Schools can help eradicate outdated myth that physics isn’t for girls

Just one in five students studying physics at A Level are girls, a statistic that has been plunged into the spotlight this week. But suggesting that girls don’t study physics because they don’t like maths is damaging and outdated. It is sadly true that there is poor uptake of the subject by girls, but to tackle this we need to be proactive and understand the reasons, not make sweeping statements and accept it as ‘just so’. Katharine Birbalsingh, the government’s social mobility tsar, has told the Commons’ Science and Technology Committee that girls tend not to “fancy” physics compared to other subjects. She said: “Physics isn’t something girls tend to fancy – they don’t want to do it; they don’t like it.” Birbalsingh, who runs the independent Michaela Community School in north-west London, also said that the figure had nothing to do with schools, more that girls were ‘naturally’ less inclined to enjoy physics. “We’re certainly not out there campaigning for more girls to do physics,” she said of her school. “We wouldn’t do that, and I wouldn’t want to do that because I don’t mind that there’s only 16% of them taking [it], I want them to do what they want to do.” To increase the number of girls studying physics we need to dispel the idea that it is a subject full of men in white lab coats She then said that she thinks the reason for a low uptake of the subject at A Level is down to the “hard maths” involved in the syllabus. Comments like this are unhelpful and misleading. At IOP we are campaigning. That is because we are creating a movement of organisations and people to achieve permanent change. We want to campaign where the problems start, through others in society to dismantle the myths and stereotypes that lead to such small numbers of parents encouraging their children to study physics. Birbalsingh speaks about girls being forced to do something they don’t want to, but that’s not the case. We must remove the barriers that prevent them doing what they want to or believing that they can. Studying physics can lead to a multitude of important and rewarding careers, from tackling climate change to engineering lifesaving new technologies. Offer roles to all young people, regardless of gender or background, and society will benefit. So how do schools address this? To increase the number of girls studying physics we need to dispel the idea that it is a subject full of men in white lab coats. Schools have a duty to rewrite the script on what a scientist is. It is their responsibility to create an inclusive environment that tackles stereotypes. We need to listen to the experiences of young people before making assumptions which can further perpetuate the challenges they face in doing physics. The IOP does, and young girls tell us they face barriers to studying physics because of who they are rather than their ability. Removing barriers requires a united effort I don’t believe a government appointed spokesperson for education should be suggesting that girls just aren’t cut out for physics. It’s simply not true. Removing the barriers that currently prevent girls from studying physics requires a united effort from us all, including parents, teachers, the media and our governments. Outdated ideas need to be eradicated, all young people need to be encouraged to learn physics and other sciences and we need specialist teachers to provide this education. Over the past year I have spearheaded several IOP initiatives to tackle bias and increase uptake by working with schools to promote the vast range of careers that studying physics can offer. LimitLess is a campaign to support young people from all backgrounds to study physics at 16 and we are already seeing other organisations pick up our campaign messages. One example of the campaign’s success is our work with YouTube. It is often difficult to find good physics content on media platforms, so we have worked with YouTube to ensure that that good content is accessible on their new learning platform. I would be happy to speak to Ms Birbalsingh about how her school can get involved with Limit Less and enjoy a higher number of female students choosing to study physics. Encouraging diversity of thought, experiences and background is not only a moral – and legal – obligation, but it also brings huge value to an organisation. Change needs to come as a movement, and it needs to come from the top down. This means from heads, from education leaders, and from the people employing physicists once they graduate. You can’t keep putting the responsibility onto those who are the minority, it’s for us to show that physics is open to everyone.