Limit Less: Member stories

Did anyone in your family or school discourage you from studying physics? Were you ever told physics wasn’t for the likes of you? These were among the questions we asked IOP members in the build-up to our Limit Less campaign. The extracts published here are just a handful of the powerful, moving – and often inspirational – responses we received. What’s perhaps most shocking is how little has changed.  


A young man smiling alongside Limit Less logo

“When I was around 15, my Physics teacher told me ‘You will never get anywhere in Physics, because you're a girl’. He meant it, and he wanted me to know that he truly believed that. Throughout my school life… I had both friends and school staff constantly taunt me with rhetoric that I was not good enough, and were excited to see me fail at my attempt to become a professional physicist. To my younger self I would say ‘prove them wrong and use your voice to speak up for diversity in physics’.” 


“Being 16 was a long time ago for me. I know that some things have changed, but by no means all and in many cases not by as much as I would have hoped. I went to a comprehensive school in Yorkshire in the 1970s and the year before I joined it girls didn’t study maths past the age of 14. Luckily that changed before I joined but some of the biases of the teachers continued. My grades were very good and I was consistently in the top 3 in my class. Despite my interest, motivation and ability, one of my most negative memories was when the (male) Head of Physics… told me that although I wasn’t too bad at the subject, I wasn’t as good as at least 10 of the boys who he went on to name. That could have been hugely disheartening if my teacher, Mrs Clark, hadn’t assured me I was good enough. I went on to do a degree, actually in Maths and Physics, and I got a 1st.”  


“Is there a message I would like to give my 16-year-old self? I would say that unfortunately there are too many negative people who do nothing to encourage people to achieve their potential. It’s simply best not to listen to people like this. Look at the facts (if your marks say you’re good enough, you are), listen to people you respect… and take one step at a time. Don’t let people’s bias or negativity close avenues for you that you might like to explore. I’m glad I didn’t.” 


“I am 37 years old and from a quite poor background.  My mother tried to discourage me from studying physics because of the money angle. My sister, several years my senior, was already off in the midst of several years of biology degrees, and I think my mum could see from that that it was unlikely to be a path that would make my sister rich. My family weren’t money-grabbing by any means, but when you live constantly under a tight budget it gets draining and I guess my mum wanted us to have the freedom a bit of extra income brings. I pursued physics anyway because I was a contrary thing and then found out that you can actually take that and do other stuff.  Amazing!” 


“In 1997 I was studying for my GCSEs when I suffered a traumatic injury to my legs. That and being from a low socio-economic group from an area of with a high index of deprivation placed additional hurdles in my way. With GCSEs just good enough to get onto the A level course and then A levels on the edge of acceptability to get into university I managed to scrape my way into Lancaster University. However university is a great leveller. I found that despite my self-evaluated lower potential, I was able to understand what was going on and started to thrive. By the end I finished with a first class degree.” 


“During my secondary school years I started to think about what I would like to do at University and decided I would like to do either Egyptology or Astrophysics. I would discuss various theories about the Big Bang etc. with my Dad during this time who was a keen amateur astronomer and who loved reading science books… and never made me feel that I could not do it. The negativity started when I discussed my career options at school. The person tried to persuade me more towards an easier career and thought it would be too hard for a girl to get into it! This carried on into my A-level years when I decided to follow my love of astrophysics. My male physics teachers kept telling me I would never make it and that I should do something else. There were only six of us in the class and the two other females dropped out early on, so it was just me and three boys doing A-level physics. At the time I never really thought about being the only girl, but I did think about what my teachers said and it actually motivated me even more to do it, as I was not going to let someone say I could not do it! I went on to do an Astrophysics degree at Cardiff University… before doing a PhD in physics at UCL and now I am a part time physicist within industry.” 


“My maths teacher told me that I would never be able to cope with A level maths or physics and I was being stupid wanting to do A level physics. She liked to tell me this as a public humiliation in front of the whole class, and on one occasion she did this in front of the whole school…. She told my parents I should not do A level maths or science as I would not pass GCSE at the correct level and I ‘didn’t have the soul of a mathematician’… My chemistry teacher told me I would never be able to cope with A level chemistry or physics.  He was very sexist and didn’t cover it up telling the class frequently that girls were nowhere near as good as boys were (slightly ironic as the top 5 people in the class in chemistry were girls).” 


“The boys in my GCSE class were generally awful. On my very first day in GCSE physics at age 14, a number of the more vocal boys were extremely disparaging about us three girls who had chosen to do physics and should have been in home economics instead as we clearly weren't up to the task of a 'man's subject' like physics. As I got older and it was clear I was top of the year for physics, they switched to complaining loudly about girls being teachers' pets instead. The advice I'd give to a younger me is this: boys develop emotionally at a much slower pace than girls and some of them will take out their insecurities on you, but their opinion of you isn't actually about you at all. Find people who believe in you and keep them close, the naysayers don't matter.” 

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