is possible.
To see how, we first need to understand why it is that so many girls choose not to do physics.
Tipping the scale
To be clear about what we think the problem is, it’s not that we think all girls should do physics. Obviously at the IOP we rate the subject highly – it’s amazing to be able to work out how the world around us works, and studying physics is great for developing critical thinking, analytical ability and all manner of other skills.
Obviously it would be unrealistic of us to expect the whole world to share that enthusiasm, and quite naturally many people will have aptitudes and interests that lie elsewhere.
But for the past 30 years only a fifth of A-level physics students have been girls. That seems abnormally low, and suggests to us that something’s not quite right.
We’ve been looking into the likely causes and possible solutions for more than a decade. As part of that work we found that progression rates in single-sex schools tend to be much higher than in mixed-sex schools – so the type of school a girl attends has an impact on whether she’s likely to stick with physics.
We later learned that schools with a gender imbalance in one subject were likely to have similar imbalances in others – low uptake of physics among girls was indicative of a wider problem. But not all schools experienced these problems – suggesting that the whole school environment is an important factor.
Further work revealed the prevalence of unconscious bias and gender-stereotyping in schools.
Our unconscious mind is constantly looking for patterns in order for us to be able make quick decisions. The pattern of science and engineering being considered to be male, and women and girls thought of as carers, is reinforced by what we see around us. Students will also have their own unconscious biases, which are reinforced by messages given out unconsciously by teachers and family.
Children receive many messages about roles and stereotypes, so ideas of gender roles can become ingrained. Toys, too, are often delineated into blue and pink for boys and for girls respectively. When construction sets are blue and creative sets are pink, young children pick up what is considered suitable for different genders.
Stereotypical gender roles continue in the classroom, and boys tend to dominate teachers’ time. When teachers ask questions of students, boys tend to shout out whereas girls wait to be asked. Boys often dominate practical work as they tend to dive straight in, whereas girls generally prefer to take more time to assess and plan.
Teachers tend to be praise girls more for their hard work and good behaviour, whereas boys get praised more for ideas and understanding. Boys are often criticised about their behaviour rather than the quality of their work so they retain confidence in their ability despite that criticism. Girls receive less negative feedback than boys, but this is focused on their work. Where both sexes were given the sort of feedback most often given to girls, both sexes tended to lose confidence in their academic abilities.
This gender stereotyping and gendered teaching means that girls are less likely to develop a physics identity – they may enjoy physics at school and do well at it, but don’t self-identify as physicists, and as a result, tend to opt for other subjects after the age of 16. Similarly, part of the appeal of physics is the intellectual challenge that studying it provides. But female students may have less resilience when things get difficult, due to messages that they shouldn’t be studying it to begin with.
Restoring the balance
We have had a certain degree of success already in increasing uptake of physics among girls.
Our Stimulating Physics Network (SPN) – an IOP project funded by the Department for Education – has been running in state-maintained secondary schools in England since 2006, with the aim of developing the teaching and learning of physics. The number of students choosing to continue with physics after the age of 16 increased in SPN partner schools, with the effect particularly marked for girls – in 2014, the programme saw a 32% increase in the number of girls in these schools progressing to A-level.
But while better teaching can and does improve progression rates, it only works up to a point. Our previous work suggested that efforts to increase girls’ participation should, at least in part, involve the whole school, and should tackle biases and stereotyping. So that’s what we tried next.
The Improving Gender Balance project, funded by the Department for Education as part of the SPN, launched in 2014 and looked at factors beyond physics and tested different interventions in schools. A pilot funded by the Drayson Foundation investigated the cumulative impact of different interventions on progression rates.
All aspects of these projects had positive results, and the effect of the Drayson pilot was dramatic – the number of girls taking AS-level physics in participating schools more than trebled in two years.
The full details of what we did, the impact it had, and recommendations of how to take this work forward will be published in our report due to be launched next week.
Equal and opposite reactions
One thing that became apparent through these latest projects is that efforts to allow more girls to enjoy and benefit from physics will require widespread buyin at all levels. And yet the idea still gets a lot of pushback.
Some of that is based on the misconception that girls and boys are inherently different. Some of it simply misses why it’s a big deal. “So what if girls don’t like physics?” people will ask. “Just leave them alone to take subjects they do enjoy.”
Well, for one thing, it might help to tackle the UK’s shortage of workers with scientific and technical skills if nearly half the population weren’t put off.
But more fundamentally, girls could enjoy the subject if they didn’t so often rule it out at an early age due to stereotyping and biases, and if it were taught in a way that engages them.
Imagine, if you can, an alternative version of Michelangelo, or Shakespeare, or Justin Timberlake, who had grown up in cultures unconsciously biased against men painting and sculpting, writing plays and sonnets, or performing music. Not that those pursuits were necessarily explicitly said to be too girly to be seriously considered as careers by manly men, but simply stereotypically associated with femininity such that most men never contemplated the idea that the creative arts were for them – or even if they did, those subjects were taught in a way that favoured girls.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the idea of them taking other career paths. Probably they would still have managed to lead happy lives. But, crucially, they would have missed out on the opportunity to explore their own interests and talents unencumbered by society’s expectations of them, deprived of the chance to discover their truest authentic selves.
And certainly our lives – our culture – would be diminished as a result: Mike’s take on King David would remain encased in that marble block, Billy would never call for pen and ink and write his mind, and JT would never have cried that river. We would have been deprived of some of the works of art that make civilisation worth the name.
Keep putting girls off physics and we’ll continue to miss out in just that way – and so will they. Women such as Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, or our former president, Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, really had to swim against the tide to successfully pursue careers that gave us knowledge of one of the first steps on the cosmic distance ladder, the composition of stars, and the existence of pulsars.
We’ll never know how much further the boundaries of our knowledge could have been pushed. But we do now have a much better idea of how to remove some of the barriers keeping us from expanding them. And we think everyone who cares at all about our subject, or the benefits that it brings, should be able to support us continuing to try to break those barriers down, so that when the bell rings for physics, girls aren’t glum – they’re glad.
- Our latest report Improving Gender Balance is set to be launched at the IOP’s London offices on 22 March. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook to stay up to date with the latest news. For the previous reports on our gender-balance work, see the main IOP website.
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