Why is it Different for Girls?

Some horrible statistics to kick off today’s post: nearly half of English maintained (state) coeducational schools don’t send a single girl on to do physics A level.  That’s right, nearly half (strictly speaking 49%).  When I was first sent this data by the BBC asking for a quote, I just assumed that something had gone astray in their interpretation. As soon as I saw the Institute of Physics’ report ‘It’s Different for Girls’, I realised that this really is correct. The IOP has just published this report, analysing the progression of girls from GCSE to Physics A level in different types of schools. Or rather, what it really demonstrates is an appalling lack of progression of girls. It makes for absolutely dismal reading. The headline figure of 49% is, in my view, staggeringly bad. If you think this might just be because the quality of physics teaching in many state schools is poor, then the expectation would be that as many schools would fail to send boys on to A level physics. That is not the case; a mere 14% of mixed schools send no boys on. Clearly, the hidden messages the girls receive about physics makes it much less attractive than for the boys in these schools.

The second obvious objection/interpretation to raise is that perhaps girls simply don’t ‘like’ physics. Maybe their brains are biologically not wired in a way that makes physics attractive to them; yes, I’ve heard that argument many times. That too can be put to rest: girls from single sex schools are 2 1/2 times as likely to proceed to physics A level as their peers from coed schools. It is something in the teaching, the ethos and the environment of many state mixed schools which somehow deters the girls. So just why is it different for girls?

These findings, depressing though they are, at least give us some evidence to work with. It has been clear for a couple of decades that the numbers of girls entering physics degree courses hasn’t increased much; the total number doing A levels has merely been creeping up and in this summer’s exams there were still 3.5 times as many boys taking the subject as girls. Now the IOP’s figures make it clear just how early on the problems start. What the report doesn’t show is why. There are a range of obvious possibilities ranging from the teachers, to parents and the boys in the classes. Clearly further study is merited. One thing that probably pervades all of those three possibilities is low aspirations and expectations by others of the girls in question when it comes to the choice of physics. That must be changed.

An earlier (2006) study from the IOP has shown that how teachers interact with girls in the classroom is crucial, and many interact very differently with boys than girls. This would appear to be another contributory factor in turning girls away from the subject. This is something that, as we have more teachers trained specifically as Physics teachers – given that Initial Teacher Training now has specific quotas by subject – may be more easily instilled into the teaching profession. But those sorts of interactions within the physics classroom are only the tip of the iceberg. Messages, cues will be being picked up all the time around the school from peers and other teachers. That is why the ethos in the school is so important and gender stereotyping, of any sort and anywhere within the school, must be actively challenged. If boys in the classroom are heard taunting that ‘physics is for boys’ it must be stamped on; if teachers in other subjects hint that physics is an odd choice for a girl, that too must not be let pass without remark.

When I finished what would now be termed Year 7 of secondary school, my French teacher told me I had a dreadful accent. As a result, I just assumed my spoken French would remain pathetic and I simply didn’t try very hard to improve the situation. Written French – fine; oral French –lousy. It only takes one unguarded remark to provoke a reaction like that in an anxious teenager. So, subtle cues that physics isn’t for girls, or a message that surely biology/English/history would be more appropriate, are likely to carry a lot of weight as girls consider their future options.  (It is well-documented that girls opt for biology over physics by a huge margin.) These messages could come from anywhere within the school or home, but this evidence suggests they are being received loud and clear. Teachers and parents alike should consider what implicit sub-texts are being conveyed to the girls around them. Changing these will probably be easier than changing the images of physicists that are seen on TV or in films, but our cultural environment surely doesn’t help.

The IOP acknowledges that, despite all its hard work over many years, their success in changing attitudes to physics in girls at school has been limited. Where interventions are ongoing, some success has been demonstrated, but overall their hard work has not paid off to date. What sort of interventions might help? There have been studies which demonstrate trying to ‘feminise’ the subject by introducing overtly feminine role models is not necessarily helpful but, on the contrary, can be demotivating. On the other hand, some very simple interventions have  been shown to have dramatic effects to overcome what is known as stereotype threat, a phenomenon in which individuals perform badly because they belong to a group (such as girls in physics and maths classes) who stereotypically are expected to do badly.  A couple of years ago a study showed that a brief ‘self-affirmation’ exercise had a remarkable effect on the grades of women doing physics at US colleges. Perhaps something like that should be introduced in UK schools to counter the negative messages that girls appear to be receiving.

When the news broke yesterday, the BBC did an excellent job of giving it coverage, from Pallab Ghosh’s write-up through many interviews local and national.  The interviews I did, both in Cambridge and London, showed me just how much the presenters (and all the other individuals I encountered around the studios) were taken aback by the figures. These people, not STEM professionals, were obviously shocked to learn what the study revealed; I found the interest encouraging and I didn’t just feel they were making small talk to put me at my ease. However, on the Today programme I came up against the standard response from my fellow interviewee, namely that perhaps girls just don’t want to do physics. I hope I have debunked this argument above, but it was depressing that this comment came from a headteacher who, in another response, seemed indignant I might have suggested teachers put girls off doing physics. I feel she proved the point rather nicely, but time (and possibly an unwillingness to get too forthright on national radio) prevented me from pointing out her inconsistencies explicitly.

So, now we have the evidence. Something is going horribly awry in coeducational state schools which actively dissuades girls from proceeding to physics A level. This means that girls are losing out. It isn’t that their GCSE grades are worse; the single sex school evidence suggests it is unlikely to be an accurate reflection of the percentage of girls who would genuinely like to study the subject in the sixth form, so what we have is a pernicious form of disadvantage. This is bad for the individuals and it is bad for our society. By allowing so many bright girls to miss out on a subject that they intrinsically might have wished to pursue, at the society level we are being discriminatory and unfair as well as losing talent unnecessarily. Having got a measure of the scale of the problem, we now have to work together with educators and parents (and ideally the media) to change perceptions and beliefs at both the national and individual levels.

Added 5-10-12 I have now written a companion piece on the Guardian’s web-pages, directed rather more at the general public – and in particular parents – than practising scientists.

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14 Responses to Why is it Different for Girls?

  1. Ruth says:

    Depressingly it seems little has changed since I was a school pupil in a state comprehensive. Given I was a bright student who has ended up working as a scientist, I was so put off by my physics teacher, that I couldn’t wait to drop not just physics but all sciences when it came to taking my A-level subjects. ( I eventually caught up and came back to the fold later – at some cost).
    As an example my former teacher on more than one occasion said quite openly in class that girls just can’t do physics, he would sneer if questions were answered wrongly and made no effort to make classes engaging or relevant. Out of 80 in my year group, only 4 boys and 1 girl went on to take a-level physics, so it is, in my opinion, not just girls that are being put off studying science but perhaps the effect is simply more marked.

    Now, as a mother of daughters, I wonder how on earth I and their (also a physicist) father are going to interest them, and keep them interested in science in the face of such apparently endemic poor teaching, not to mention the societal expectation that girls are not physicists.

  2. Hi – Just wanted to add some resources to the ones you provided, on the gender gap in STEM fields. Apologies in advance if you already know about them:

    1. Online “gender tutorials” by cognitive scientist Virginia Valian. She descibes two key concepts: gender schemas and the accumulation of advantage. The brief summary is that gender schemas (hypotheses about what it means to be male or female, which assign different psychological traits to males and females) cause us to underrate women and overrate men in professional settings. Many small effects of these schemas add up, with the result that men accumulate more advantage than women do. (Cristina Hoff Sommers and co. have criticised Valian’s work, saying it’s bad science – of course ignoring their own “male brain female brain innate sex differences” bad science.)

    2. Mary Rowe’s work at MIT on subtle discrimination and micro-inequities – “small events which are often ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator. Micro-inequities occur wherever people are perceived to be “different”. These mechanisms of prejudice against persons of difference are usually small in nature, but not trivial in effect. They are especially powerful taken together. Micro-inequities work both by excluding the person of difference and by making that person less self-confident and less productive.”

  3. Natalie Hogg says:

    As a young woman taking A level Physics at the moment, I can back up the statistics- but not the reasons given. Our school has three fantastic physics teachers. They are probably among the best teachers in the school. Yet there are only three girls taking A level this year. Last year at AS level there were six, and those who dropped it did so because they preferred their other subjects, not necessarily because they were put off by physics. I feel the problem, certainly at my school, and probably elsewhere is that girls are put off not by sexism from teachers, but from their male peers. Many immature boys (indeed, boys in general) find “kitchen jokes” funny and are casually sexist in lessons. This is a far greater deterrent to the subject than teachers occasionally mentioning a poor result. Criticism by peers, especially during adolescence, has a far greater impact on someone than anything a teacher could say.

    It’s not just that girls are lead to believe that physics is difficult, it’s that boys are hard-wired to think that they are superior to girls in these subjects, as it is “a well known fact” that boys are better at mathematical subjects. This knowledge is rooted deep in childrens’ psyche. If we stop gender stereotyping from a young age, then these shocking statistics will hopefully tail off.

    NB: One more than one occasion, boys in my physics class have groaned at questions I’ve asked, presumably because they think I am not entitled to an explanation of what they find so easy.

    • rpg says:

      I think that Natalie is on to something there. But it’s not fashionable to blame the peer group because that in turn implies it’s the parents who are at fault—which means we can’t blame the teachers.

      (Heck, I’m beginning to sound like Henry. Run, save yourselves!)

      I do actually think that parents, particularly fathers, need to man up and grow a pair, and teach their male spawn that sexism both subtle and unsubtle is not manly.

      And, what’s this? “coeducational state schools which actively dissuades girls from proceeding to physics A level” Are there not coeducational fee-paying schools? What happens in those cases? Surely that’s a control that ought to be looked at, rather than just simply considering single-sex schools? (Please tell me co-ed private schools exist. Otherwise the fee-paying system is weirder than I thought.)

      • cromercrox says:

        Richard’s arguments are too difficult for my feeble brain to compehend, but Natalie’s aren’t, and they jibe with the experiences of Crox Minor – now 14, keen as mustard on science, visiting the Large Hadron Collider next week, wants to study medicine, and so on and so forth. She doesn’t complain about the genders of her teachers, all of whom she thinks are great (or in her words ‘aswesome’), and they are. But she says, plainly and repeatedly, that boys in her classes are disruptive. I don’t think one should look for any deep or hidden meanings here, any unconscious bias, motivational hoopla, self-esteem issues or whether test tubes are pink – the statistics clearly show that girls are much more likely to study physics when boys are absent. If that’s the case, then Athene shouldn’t be trying to fix coeducational schools – she should be promoting single-sex education. I wonder why she isn’t?

        • Cromercrox
          I’m not pushing for that because I’m still waiting for the evidence across all the sciences – and maths. I have been pushing for this data to be collected for some time in the UK, but this IOP study is the first data I have seen looking specifically at a single subject. In general it seems to me that previous studies have merely looked at the results across all disciplines. Even then there seems to be disagreement as to what the conclusions are, with the data collected by single sex schools supporting their model…… etc.

          However, the real world is not segregated by sex, at least not in the West, and for all I went to a girls grammar school myself, for all I think that helped me a lot, I really hate the lack of socialisation that comes with it. I do wonder if single sex classes in mixed schools are the answer, but the evidence even to support that I’m told is not clear-cut.

      • Owen says:

        Most independent schools are co-educational, with a significant minority (about 20%) being entirely single-sex. The Independent Schools Council has a big PDF full of statistics.

    • The boys may groan at your questions but the evidence often shows that being apparently ‘confident’ does not mean such pupils are actually right to be confident. Their groans may be more attempts at drama and putting you off than justified.

  4. I am both in admiration of her insight yet shocked by Natalie’s story. Though not completely shocked as I have a 12 year old daughter in an all girls school who thinks science is for geeks i.e. certain types of boys who she doesn’t even encounter regularly but probably remembers from primary school. My recent post on the also goes on about girls’ preference for biology vs physics, and the fact that medical schools often rate A-level Chemistry above Biology, and in some cases imply you don’t need any biology at all. This is the other side of the story.

  5. BB says:

    When you say that overt female role models aren’t useful, do you mean that it makes no difference what gender the teacher is?

    I would imagine that my experience of being taught biology solely by female teachers, chemistry by a mixture and physics by solely male teachers might be quite common. And I would also expect that girls schools have a far higher proportion of female physics teachers than state schools.

    But of course if the data shows that makes no difference then it must be something else…..

    • BB
      That probably should have read overtly female role models – the paper by Betz et al looked at how girls reacted to high-heeled, lipsticked scientists as role models (as far as I recall) and it wasn’t found to be helpful. It wasn’t about the gender of teachers at all. As far as I can make out, it isn’t the gender of a teacher per se that matters, so much as their ability to explain and be willing to take the time to explain. The earlier (2006) IOP report suggested how teachers interacted with boys and girls was sufficiently different that the way the same teacher was ‘experienced’ may have been very different for the two sexes.

  6. Grant says:

    Slightly off-topic, but it might interest you – this from a blogging colleague Alison Campbell:

    ‘falling numbers in physics – what do teachers think?’ –


    (Excuse my not joining in, but I have to go and get some sleep!

  7. Anon says:

    Dear Athene
    Since reading your post I have felt compelled to find out the reasons behind A-level choice and why groups choose certain subjects as well as subject preference for male and female students. My wife and I are polar opposites in educational terms; I went to a comprehensive school with a large number of children who qualified for free school meals and so lower socio-economic standing (SES), followed by A levels at a separate sixth form college. My wife went to a fee paying single sex school and then an expensive fee paying mixed school. The main difference which we have discussed at length was the fact that ALL of her school cohort went onto study A-levels whereas from my year group about 10 – 15 % went on to do A levels.

    So my first observation is that the study you detail only talks about the students that get to do A levels and neglects the large number of very bright children (both boys and girls) who miss out on further studies and are failed by the education system in this country. I am conscious looking back at my year group that a lot of talented children fell through the net. The reasons for this are complex, but one that my wife and I agreed on was that children with university educated / professional parents impart an importance on education to their children which somehow is not effectively communicated to some young children at comprehensive schools. A lot of children were not quite sure of the purpose of school and very small number of tiresome ones made it difficult to teach the rest of us. I think what my wife and I agreed on was that aspirations are different between different SES groups. This is effectively the social mobility trap that has existed for a long time now and has not been getting better but worse in the last 10 years. Maybe if girls and boys knew what it is possible to do with an A level physics qualification then they may have a higher likelihood of choosing this subject.

    The remaining A level students that make it from mixed comprehensive schools do not choose to do the perceived hard A level subjects. The chart in the IOP report on page 20 shows that even for those that went to study A levels, the percentage that choose to do physics is very low, girls (0.8%) and boys (3.6%) for the lowest SES school (highest free school meals per pupil ratio).

    It has been shown that A level science specialists have already been successful at GCSE (1). Independent schools are much more likely to teach three separate science GCSE’s than comprehensive schools (2). Why is this ? Whatever the reason it certainly gives these students the necessary grounding and confidence to succeed at A level whereas for comprehensive schools it does not. I found that there was a chasm in my knowledge in going from the combined GCSE to A level and that I had to work hard to succeed at A level. My feeling is that the trend towards joint science at comprehensive schools hobbles/discourages students in their choice of physics at A level. I wonder how many of your undergraduate students on your first year course have taken separate GCSE Physics, Chemistry and Biology.

    “However, in general, most students chose their AS/A level courses because they enjoyed the subject or had a liking or interest in it. This reason scored higher for students from a high social class background and lower for the students from a low social class background. Students also appeared to consider important the usefulness of the subject for a preferred future job or career. It should be recognised that the value or usefulness that students give to a subject may be influenced by information presented to them by their teachers, their parents or the media. A third factor highly involved in the decision-making process was the students‟ self-perception of their ability in the subjects.”

    summary statement taken from (3)

    The last point of the summary is interesting and it may be that girls are more self critical of their skills than boys and this may in part explain their reluctance to choose A level physics. I certainly knew a number of boys on my A level course who thought they were better at physics than they actually were.

    It is also interesting to compare the top 10 important A2 level subjects rated by students by gender (also from 3) as this helps to show the subjects that are presumed important by them.

    (1) Maths, (2) Chemistry, (3) Further Maths, (4) English Lang., (5) Physics, (6) Drama & theatre studies, (7) Biology, (8) English Lit., (9) Art & Design / Art, (10) Business studies.

    (1) Chemistry, (2) Biology, (3) PE/Sport, (4) Economics, (5) Maths, (6) English Lang., (7) Art & Design / Art, (8) History, (9) History, (10) Law.

    The interesting question is why are Biology and Chemistry perceived as highly important for girls yet Physics does not even make the top 10 ? I have also looked at the Royal Society SES and science education report 2008 to find gender factors and was unable to find any convincing reasons as to why girls do not choose A level physics. Although there are some suggestions educators need to start early as girls at primary school have a very positive attitude towards science that sadly seems to be diminished at some point before A level.

    Anyway thanks again for the post and stimulating thoughts on educational choices.

    (1) John F. Bell, Eva Malacova & Mark Shannon (2005): The changing pattern of A level/AS uptake in England, Curriculum Journal, 16:3, 391-400

    (2) Provision of science subjects at GCSE 2009, Carmen L. Vidal Rodeiro, Statistics Report Series No. 15 January 2010


    • Andy
      Thanks for that long and thoughtful response. There are a huge number of different ideas and factors squeezed into it, and it’s really hard to disentangle some of them from any of the statistics I’ve seen. The socioeconomic factors are of course huge, and were indeed barely touched on by the IOP report which simply wanted to concentrate on gender. The trouble with socioeconomic issues is that they also get tied up in ethnicity aspects, which introduce a whole further bunch of issues since children from different backgrounds also fare very differently because of cultural expectations. Hence all the worries often expressed about the progression of Afro-Caribbean boys in any fields.

      I think the issue about the perceived difficulty of physics is a very real one but, as with so many aspects underlying my post, it isn’t obvious why girls and boys should respond so differently to this. The situation you describe of girls doubting their abilities more than boys is pervasive – it goes far beyond A level choices into job applications for instance. But it may mean that girls are more susceptible to bad teaching and there is no doubt some physics teaching is bad when it is done, perforce, by teachers who aren’t themselves confident about physics, something which is too often the case. I still believe that cultural cues steer girls into biology over physics, because they are meant to like ‘caring’, or cuddling animals or whatever – over machinery or taking things to pieces. This does indeed start at a very early age and it is going to be a challenge to get those societal messages to change within our society. But not all societies are the same – old Iron Curtain countries used to have lots of women engineers, although I don’t know if that’s still the case.

      Complex issues indeed!

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