The Institute of Physics (IOP) has recently released "Opening Doors: A guide to good practice in countering gender stereotyping in schools" (You can access the report here and read some commentary at a recent IOP conference here.) Although funded jointly by the Government Equalities Office (now I'm sure such a thing didn't exist when I lived in the UK) and the IOP, the study is not confined to physics, nor even to science. However, given the gender imbalance in physics, the IOP has a strong interest in this. Also, given the low numbers of students studying physics at Waikato, it is something I have a strong interest in too.
The report covers many areas, such as careers guidance, staff training, tackling sexist language (whether it be conscious or unconscious), use of statistical data, and so forth. But the one that caught my eye was subject equity. What is meant by this is treating all subjects on an equal footing. Often, maths and science are given a label that says 'this is a difficult subject'. For example, that can be done by teachers (and parents, older siblings and so forth) telling students that they are hard, or sometimes by setting higher entry requirements than for other subjects – e.g. to progress from GSCE to A-level physics one might need an 'A', but to progress in English one might need a 'B'. Why does this matter? Because there is an increasing body of research that suggests that when a subject is perceived as 'hard', gender sterotypes are emphasized. That is, the minority gender fears failure much more so than the majority gender and consequently does not take the subject. At the 'Opening Doors' Conference, Prof Louise Archer (King's College, London) is reported as saying:
It is taken for granted that physics is hard and masculine, and that can lead to self-censorship and self-exclusion
In other words, work on the image of physics being hard, and the gender bias may diminish. Note that it's the girls and women who are actively choosing not to do physics, rather than the boys and men actively choosing to do physics that leads to the imbalance. Fix the gender issue and we won't lose the males in our school and university classes, but we'll gain females.
Now, this is highly relevant to physics at Waikato, which has a much higher entry requirement into its first year physics papers than it has into other first year science papers. We also have a tangled web of complicated pre-requisites to do our second and third year physics papers. In other words, the information we provide prospective and current students implicitly says "physics is harder than other sciences". And, as the IOP report talks about, when you have the label 'hard' against something, the minority gender fears failure and doesn't engage with it. So, as a very first little step (and I would emphasize that there is a whole lot more that needs to be done with the way we offer physics here at Waikato) we can bring our entry requirements into line with those into the other sciences. If the IOP has done its research well, we should, at very least, see more women taking physics at first year.