Physics lesson: according to a recent report by the Institute of Physics, nearly half of all mixed state schools have no girls studying A-level physics at all.
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"Why don’t more girls study physics?"
March 17th, 2013
The girls at Redland Green School have little enthusiasm for atoms, forces, energy and stuff. Unlike the boys. “I like physics,” says James, 16, a GCSE student. “It explains everything. It’s the way the universe works. It’s pretty much the entirety of existence. And it’s cool.”
Redland Green is a modern comprehensive, built six years ago in the heart of the affluent, liberal northern area of Bristol. Its physics teacher, Sarah Webb, is so enthusiastic about her subject that she has just completed a PhD in atmospheric spectroscopy on the side. And yet, like most other British schools, Redland Green is struggling with a basic physics question: why there are so few girls. Just 20 per cent of the pupils in its A-level physics class are girls – precisely the UK average.
That physics is a male-dominated subject will not come as a surprise. Together with chemistry and maths, physics is often associated with an abstract, oddly masculine type of cleverness. But chemistry and maths have outgrown this stereotype. Since the Eighties the proportion of girls in chemistry and maths at A-level has risen steadily, to the extent that the ratio of girls to boys is now roughly equal. (In chemistry it’s just under 50 per cent girls; in maths, about 40 per cent.) Not so in physics. According to a recent report by the Institute of Physics, nearly half of all mixed state schools have no girls studying A-level physics at all.
The trend is worrying from an egalitarian perspective. Physics is a facilitating subject that improves analytical and problem-solving skills, and those who go on to study physics at university can expect higher salaries than the average graduate. But there are economic concerns, too. Last year the Royal Academy of Engineering linked the “lack of women” to the estimated annual deficit of 10,000 science, technology, engineering and maths graduates required to keep UK industry ticking over.
The boys at Redland Green can explain the imbalance. “Boys are naturally adapted to be better at maths and space stuff, whereas girls are better at language and communication,” says one. “Which means – logically, according to science – boys should have a natural ability to understand physics a bit better.” His thesis provokes a murmur of unrest among the girls. Do they disagree? “I just think that — I dunno,” begins Molly, 15. “Girls are usually not doing physics not because they’re not good at it, but because they have other preferences to it. I think girls just find it more interesting to do other things.”
Molly echoes what a lot of girls say about physics – there’s too much maths, it’s not relevant to life, and, above all, it’s boring. Taken at face value, such comments make it easy to conclude that girls do not have a natural interest in the subject. But recent research suggests there might be an underlying deterrent: a lack of belonging. Girls just don’t feel at home with physics.
Take the following experiment, performed by physicist Amy Graves at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Four actors, two male and two female, play the role of physics professors for an unsuspecting class of 19-year-old students. The actors deliver identical videotaped lectures. After watching the videos, the students are asked to rate each lecturer’s performance.
When it comes to teaching, the ratings are unsurprising: the male students prefer the male lecturers, while the female students prefer the female lecturers. But when it comes to ability in the subject itself, stereotypes prevail. Male and female students think the male lecturers are more knowledgable, are better with equipment and have a better “grasp” of the subject. Graves’s study points to “confirmation bias”: students think men are better at physics because that confirms their preconceived ideas.
Few would blame them. The best-known living physicists are male, be they eminent theorists such as Stephen Hawking or popularisers such as Brian Cox. Although female physicists do appear on UK television and radio – the astrophysicist Lucie Green, for instance – none has become a household name. The imbalance is of course a reflection of reality: in academia women make up 15 per cent of physics staff in general and a little over five per cent of professors.
The lack of female role models has a profound effect on girls choosing A-levels, says sociologist Louise Archer at King’s College London. “For girls in particular, physics is seen as being a very masculine subject,” she says. “So the girls who like physics have to work a lot harder to balance it with that notion of normal femininity.”
Archer’s view is backed up by another US study. In 2010, a team led by neuroscientist Tiffany Ito at the University of Colorado split a class of undergraduate physics students into two sets. The researchers asked the first set to write for 15 minutes about cherished personal values – family relationships, creativity, politics and so on – and the other set to write about values that held no personal importance. Then they gave all the students a physics exam.
In the second set, the male students outperformed their female counterparts by an average score of about 10 per cent. In the first set, however, this performance gap disappeared. Why? The act of writing about cherished personal values is known to psychologists as “values affirmation”: a confidence-boosting process that counters the threat of stereotype.
Ito’s study, which is published in the journal Science, suggests girls could be welcomed into physics with routine values-affirmation exercises. More generally, it suggests that students perform better if they are encouraged to recognise the point of their efforts. Although all students benefit from such context, it is those for whom the subject is a less common choice – girls – who benefit the most.
At Colyton Grammar, a state-funded academy near Seaton in Devon, head of physics Peter Webber offers an example of how context can help. “If a student has an interest in medicine, you can teach them medical physics,” he says.
In the scheme of gender imbalance, Colyton Grammar is what physicists might call an anomalous point. This year 31 per cent of its physics A-level students are girls, and in recent years the proportion has been as high as 35 per cent – way better than average, even for a selective school. Partly, says Webber, this is a result of the intake: students travel from up to an hour away, which demonstrates their will to learn. But he says the above average girl-boy ratio might also stem from the school’s ethos, a “can do” attitude that rejects stereotype. In other words: don’t treat boys and girls differently, just encourage them both.
The message seems to have sunk in with Colyton students. Rowan, 15, says that in lessons she never even considers differences between boys and girls. Then she adds, to the amusement of her classmates: “You might as well not have genders, really.”