Physics is a feminist issue

Friday 21 June 2013 saw the third summer conference organised by the IOP’s Physics Communicators Group. This year, the conference was run in collaboration with the Women in Physics Group, and the question under discussion was “Is there equality in the way we communicate?” A range of speakers explored different aspects of a complex and many-faceted issue, but two common themes emerged over the course of the afternoon.

Influences from families, teachers and culture make a big difference

The opening speaker, Liz Whitelegg from the Open University, spoke about building girls’ self-concept in physics and about how enjoyment of physics alone doesn’t increase participation levels in physics post-GCSE. Input from teachers and families plays a crucial part in helping girls to perceive a future in physics that will help them to achieve their goals.

Peter Main, Director of Science and Education at IOP, also spoke about this family influence, which he referred to as ‘science capital’. But not before he had shown some rather depressing statistics about the uptake of A2 maths compared to physics over the last thirty years: a gentle increase in maths uptake over this time has not been matched by physics, which has gently declined. The startling fact that 49% of maintained co-educational schools send no girls onto physics A-level was also rather sobering and it was this statistic that led Main to express the opinion that physics is a feminist issue.

The importance of good teaching in influencing whether girls go on to study physics cannot be overemphasised, said Main. This chimed with the point made by Liz Whitelegg that girls are more sensitive to the effect of their teachers.

Showing what effect he’d been able to have on his own students was Faisal Khan, Head of Science at the Market Bosworth School in rural Leicestershire. Khan spoke with great energy and enthusiasm about how he has been successful in translating girls’ interest in physics into a desire to continue studying it. Innovative use of Twitter was one of the key ideas that he spoke about. He also touched on engagement with parents, local businesses and local primary schools, where older pupils could act as science ambassadors.

Also hoping to have a positive influence on the next generation of female scientists was the final speaker of the day, Heather Williams from Central Manchester University Hospitals. Williams gave an overview of the formation and activities of ScienceGrrrl, a network of mainly female scientists whose main aim is to pass on their passion for STEM subjects. ScienceGrrl, which began last year and published a calendar featuring both male and female scientists, has further plans for improving the recognition and visibility of female scientists in mainstream culture.

There’s a confidence gap, not a competence gap, between women and men

Georgina Voss from the Royal College of Art explored some issues around gender in science from the perspective of a sociologist. Her point that not knowing why fewer women participate in STEM subjects is a form of ignorance certainly struck a chord with many. She also hit upon a theme already mentioned by Liz Whitelegg and other speakers: there is not a competence gap between men and women, but a confidence gap.

Voss introduced the idea that everything is designed with someone in mind and that, in design, ‘neutral’ and ‘male’ often default to each other. She examined the workplace as a designed environment and showed that STEM culture is not truly ‘neutral’.

Also speaking about the workplace was Tracey Berry from Royal Holloway, University of London. Berry explained her involvement with IOP’s Project Juno, which is working for gender equality in university physics departments. Here was someone with practical experience of what needs to be done to turn policy into results on the ground. Transparent systems and policies are at the heart of achieving a fair and equitable working environment, said Berry, citing clear paths to promotion as one improvement that university physics departments can make to level the playing field between men and women.

Nobody who attended the conference was left in any doubt that the issue of gender in physics remains a significant concern with no easy solutions. The mixture of theory and practice discussed, however, will hopefully help participants contribute towards making things better.

Kevin Mosedale is a member of IOP’s Physics Communicators Group.

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1 Comment

  1. A very fair point made here about the environment women face in STEM careers. However, It concerns me that with so much media and policy focus on women in physics we are at risk of alienating other sections of society which also do not fit into the stereotypical image of a physicist.

    Progress has been made on the topic of women in STEM and, though this is not yet finished, I believe it is time to extend these ideas and examples of best practice to ethnicity, sexuality, disability and those that are economically disadvantaged. It is interesting that few articles on gender equality mention transgender individuals. Do we really want to go from a straight, white male dominated workforce to a straight, white dominated workforce?

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