Why are there still so few women in Physics?

Holly Foster

Last year nearly 50% of all state co-educational school failed to send any girls onto A-Level physics, yet only 12% failed to send any boys[1]. Are girls simply unable to do physics, or have they been failed by the education system and are victims of out-dated attitudes towards women in science?

We see these depressing statistics year after year. Of all the students who achieved an A* in GCSE, 50% of boys went on to study physics at A-Level compared to 20% of girls, with girls making up only 17% per cent of physics students at undergraduate level. Even more frustrating is the fact that from 2000 to 2013, girls outperformed  boys in GCSE Physics most years. The margins may be small, but what is apparent is that this is not a simple case of boys being better than girls at Physics. So what is going so wrong?

Attitude in Education

An insight into why so few girls continue on with physics comes from the difference in the numbers of girls taking physics in single-sex and mixed schools to A-Level. Girls in single-sex education are two and a half times more likely to take physics on to a higher level than their counterparts in mixed gender education, while in biology and chemistry there is little difference in numbers. A report by the Institute of Physics[2] found that girls in mixed schools were much more likely to face gender stereotyping when it came picking subjects and pressure to be seen as ‘cool’ amongst their peers. Biology, chemistry and psychology are also all perceived to be more female appropriate subjects as they can lead more naturally into professions that involve working with people. Physics, on the other hand is seen to be challenging, with difficult mathematics and experiments that are boring and lacking in real-life application.

A study[3] found that in single-sex education, girls felt less restricted by academic barriers and that there wasn’t a ‘glass ceiling’ placed on their achievement in science. Teachers were also less likely to see subjects as gender specific and actively encouraged girls into STEM-based subjects. When there wasn’t an opportunity to compare girls and boys, girls were more often encouraged to take subjects that were seen to be ‘boys’ subjects’ such as physics. Attitudes affecting girls, however, are not limited to the classroom. Parents also play a role, as do peers and attitudes within mass-market media in influencing girls’ perception of physics.

Lack of Role Models

For women to see physics and related STEM as a realistic career option, there need to be women in the field that represent the success that can be achieved as a female in these fields. We are all a product of our environment and it should therefore come as no surprise that a shortage of female role models in the scientific community acts negatively on the number of women in physics.

A key problem is the lack of women holding senior roles in physics. Women hold a mere 7.9% of senior lecturer roles and make up only 4% of professors in Physics. This trend is also reflected outside of academia, with the majority (if not all) of public figures in physics being male. How many female physicists can anyone name in the media or in the world of business? This lack of role models doesn’t just represent the gender imbalance, it also reinforces the idea that physics is just for boys. Most popular physicists or scientists in the public domain are older, white males leaving women and minority groups underrepresented in physics (and women of minority groups almost doubly disadvantaged).

Even fictitious physicists fall into the same stereotypical trappings. Sadly, one of the most recognisable faces in physics is Sheldon Cooper from the US comedy series, The Big Bang Theory. This popular programme follows a group of four scientists based at the Caltech Physics department and their attractive female neighbour. The physicists are portrayed as socially-inept, obsessive and narcissistic. Granted they’re not doing much for the perception of men in physics, but their treatment of women is limited to outdated stereotypes. Penny, an actress who lives next door, is attractive but intellectually incompetent, whereas the two female scientists (neither of which is a physicist) are intelligent but made out to be unattractive and frumpy and ultimately undesirable as a partner. The Big Bang Theory sends a clear message: physics isn’t for girls who want to be popular too and it’s a message that we see time and time again from the media.

But do cultural stereotypes play a role in the perception of physics? The answer it would seem is yes. Public attitudes towards women in physics are outdated and without a driving force from teachers, parents, media and society there will always be the common perception that girls cannot achieve in Physics. The Riegle-Crumb[4] report from the University of Texas found that when removing all other factors (such as wealth, parental employment and school rankings), the biggest impact on women’s involvement in STEM subjects was the amount of the female labour-force in the local community working in STEM and related industries. Girls need to be able to identify with both the subject itself and with other women who have successfully bucked the trend and made a life for themselves in the world of science and engineering. Without other women in the media or in communities engaging with female students, interest in physics from girls will always be restricted.

The lack of women in physics is an issue that has its roots in outdated social attitudes towards women and where they fit in society. While statistical figures show no significant difference between male and female students in terms of exam results, the lack of young women moving on to higher levels of scientific study is symptomatic of a deep-rooted negative attitude several educational and professional sectors have towards women. While some issues could be identified as causing the apparent lack of enthusiasm of young women towards physics, attitudes within education and the media are two of the most influential. Attitudes displayed by teachers, parents, peers and the media all combine to either directly or indirectly dissuade many young girls from choosing to continue with physics despite many evidently having the ability to do so. Society needs to tackle cultural stereotypes of girls’ capabilities in science and engineering and then maybe, more women will take physics further than just GCSE.

[1] http://www.iop.org/education/teacher/support/girls_physics/file_58196.pdf

(All facts and figures in this article unless referenced otherwise can be found from this report from The Institute of Physics: It’s Different for Girls).

[2] http://www.iop.org/education/teacher/support/girls_physics/review/file_41599.pdf

[3] Moore 2004: A case study into single-sex schools.

[4] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ssqu.12022/full. A report by Catherine Riegle-Crumb at the University of Texas on gender disparity on ‘The Gender Gap in High School Physics: Considering the Context of Local Communities’.

Why are there still so few women in Physics?

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