There has been a lot of interest and effort put into attracting more women into engineering and the physical sciences. Unless we address this at secondary-school level, where the first major ‘opt out’ occurs, a better gender balance further down the line is going to be impossible to achieve.
However a lot of effort seems to be expended with negligible results. There is a lot of talk about ‘inspiration for students’ and ‘female role models’, with very little evidence to suggest that the lack of either is the problem. Students, regardless of sex, don’t tend to choose physics A-levels because they are inspired or because they’ve met a ‘role model’. They tend to choose it because it’s the right fit for them – they feel they can do it (through a combination of good teaching and encouragement) and see the benefits of it (good careers advice).
So first and foremost, we need to make sure that our science teachers are supported so that they can teach physics to the best of their ability, and all students have access to a good physics education. Secondly we need to improve face-to-face careers advice in schools. With no centralised careers service in England, the advice given to students is patchy, and with girls, ethnic-minority, working-class and lower-attaining students less likely to report having had careers advice.
But there is clearly more going on with the girl/boy divide. It’s not that girls naturally don’t like/aren’t good at maths/science. They do as well, if not better than boys on average. However fewer girls choose to continue with physics, with the ratio of male/female student hovering around 80/20 for the last 30 years. What is interesting is those female physics students are coming from specific schools – girls are almost two and a half times more likely to go on to do A-level physics if they came from a girl’s school rather than a co-ed school.
First and foremost, we need to make sure that our science teachers are supported so that they can teach physics to the best of their ability, and all students have access to a good physics education.
In schools where there is a gender imbalance, there is a gender imbalance in subject choice across the board. Not just in physics, but other subjects like economics, dance, English, psychology and so on. This is a whole-school issue and is not going to be solved by more female physics role models. By all means, change the Darwin/Einstein record and tell some of those hidden stories about how women have changed science over the years (check out beyondcurie.com for starters). However, getting in a local female engineer to talk to the girls is not on its own going to change anything. But talking about why a female engineer is such a novelty might.
The problem is gender stereotyping and it encompasses most aspects of society. We all have unconscious biases and make assumptions about what girls and boys may like from an early age and thereafter. At secondary school, there is the pervading assumption that girls are hardworking, neat and quiet while boys are loud, lazy and inherently clever. This can lead to girls getting less teacher time, lower quality feedback (based on appearances rather than content), boys dominating the classroom and in some respects, allowed to, as ‘boys will be boys’. The stereotypes become internalized, and students will rise or sink to the expectations we have of them.
Does this always need to be this way? No, it does not. Our recent work at the IOP has shown that not only can gender stereotyping be addressed at a whole school level, but that when it is, it can have dramatic results. When addressed during a strand of the IGB pilot, we saw the number of girls taking A-level physics triple across the six pilot schools. In addition, the atmosphere and culture of those schools changes, which is hard to quantify in a survey but is evident when you talk to the teachers about what has been achieved. By engaging both students and teachers in discussing and addressing gender stereotypes, we can start to break the physics–male link and open the subject up for more people, however they identify.