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.