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Diversity and inclusion

IOP calls on government to take practical steps to support girls to choose and study physics

18 May 2022

Rachel Youngman outlines three actions to tackle shortfall and stresses need for change now.

Deputy chief executive of the Institute of Physics (IOP), Rachel Youngman, told Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee today that whole-school equity plans, better training and recruitment of physics teachers and improved data collection are crucial steps in encouraging girls and students from diverse or disadvantaged background that physics is a subject they can study and do well in.

During her evidence session this morning Rachel Youngman argued that tackling the shortfall in girls studying physics was a challenge which must be met and stressed that if we are not to lose another generation of potential physicists, we need to act now.

When asked what specific actions the government could take to improve matters she highlighted three areas for specific attention.

“First, the whole-school equity plan, where the whole school works together to create an inclusive environment, that is incredibly important – the whole school working together on this problem and making sure there is an inclusive environment for all young people.

“I think you have to see that mandated, rather than left to individual schools, otherwise you end up with what we have now – a very patchy landscape.”

She said that the ongoing development and training of physics teachers was as important as recruiting them in the first place, stressing the need for on-the-job development: “It is also about CPD for teachers, recruiting and retaining them.”

And she added: “The lack of data makes it difficult for us to benchmark,” and explained, “we’re calling for improved, consistently collected data on staff characteristics, role, pay, benefits, to allow us to measure change, and to change workplace cultures to make them attractive to all and retain talent.”

During her appearance at the committee, she was also asked about the evidence given a fortnight ago by the government’s social mobility commissioner, Katherine Birbalsingh, who suggested girls did not study physics because they disliked the “hard maths” involved with the subject.

In response, she told the committee: “We were disappointed and frustrated because it takes our messages back a step and we are trying to dismantle those stereotypes.

“We understand the number of girls studying physics has been stubbornly low and we want to get it up. We are disappointed and frustrated but have to recognise it’s an opportunity to talk again about the opportunities.”

This morning’s session on diversity in STEM subjects was also addressed by:

  • Dr Claire Crawford, Research Fellow, Institute for Fiscal Studies;
  • Professor Dame Athene Donald, Master of Churchill College and Professor Emerita of Experimental Physics, University of Cambridge;
  • Dr Jasper Green, Her Majesty’s Inspector, Schools and Subject Lead, Science, Ofsted Curriculum Unit
  • Clare Hayes, Deputy Head, Hyndland Secondary School, Glasgow;
  • Jane Lunnon, Head, Alleyn’s School, London;
  • Mark Turner, Headteacher, Skipton Girls’ High School; and
  • Professor Ulrike Tillmann, President, London Mathematical Society.