The Institute of Physics report last week on the lack of girls progressing on to study physics at A-level continues to cause concern but is not surprising. Of course we need more positive female role models in the sciences and physics in particular and of course the media need to give more exposure to those that do exist.
However there remains, in both society in general and more worryingly parts of the (male) scientific community in particular, a belief that physics and engineering is better done and done better by men. I understand that some of my fellow male scientists may find such an accusation insulting but I believe that those of us that know that girls make just as good physicists and engineers as boys need to make our views known at each and every turn.
In the same way that negative racial stereotypes persisted for far too long, even in the face of insurmountable evidence that people of any ethnic background were as capable of being intellectual, driven and successful in their chosen field, so will this misguided gender prejudice. It will not change until, like the now much diminished common racism, it is challenged whenever it is encountered.
When a mother at a school parents evening excuses her daughter’s poor performance in a test on wave properties with “well physics isn’t really for girls” or “her father and me don’t do science” it needs to be challenged by the teacher (male or female). When a careers officer questions a teenage girl’s desire to do physical science and maths at A-level, colleagues should ask why the concern. When a senior school leader jokes about a bright 17-year-old girl needing to transfer from physics to ‘something easier’ all her teachers should react. You may think that such examples are extreme but they are all from my personal experience as a teacher and physics undergraduate.
It is obviously difficult to collect firm evidence but one of the reasons that girls in single sex education are more likely to continue with their studies in physics is that they are less exposed to such negative attitudes. I think it is certainly true that for girls to succeed in physics at A-level, in a coeducational environment, that they need to be particularly strong-minded and very focused on what they want to achieve. Whereas a boy at 16 may wander into physics in the sixth form with a general feeling that it will impress university admission officers and maybe open up job prospects in the future, a girl at the same stage will generally have already settled on a narrower range of career paths for which physics is a prerequisite.
This was certainly my experience for the majority of girls that I taught post sixteen physics to and the majority of them went on to study physical sciences at university; I do not have figures to hand but my feeling was not the same for the (larger numbers of) boys that I taught.
I now run the Royal Institution’s L’Oréal Young Scientist Centre and am happy to report that in the past year nearly 60% of our visitors have been girls and this is without making a special effort to attract them. I will admit to running primary workshops in ‘Cosmetic Chemistry’, but we also have sessions on engineering safer cars and building motors and generators.
Indeed in the recent competition for Key Stage 4 students to become the Royal Institution’s L’Oreal Young Scientist of the Year, we again saw the majority of entries come from girls, where they had to produce a time line of mankind’s interaction with electricity. Girls do not lack interest in science and physics but we must give them more reason to believe that it is a subject for them to pursue and that they can excel in it if they want to.
David Porter was a science teacher in a secondary school before becoming the manager of the Royal Institution’s L’Oréal Young Scientist Centre which provides science workshops as an extension to classroom learning for 8-18-year-olds.