Online event gives insight into gender imbalances

The low numbers of girls choosing to study physics at A-level is a long-term concern of the IOP’s.

A previous blogpost discussed why this matters, some of the relevant numbers, and what the Institute has been doing about it – most recently, the Improving Gender Balance project, which we’ve been running since March 2014.

Last year, the project sponsored two zones in the I’m a Scientist online event, which gives students the chance to meet and interact with scientists – and vote for their favourites.

Students from our partner schools took part in live online chats with a panel of five scientists, with the aim of increasing the students’ engagement with science and scientists.

We took the opportunity to look for gender differences in whether, and how, taking part in the event changed students’ attitudes to science and scientists, and in the types of questions that students asked.

As we’re starting to evaluate the project for a report to be released next year, we thought we’d share some of the results.

Changing attitudes

Before and after taking part in the live chat, 165 students from four partner schools completed an anonymous survey.

The questions and changes in responses are given below.

If someone you hadn’t met before says they are a physicist, which three words used to describe them spring to mind?

There was a 3% reduction in the words associated with intelligence, but they still form 49% of all words used.

Both genders volunteered more positive words and fewer negative words after the intervention. Girls, in particular, appeared to reduce the number of negative words used following the live chat.


Word grouping

Negative/stereotyped words: eg, crazy, sketchy, unsociable, strange, weird

Positive/anti-stereotype words: eg, funny, interesting, creative, happy, cool

Words relating to intelligence: eg, clever, smart, brainy, intelligent, Einstein

Draw a picture of a physicist

picturesBefore the live chat, students generally drew diagrams with at least one characteristic that reinforces stereotypes.

Following the live chat, students’ drawings showed greater variation, bringing in ideas from the discussion they had with the scientists.

The reduction in drawings depicting a male physicist is similar for boys and girls (decrease of 17% and 16% respectively). Girls and boys drew more female physicists (increase of 5% and 14% respectively).

Picture score

Characteristics that reinforce stereotypes (-1 point): Lab coat, crazy hair, safety glasses, male, test tubes or glassware

Characteristics that break stereotypes (+1 point): No lab coat, normal or no hair, no safety glasses, of indeterminate gender or female, other physics kit (eg, MRI Scanner, laser)

How many jobs can you think of that would require physics A-level?

The estimated group mean for boys changed little following the live chat (12 before, 13 after).

For girls, however, the estimated group mean increased from 12 to 16 jobs – suggesting that interaction with the physicists has made them more aware of future job possibilities.

How confident do you feel asking a physicist questions online?

The most frequent response prior to the live chat for girls and boys was “I’m OK with it”. Following the live chat, the most frequent response was “Let’s go!”.

Prior to the live chat, 26% of girls said they would “rather not” or “don’t want to” compared to 10% of boys.

Following the live chat, the numbers of girls and boys saying they would “rather not” or “don’t want to” participate was 6% and 9% respectively. These results suggest that 20% of girls appear to gain confidence following the live chat.


What did the students talk about?

We were particularly interested in using the I’m a Scientist event for this part of our study, because the online, anonymous nature of the live chats gives students more freedom to ask questions than a traditional careers talk or even a speed-networking-style careers event.

During the chats, girls tended to ask more questions than boys – something that would be unusual in a physics classroom setting.

The zone included 455 students in total, of whom 241 were female, 211 male, and three not recorded. We analysed 4,298 lines of students’ questions and comments, tagging each line of chat with one or more category. We then looked for gender differences in how frequently students’ questions fell into these categories.

We found a strong gender difference in the job satisfaction category. Slightly more than a third of the female students asked a question that fell into this category, compared with 18% of the male students. Results included comments such as:

“Within your job, what do you enjoy most and why?”

“What is your favourite part of your average day?”

“What’s the best thing about your job?”

“What’s the most boring thing about your job?”

It was unusual for male students to ask a question about goals or achievements, with only 8% raising this compared with 16% of female students. These questions asked scientists about the big picture, and their goals and aims from their career. Some questions from this category were:

“What’s your biggest achievement and why?”

“Will you be proud of what you have done when you look back on it?”

“What do you want to accomplish by being a scientist?”

“What is your end goal or something you would like to achieve in your field in the future?”

More female students asked a question about the scientists’ motivation to go into a science career than any other category. This was also a popular topic for male students, with 24% of boys and 43% of girls asking a relevant question. Some questions in this category were:

“What inspired you to be a scientist and when?”

“Did you always want to be a scientist when you were younger?”

“What first interested you in science?”

“When you were smaller, have you ever thought that you would end up in this kind of job? If yes, did you have any motivations to keep your dream going?”

Both genders were interested in the scientists’ lives outside work, as well as in the day-to-day content of their jobs and questions about science and how things work. These categories included questions such as:

“Do you have any pets?”

“Do you like football? If so who do you support (I support Liverpool FC)”

“How would you describe your average day?”

“How can you see drugs with a laser?”

“What’s nuclear fission?”

“Is radiation from phones dangerous?”

This was a small study, but the results show some interesting trends, both in the impact of online outreach on students’ perceptions of science, and in the different ways that students engage online compared to a real-life setting.

We’d now like to look into this further, and, ultimately, apply what we learn to our original goal – getting more girls doing physics.

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Jessica Hamer and Natasha Plaister

Jessica Hamer and Natasha Plaister

Jessica is an IOP gender balance officer and Natasha is the Institute’s schools diversity coordinator
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