IOP takes a fresh approach to improving gender balance in physics

27 March 2017

The failure of numerous initiatives to make a “revolutionary” impact on girls’ uptake of physics has led the IOP to take a new approach outlined in its report, Improving Gender Balance: reflections on the impact of interventions in schools, IOP head of education Charles Tracy said at its launch.

IOP takes a fresh approach to improving gender balance in physics

Speaking to an audience at the Institute’s London centre on 22 March, he said that the proportion of A-level physics students who are female had stuck “resolutely at around 22%” since the mid-1980s with some minor fluctuations.

“I think the lesson we took from this about six years ago was that something new was needed – whatever was being done wasn’t working and it needed a new approach”.

Tracy said that in its latest pilot projects, described in the report, the IOP had exceeded all previous interventions by using a blended approach of working with students, working with physics teachers and working with the whole school staff. “Each intervention has an effect on its own but it was by blending all three that we saw a potentially transformational change in uptake,” he said.

Though the IOP’s work with teachers of physics through the Stimulating Physics Network (SPN) had resulted in improvements – eg, from 17% to 23% in girls’ uptake of A-level physics in participating schools – it was felt that more improvement was needed, particularly as 30% female participation was considered to be a tipping point in bringing about change.

IOP takes a fresh approach to improving gender balance in physics

Research, including the IOP’s Its Different for Girls report in 2011 and its Closing Doors report in 2013, had shown that the type of school that girls were in had a big effect on their subject choices. Girls in single-sex schools were far more likely to go on to A-level physics, while those in schools where there were marked divisions in subject choice along gender lines throughout the school, e.g. where the differences extended beyond science and low proportions of boys took subjects such as psychology, were far less likely to choose A-level physics.

To try to address these issues, the IOP had established the two-year Improving Gender Balance pilot project, funded by the Department for Education as part of the SPN.

Jessica Rowson, the IOP’s gender balance manager pre-19, (pictured above) said the Institute had worked with 20 partner schools in three distinct strands. Strand A focused on girls’ confidence and resilience, Strand B worked on the physics classroom and Strand C took a whole-school approach. Eight schools had taken part in each of the first two strands, with two project officers for each strand, while four schools had participated in Strand C, supported by three project officers.

The IOP also ran a pilot project in six schools, funded by the Drayson Foundation, that drew on all three strands and adapted them to individual schools, supported by a project officer.

Rowson said that boosting girls’ confidence was “a tough nut to crack”, but the project had tackled it by measures such as training girls to deliver outreach in primary schools so that they found themselves in the role of experts, involving them in real research rather than repeating old experiments and looking with staff and students at some of the evidence on girls’ and boys’ participation in science. “We found that this had a massive impact on the girls that we worked with,” she said, though starting with younger girls, or even in primary school, would be useful.

The work in Strand B had included working with students and teachers of physics to do training on unconscious bias, showing them the research on how boys were often allowed to dominate the physics classroom, making non-judgemental observations of physics lessons and discussing inclusive teaching techniques and different ways of managing practicals.

Strand C had covered similar ground to Strand B but involved work with teachers across the school with the support of the senior leadership team (SLT). It had included looking at the school’s statistics for all subjects, surveying staff on whether the school had an equality policy, and enabling teachers to look at the way they treated boys’ and girls’ behaviour and the language they used around subject options. Having examined these, a lot of teachers had been shocked and said “I can see now why we’re not getting girls into these subjects”, she said.

IOP takes a fresh approach to improving gender balance in physics

During a panel session involving staff from some of the project schools, Kate Hill, director of STEM at Charters School, Berkshire said the school had set up a girls-only science club with girls leading a rocket-science competition and the results had been phenomenal. It was now going to let boys join but it had wanted to give time for the girls to establish themselves before doing so. It had also taken the girls on a trip to BP to show them what it might be like to work in such an environment. In three years it had seen the proportion of girls getting A* at A-level almost doubling.

Gaynor Bradley, who had been head of science at the same school but was spending a year focusing on classroom teaching, said that she gave her Year 10 groups the expectation that they would be doing physics A-level and showed them all the way through their course what A-level would be like, including giving them an A-level practical to undertake.

She had changed the way she did group work, actively encouraging all-girl groups rather than segregating the sexes from the start then allocating them into mixed groups. It was difficult to get girls to accept that they were clever and to accept praise, but she was starting to achieve this, she said. Girls also needed to learn that it was OK to struggle or to fail, Bradley said.

Gareth Campbell, from Ruislip High School, said student-led input was important. Girls had gained confidence at his school through an experiment on radioactivity in soil that they had managed autonomously. Some Year 9 students had led on a project to address the issue of boys calling out answers in class to the exclusion of girls, with children telling other children “this is a problem in our school”, he said.

IOP takes a fresh approach to improving gender balance in physics

Esther Mander, IGB project officer for Strand C with SPN, said it was crucial for a school to take ownership of a project and for the SLT to support it. In order to promote collaborative work across the school, it was important to identify a project as improving gender balance rather than labelling it as a physics or science initiative. Others stressed the need for a gender balance champion on the SLT.

Eleanor Stokes, acting deputy headteacher of Ealing Fields High School, said that to achieve change needed buyin from someone on the SLT who knew the whole picture of what was happening in the school and could be someone to whom staff could go to discuss issues.

Adam Naylor, head of physics at Didcot Girls’ School (pictured below left, with Stokes and Campbell), said that when his school joined the Drayson Project in 2014 a surprising number of staff didn’t see gender balance as a problem and didn’t see it as something that they could influence. However, several measures had all helped to increase the uptake of A-level physics in his school. No single intervention could work on its own, but taken together they were effective, he said.

IOP takes a fresh approach to improving gender balance in physics

In his school, successful interventions had included having an IOP stand and female physicists at an options evening, a science cafe and science week with female guest speakers, having sixth form A-level students helping out in younger classes, displaying IOP posters, participating in the I’m a Scientist: Get Me Out of Here competition and communicating careers messages that emphasised how physics could save lives. It was also important to put the fun into physics, to ensure those doing physics enjoyed it and spread the word to others, he said.

In a Q&A session, participants underlined the importance of consistent mentoring, recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers, stressing that stereotyping was an issue for both sexes and not trivialising what had traditionally been seen as girls’ interests.

Tracy said it was neither helpful nor true to categorise physics as intrinsically harder than other subjects. “We need to think of it as a pursuit, like any pursuit, where the harder you work, the better you do,” he said.

The IOP is working with partners to develop a gender-equality mark and a framework to help schools tackle inequalities in the school system.

The report can be downloaded from the IOP website and a video from the launch is available to view.