Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

How to Get Girls into Physics

By Frances Saunders

Research from the UK has identified several impediments that discourage girls from studying physics, with new interventions now being trialled.

The Institute of Physics has been active in researching diversity issues for a decade, examining the whole pipeline of people in physics-related careers in the UK, from school, through further education and into jobs in academia and industry. From this research there are two critical parts of the pipeline where gender diversity issues stand out:

  • at the age of 16, when the proportion of girls studying physics drops to around 20% of the cohort; and
  • at senior leadership roles (e.g. senior lecturer and above in academia), where it drops a further 10% so that women are significantly under-represented in the top jobs.
    • Both of these drops in engagement and participation have proved remarkably stubborn for physics, despite having been identified for at least 20 years.

      We know from our work with researchers and campaign groups that girls and boys are highly gendered from a very young age, and that this affects their subject choices and career options. Our recent research suggests that many schools are unconsciously re-enforcing these gender stereotypes or making them worse, and that a “whole-school approach” to tackling the problem is essential.

      Our work has also identified three key influences on students’ attitudes to studying physics. It starts with their own self-concept and whether they can see themselves enjoying the subject and using it in future. This in turn can be affected by peer pressure, parental aspirations and by their understanding of what a career using STEM subjects, such as physics, would be like.

      From some of our workshops discussing these issues with girls, it is clear that there are a lot of myths to be busted, not least to ensure that the creativity and innovation girls often claim they want from a job is highlighted more readily in career information. However, just giving girls more information and telling them that a career in STEM is for them is unlikely to work on its own. They will need to see relevant role models – “women like them” – succeeding in the workplace before they will be persuaded. This is a chicken-and-egg situation that will remain hard to crack.

      The next influence on subject choice is their experiences at school. How well it is taught, how engaged the students are by the lessons, and whether the teaching materials make it interesting and fun to learn. For girls in co-educational schools, this is also affected by how classes are managed, ensuring that girls are fully engaged in questioning and discussions.

      This brings us to the final influence: how personally supportive students find their physics teacher to be. We have heard too many anecdotes during the course of our research of girls being told by teachers – and not necessarily their physics teacher – that “physics is hard” and “you might get better grades in another subject”. If these are the kinds of things teachers are saying to girls, it is little wonder that many do not wish to take the risk of continuing to study physics when they have the choice.

      So what more can we do about it? We are now embarking on projects funded by the UK government to pilot some new interventions. As well as working with girls to build their confidence, ability and resilience, and with teachers to improve girls’ experiences in the classroom, we are trying a new whole-school approach to gender equality – making visible the gender stereotypes and unconscious bias held by both students and teachers in their interactions with each other and developing an action plan for reducing their impact.

      A second project involves two pilot networks of schools that will be visiting each other for a gender equality audit, with the aim of developing a best practice guide from the findings arising from these visits. This is a similar approach to the Juno Project, which we have been running with university physics departments to tackle unconscious gender bias in their culture, policies and management that are contributing to the lack of women in senior roles. We know that Juno is beginning to affect the culture in the physics departments that have adopted it, and we are looking to embed similar changes in schools through best practice guidance.

      Natural ability is a very powerful concept in our society, and is often perpetuated in schools. Boys are told that they are good at conceptual thinking and problem solving, and they believe it and see STEM careers as being aligned with their natural abilities. In contrast, girls are told that their brains are “not wired for science and maths” and they believe that too, despite evidence to the contrary that many girls get just as good, if not better, grades in these subjects.

      Girls are not the problem. It is the whole environment that is holding them back. We need to start by recognising these unconscious biases within the school culture and society at large, and talking about them with girls and boys so we can bust the myths together.

      Frances Saunders is President of The Institute of Physics.