New guide and conference to tackle school gender imbalances

20 October 2015

Appointing gender champions in school leadership teams, ensuring that sexist language is as unacceptable as racist and homophobic language, and introducing a strict policy to ensure that all subjects are presented equally to students in terms of relative difficulty – those are some of the main recommendations in a good practice guide on countering gender stereotyping in schools, published by the Institute of Physics on 20 October.

Opening Doors

The guide, Opening Doors, will be launched at a groundbreaking conference aimed at finding out what social science, psychology and neuroscience can teach us about how best to overcome the barriers to removing gender bias.

Download the full report.

The chair of the conference, Dame Barbara Stocking, said: “We know we have a problem with gender stereotyping of subjects in schools. This is particularly an issue for girls in maths, physics and engineering, boys in modern foreign languages and a general underperformance in GCSE grades. The conference is an excellent way to explore what happens in schools and outside, and what all of us can do to change it.”

The guide and conference are part of the IOP’s Opening Doors project, co-funded with the Government Equalities Office, which involved working with ten schools across the South and South West of England to better understand barriers to overcoming the gender biases in subject choices for boys and girls.

IOP president Professor Roy Sambles said: “The low uptake of physics among girls has been a longstanding concern of ours, and a problem that we’ve been trying to deal with for some time. But we’ve found that it’s not a job we can do completely by ourselves, and that there’s a lot in common between the low numbers of girls taking physics and similar gender imbalances in other subjects. This conference will be bringing together experts from a range of different subjects to look together at how we can pull down the barriers getting in the way of all students, of both genders, pursuing their interests and their dreams.”

Opening Doors builds on two previous IOP reports – It’s Different for Girls and Closing Doors – which found, respectively, that the type of school that a girl attends has a big impact on the likelihood of  her choosing to study physics at A-level and that, where a gender bias exists for one subject in a school, there tends to be a similar pattern in other gendered subject choices. It became clear that that in order to challenge and break down gender barriers in one subject, it is necessary not to look at subjects in isolation, but as part of the whole school environment.

The project with the ten schools in England involved gender experts and teachers from other schools in the networks undertaking in-depth site visits to uncover common barriers faced by schools working towards gender equity for their students, and examples of good practice that can be shared with other schools in similar situations.

Professor Peter Main, education advisor at the IOP, said: “Having established a highly successful award scheme, Project Juno, which the IOP runs to recognise and reward higher-education physics departments and other related organisations that have taken action to address gender equality in physics, we want to continue working to drive forward this kind of work in schools.

“Juno and Athena SWAN have had a massive impact in universities; a similar scheme for schools seems a logical extension. A range of partner organisations have joined us in presenting this conference to their members, and we hope that future work would include input from their subject specialisms to address this important national issue.”

Alongside these projects, the IOP brings to bear the success it has recently seen working with the Department for Education on another pilot, Improving Gender Balance, which addresses the disproportionately low number of girls who take physics A-level. It is a part of the Stimulating Physics Network, which has been the only programme to date to demonstrably improve uptake among girls.

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