IOP report on gender sparks high-level debate

6 January 2014

A new IOP report that sheds light on gender stereotyping and A-level choices was praised by education minister Elizabeth Truss and received wide media coverage when it was launched on 9 December.

Closing Doors

The report looks at six subjects – physics, maths, economics, biology, psychology and English – and which schools are hindering or helping in moves to counter gender imbalances in student take-up of them at A-level. The first three subjects show a male bias in take-up and the last three a female bias, a situation that is investigated in Closing Doors: Exploring gender and subject choice in schools.

At a seminar to launch it, Truss said: “I congratulate the IOP on another excellent report.” If more girls could be encouraged to study physics at A-level and enter STEM careers, this would “open up opportunities for our children, and this time the jobs won’t just be for the boys”, she said.

Results from the widely-cited Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, published on 3 December, showed that the UK ranked 21st in science and 26th in maths in the world and that the country had one of the highest gender gaps in these subjects, she said. There was also a shortage of STEM graduates, which could be mitigated by addressing the gender imbalance, she argued.

But the PISA results also showed that there was nothing inevitable about the gender gap, as in many top-performing countries the gap was negligible or did not exist, she said, and this gave grounds for hope. The reasons for boys being over-represented and outperforming girls in science were not about competence, but about confidence, she argued. “I do think that there’s a cultural problem, with maths and science being seen as for specialists,” she said. “Relentless stereotyping is still going on.”

The whole of society, parents and teachers, had a responsibility to counteract such attitudes, she argued, and it was important to show young people that STEM subjects were relevant to careers in business, teaching, and the public sector, rather than just being for scientists working in labs.

Truss said that the IOP’s Stimulating Physics Network had been highly successful in increasing girls’ take-up of A-level physics and said the report had been very helpful in showing the difference that schools could make.

The IOP’s director of education and science, Prof. Peter Main, explained that the report examined various schools’ Gender Progression Scores – a measure of how far they were countering or reinforcing gender imbalances. Single-sex schools and those with sixth forms tended to do better at improving the gender balance in subject choice, while the size of a school and the socio-economic background of its students seemed to have little effect on this, though the latter did affect the overall take-up of A-levels in any subject. There were, however, huge regional differences.

Prof. Main said the IOP had been delighted to hear that OFSTED was now requiring schools to measure and act on gender imbalances. The IOP would be doing further work with schools that needed support in tackling the issue. “Getting girls to do physics will mean a change in the culture of the whole school,” he said.

Also speaking at the launch was Beth Reeks, a teenaged author who was named by Time magazine as one of the world’s 16 most influential teenagers of 2013 and who has just begun studying physics at the University of Exeter. She described facing sexist comments and jokes as one of a small minority of girls in her A-level physics class, only to find that her male peers eventually sought her help with physics problems.

Her school was supportive, however, and helped her to attend an enrichment course on engineering. Reeks stressed the importance of good role models, and ensuring girls were exposed to their influence, particularly if they were students in schools without a sixth form.

On a panel answering questions at the launch were MP Meg Munn, who was minister for women in the last Labour government; Tinu Cornish, diversity psychologist and chair of the Division of Occupational Psychology’s diversity and inclusion at work group; Stephen Adamson, immediate past president of the National Governors’ Association; and Clare Thomson, the IOP’s curriculum and diversity manager, pre-19.

Cornish said that having once seen role models as tokenistic, evidence from neuroscience had convinced her that they were crucially important. Adamson said that teachers were not deliberately reinforcing stereotypes but other pressures meant that the issue was not always high on their agenda.

Munn said her experience as a woman in parliament led her to conclude that above a certain threshold, quite small percentages of women could be enough to have an impact on the culture of an organisation.

  • For more details and a link to the report, click here.

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