Hope for change held out at summit on tackling gender imbalance

18 May 2018

There is still a “shocking” imbalance between girls and boys in take-up of A-level physics but there are reasons for hope and IOP is taking a leading role in bringing about change, speakers at a major summit to launch our report, Why Not Physics? – A Snapshot of Girls’ Uptake at A-level, said yesterday.

Hope for change held out at summit on tackling gender imbalance

The summit, organised by IOP and the National Grid, was chaired by Valerie Jamieson, Creative Director of New Scientist Live, who said that participants in a private roundtable discussion preceding the meeting had heard some “shocking home truths” including the statistic that 5,699 girls took up physics A-level in 2016, compared to 21,032 boys.

Even more shocking were the figures for the proportion of schools sending no girls on to do A-level physics, which had been pretty much been stuck for the last 20 years, she said, while by the age of eight, girls and boys are ruling out future careers on the basis of gender perceptions. “But there is some good news. I feel we are at an inflection point and you are no longer the odd person out if you’re talking about diversity, and that is a powerful route to change. We have data, we are gathering evidence and it’s on the basis of that evidence that we’re moving forward.”

Several speakers referred to the data in Why Not Physics?, including the fact that 44% of schools send no girls on to do physics and that girls’ choices are heavily influenced by the type of school they attend, with 7.5% of girls in single-sex independent schools progressing to A-level physics. The report also showed that while 65% of girls have physics in their top four GCSEs, only 8% of these progress to A-level, but for girls who have chemistry and biology among the top four, the figures were 25% and 32% progressing to the respective A-level.

Hope for change held out at summit on tackling gender imbalance

Our Chief Executive, Professor Paul Hardaker said he hoped we would not still be having to hold meetings to talk about the problem in five years’ time. “In 2012 we published a report called It’s Different for Girls. The title of my talk is ‘It’s Still Different for Girls’. To those people who say ‘if we just wait it will sort itself out’ my answer is ‘it won’t sort itself out and why should we wait?’.”

He noted that the imbalances did not exist to the same extent in the other sciences and there were school environments in which girls were choosing to do physics. There was a moral imperative to address the issue but there was also an economic argument for doing so, he said, when the Social Market Foundation, for example, had said we were 40,000 STEM graduates short of what our economy needed.

“We would solve our skills gap overnight if we had gender parity. We should be shining a light on this and I genuinely think Ofsted should be inspecting against this. Let’s stop blaming it on the girls and let’s recognise that it’s a problem that society created,” he said.

Hope for change held out at summit on tackling gender imbalance

Our Head of Education, Charles Tracy, said we had become “worryingly inured” to the situation. IOP had been intensively addressing the problem since about 2000 and there had been many interventions and campaigns but these had had only a small effect. “From 2006 onwards, we worked with physics teachers on inclusive techniques. The proportion of girls taking A-level physics in those schools increased from about 17% to about 23%, but we were hitting a ceiling.” Then IOP’s investigations had shown that gendered subject choices were greater in maintained schools and that there were aspects of the school environment that were either mitigating or adding to the problem, for example sexist bullying going unchallenged and dismissed as banter or unconscious biases around gender. “I am not blaming schools or teachers – schools channel and reflect those biases in society.”

Outlining the work that IOP has done through the Government-funded Stimulating Physics Network, the Improving Gender Balance programmes and the Drayson Foundation pilot project, he described how in one school, for example, the numbers of girls taking A-level physics increased from 15 to 52 in two years. Ongoing and future developments would include rolling out the work to more schools, extending it to primary schools and introducing a new Gender Equity Mark.

Hope for change held out at summit on tackling gender imbalance

Andrew Ford, Team Lead for Science in Schools at the Department for Education (DfE), said there had been some startling results from IOP’s work and the DfE had provided funding to scale up some of the projects. “We need a strong evidence base about what works to enable the Government to do more on this issue,” he said. “This is one of the key issues we are looking at and it’s top of our list of priorities. The DfE did not see this as a “bolt-on” in education – it was a matter of justice and there was a “fundamental economic rationale” for tackling it, he said.

Hope for change held out at summit on tackling gender imbalance

Award-winning science journalist and broadcaster Angela Saini, whose 2017 book Inferior was named Physics World Book of the Year, said myths about the supposed innate inferiority of girls in the physical sciences were still being peddled. These included the idea that girls had lower spatial awareness and less capacity for mathematical reasoning than boys from birth, but many studies had shown that these genetic differences were not there or were tiny.

“The press love a good sex difference story and if you have found a difference you are far more likely to get publicity,” she said. “We still live in a world that expects less of girls when it comes to maths and physics and girls expect less of themselves when it comes to those subjects. Women were excluded from science for a very long time and a lot of scientific academies only allowed them to join in the mid-20th century.” Even now, she said, girls were told from a very young age that this is something that is not for them.

Hope for change held out at summit on tackling gender imbalance

Science communicator and television presenter Fran Scott, who is Science Content Producer at the Royal Institution, said she had found that girls’ confidence in their ability was the key issue in them deciding whether to study physics. She showed a video in which adults were seen interacting with toddlers in different ways depending on whether they were wearing traditionally male or female clothing, often encouraging them to play with “boys’ toys” or “girls’ toys” accordingly. “Fast forward 14 years and they’re going to choose the A-levels they know they’re going to do ‘right’,” she said.

“We need to look at the choices we make for our children, the adverts we expose them to, the clothes we dress them in and the way we talk to them.”

In a Q&A session, she said that for many people it was terrifying to steer children away from the social norms. One audience member noted that some other countries did not seem to have a problem with gender balance in the sciences, and Angela Saini agreed. As science was taking off in the 17th century women were being excluded from it, she said. “In countries where that came a bit later those barriers were already coming down. We have lived with the legacy of exclusion for longer. In countries like Iran and Bolivia there are a lot of women in STEM, so it can’t be biological, can it?”

Hope for change held out at summit on tackling gender imbalance

Our president, Professor Dame Julia Higgins, who chaired the private roundtable session, said she was the Institute’s third female president and she expected there to be more in the future. Women could be reluctant to come forward so it was important to ensure that they were promoted and that their achievements were known.

Hope for change held out at summit on tackling gender imbalance

During the summit, the audience also heard from Courtney Thornberry, a physicist with National Grid, who said that she had been very lucky in the way that she had been treated during her career but realised that she was the exception rather than the rule, and saw a video in which five people spoke about their personal experiences of working or studying in physics, which were “wonderful words from inspirational women”, Valerie Jamieson said.

In some final thoughts, she said the issue was a symptom of something deeper not just in schools but also in society. “We’re not blaming schools but they are very much part of the solution and IOP has found something which seems to be working,” she said.