It is a sad fact that in 2010, only 21% of Physics Bachelor degree students in the UK were female1, a statistic which would undoubtedly come as little surprise to the majority of the population. Tracing this gender imbalance one step further back reveals a very similar statistic; in 2011, 20% of physics A level students were female2. This certainly has some role to play in the UK’s damaging deficiency of women working in STEM, which, according to a government publication on women in scientific careers3, could have adverse effects on the country’s economy. Our economy requires more skilled scientists and engineers, and this demand cannot be met without increasing the proportion of women in these careers from the dismal 13% that it stands at today4. Clearly, in order to address the lack of female physicists, efforts need to be directed at an early stage in education, namely towards those students in the impressionable years of adolescence.
An Institute of Physics publication, ‘Closing Doors’5, draws attention to the difference in A level take-up between females in co-educational and single-sex schools. My experience in a single-sex secondary school gives me an insight into this particular area; any notions of physics as a ‘boys only’ subject had no effect when I made the choice to continue studying physics at A level. In my opinion, our school felt sheltered from any stereotypes which could dissuade us from physics, and the all-female staff in our well-stocked physics department further buffered us from this. However, the classroom still felt a little bare, particularly compared to my A level English class. The Institute of Physics revealed that such a situation is common throughout the UK, as shown in Figure 15. In 2011, only 4.3% of female pupils in single-sex schools went on to study physics A level, compared with 18.7% in biology. While this number is small, it is more than twice as large as the percentage of female pupils who chose physics in co-educational schools, which stood at 1.8% in 2011. This difference indicates that the mixed gender environment is having an effect. This could be because there is indeed gender stereotyping in schools, or because some schools aren’t doing enough to eradicate any of the gender biases that pupils could be experiencing in other areas of their life.
Figure 1 Percentage of girls and boys who went on to take science A levels in 2011 from maintained co-ed and single-sex schools 5
An OFSTED report6 into the career aspirations of female pupils reveals that children are aware of gender stereotypes from a young age, and already perceive certain occupations as either ‘girl’s jobs’ or ‘boy’s jobs’. Secondary schools, therefore, must actively counteract these misconceptions, rather than simply expressing a view of gender equality. The report continues to explain that while career guidance is given in schools, there is not enough being done to challenge these stereotypes and promote STEM careers to female pupils. One particular shortfall in career guidance is the lack of insight into specific careers. It was noted that those girls defying the trend and choosing to pursue male dominated fields had gained first-hand experience of a STEM career, through either work experience or conversations with a professional.
The statistic quoted in the introduction, that the national average of female A level physics students is 20%, encompasses a wide range of individual school performances in this area. There are schools that are managing to soar above the national average, and are heading towards a gender balance in this subject, while, at the other end of the scale, a shocking 49% of state-funded, co-educational schools sent no girls on to study A level physics in 20115. Clearly, there is an approach to solving this problem. In a 2012 Guardian article7, a teacher from Lampton School in Hounslow revealed how they achieved an above average intake of female A level physics students. She describes the school’s efforts to change the perception of physics, by inviting speakers to come to the school and talk to the pupils. Another school defying the trend is Cheney School in Oxford8. This school also actively encourages participation in physics, and, through their WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) club, explicitly addresses the perceptions of physics being less accessible to women. Another significant contribution to their success is the proportion of female teachers that make up their science department. Having these role-models, in the form of teachers and professionals who come into a school to inform and inspire the pupils, is vital to encouraging a gender balance in A level physics.
The influence of enthusiastic, strong teachers with a proactive attitude towards addressing this issue should not be understated, and these teachers don’t necessarily have to be female. This is why the shortfall in the number of physics teachers beginning their teacher training, shown in Figure 29, combined with the large numbers leaving the profession, will stunt progress towards a gender balance. How can pupils be inspired to learn physics, without the teachers to inspire them? In a survey by the National Science Learning Network, which involved 1,200 science teachers, 61% had considered a career change9. Many cited the excessive paperwork and unrealistic expectations as reasons for this. This begs for changes to be made to the education system to lighten the workload on teachers and keep these valuable professionals happy in their career choice.
Figure 2 Graph to show the shortfall in the number of trainee teachers recruited in September 2015 9
The government’s strategies to address the lack of teacher trainees involves some very tempting bursaries for those beginning training in 201610. While it gives me great comfort to know that the year of teacher training awaiting me upon graduation will be cushioned by a potential £30,000 of ‘free money’, I can’t help but be a little sceptical about the need for such a large sum. The money I will be receiving in my training year will exceed the salary that I expect to earn in my first year in the profession, which will be around £22,24411. Surely there are better ways to invest at least a portion of that money. Those of us who have the enthusiasm and motivation to pursue teaching do not require such a hefty pay-out to persuade us into training. In my opinion, those who choose to enter a teacher training programme based on this money are unlikely to spend as long in the career, or have as much of an impact on their pupils.
The gender imbalance in physics is a crucial issue that all schools need to prioritise. More attention and funding needs to be directed towards promoting physics as an interesting subject that can lead to a wide range of careers. Secondary school pupils are required to make A level choices that will determine their career path, and they need to be equipped with enough knowledge and forethought to ensure they are making the right decisions.
- Table 7 in https://www.iop.org/publications/iop/2012/file_54949.pdf
- Institude of physics publication, ‘It’s Different For Girls’, October 2012, http://www.iop.org/education/teacher/support/girls_physics/file_58196.pdf
- ‘Women in Scientific Careers’, published by the House of Commons in January 2014, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmsctech/701/70105.htm#a1
- Publication by WISE (Women in Science and Engineering), July 2015, https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk/uploads/wise/files/WISE_UK_Statistics_2014.pdf
- IOP publication, ‘Closing Doors’, December 2013 http://www.iop.org/publications/iop/2013/file_62083.pdf
- OFSTED publication, ‘Girls’ career aspirations’, April 2011, https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/413603/Girls__career_aspirations.pdf