In 2021, 23 percent of students taking A-Level Physics in England were women. Five years ago it was 21 percent, so any progress is glacial. Last week, as she testified before the Parliamentary Committee on Science and Technology, Katharine Birbalsingh, director and chair of the government’s Social Mobility Committee, was asked why this is so, especially in relation to her own school where only 14 per cent of physics A -Students were women. She replied that they simply did not like it and that they were rejected by difficult mathematics. The evidence speaks otherwise.
First, in 2021, girls were (slightly) better than boys in GCSE and A-Level math. Second, math at A-Level Physics can’t be harder than math at A-Level Math – and 39 percent of A-Level math students nationally are girls (and 59 percent at Birbalsing School). So, since girls do math very well when they take it and are more likely to study math at A-Level than physics, it doesn’t follow that math puts them off. So what’s behind the gap?
Let’s start with the A-Level election. When students choose their A-Level courses, they are influenced by three main considerations: what they want to do as a career (including university requirements if relevant), how much they like each course at GCSE, and what their friends do.
A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that although girls find scientific and technological careers well paid and secure, they are deterred by their (accurate) perception that they are dominated by men, especially the physical sciences, engineering and computing. In the sciences, where women are at least equally represented in careers, there is a high representation of women in universities, for example: medicine (59 percent of women), biology (60 percent of women) and veterinary (almost 80 percent of women).
All of these subjects place more emphasis on A-levels in biology and chemistry rather than physics. This results in negative feedback in which girls are attracted to fields with more women and push away from fields with fewer women. It’s also hard to get out of that loop, as today’s A-Level students are tomorrow’s scientists. The Institute of Physics discusses the problem of students’ low knowledge of the various occupations that a physics qualification can lead to, and that many physics teachers feel insecure by including a discussion of scientific careers in the classroom.
Then the question arises as to how much the girls like the subject at school. Both the Institute of Physics and the Institute of Fiscal Studies point out that girls are less satisfied with teaching physics at school than with other sciences. This issue is further complicated by the fact that girls are less likely to see themselves as physicists and are less confident in their abilities, despite behaving just as well as boys.
The reasons for this are numerous – and go all the way back to childhood. Parents differ in how they rate the abilities of sons versus daughters at an early age, how they praise their children and unfounded assumptions about how hard girls have to work to be good at math and how important it is for their child’s education. It is transferred to schools, s teachers who overestimate the abilities of boys and underestimate the abilities of girls in mathematics.
The Institute of Physics has explicitly warned of the need for a holistic school approach to avoid lazy stereotypes about girls and physics, as even stray comments can have a big cumulative impact on girls as they think about their future. Interestingly and relevant aside, the share of female IT graduates in the U.S. has plummeted from 33 percent in the early 1980s to less than 20 percent now – a decline accelerated by the introduction of personal computers and marketing campaigns aimed almost exclusively at boys.
It is natural that students will further influence which subjects their friends choose. A study from Switzerland found that even when girls and boys start the school year with similar levels of interest in science, this changes under the influence of their peer group, with girls starting to prefer science less. In singles schools, both boys and girls are more likely to choose physics at A-Level, but the effect is much more pronounced in girls. The problem of the mirror actually exists for boys and subjects like English, language and psychology, which can be considered ‘subjects for girls’. Again, the number is higher than that of boys in schools for gender alone.
All of these issues are interrelated, but I believe our curriculum makes them worse. England is very unusual in high-income countries because it requires 16-year-olds to specialize in three main subjects – in most countries students take at least five and often many more subjects until they leave school. One immediate impact of the ‘three A-level subjects’ norm is that anyone who considers science a career is forced to effectively choose a maximum of two out of three from chemistry, biology and physics, as A-Level mathematics is important in all sciences. .
As mentioned above, more popular university subjects and careers for girls do not require physics. This deprives many girls of discovering love for this topic while exploring more advanced concepts on A-Level. Another impact is that the girls have better results on the GCSE, they have more opportunities on the A-Level. If a student also enjoys the humanities, choosing A-Levels becomes even more difficult. Weaker performance in GCSE humanities subjects also deprives many boys of realizing their potential in these areas and should not be neglected.
Physics, mathematics, engineering and computing are fascinating subjects that range from the very nature of existence to the invention of new technology – both software and hardware – that can transform our lives and solve society’s biggest problems.
They offer entry into well-paid, interesting and diverse careers. More women pursuing careers in the physical sciences are good for women, good for science, and good for society. There are solutions (and the participation of women in physics degrees is much higher in some other countries), but also include resolving differences in the way we treat boys and girls from the moment they are born and rethinking how early we ask our young people to specialize in their education.
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