Improving gender balance in physics

The Institute of Physics has just released a report on recent interventions designed to improve the uptake of physics at 'A'-level by girls*.

Although there have been considerable efforts in the UK to improve the gender balance over two decades, there has not been any substantial change – about 20% of a typical A-level physics class is female. Why is this.

In the latest study, three different methods were trialled. While they all had modest impact on their own, a much greater effect was observed when all three methods were used together.

You can read the details in the report, but briefly, the three approaches were as follows:

1. Developing girls' confidence and resilience. Previous research had found that boys often consider their own successes as being down to their own hard work and skill, whereas their failures were down to some external influence (it wasn't MY fault I did badly…). Girls, however tend to do the opposite – they see success as down to something outside their control and failure a result of their own lack of ability. This strand helped address this – for example girls were given the opportunity to go into primary schools and help with science lessons and to tackle real science projects in industry. In short, create the understanding that "Yes, I can do physics".

2. Working with physics teachers in the classroom. There are many things that go on in the physics classroom to create bias towards boys. Just skim through a typical physics textbook and you'll see many of them – photos of famous and not-so-famous physicists – nearly all of them male. Examples of physics taken from football, snooker, cricket and other male-dominated sports. Boys often dominate classroom discussions. Often teachers can show unconsious bias in their physics teaching towards boys. In this strand the researchers worked with the teachers so that they could see biases and correct them. 

3. A whole-school approach tackling gender stereotypes. Previous work had shown that the type of school made a big impact on girls' uptake of physics at A-level. This approach worked with the schools on equity policies (and how they played out), engaging with both staff and students, including networking and careers events and talking with groups about big issues such as domestic violence.

All three approaches were a little bit successful on their own. However, by far the biggest impact was at the six schools where all three were used simultaneously. Here, the uptake of A and AS-level physics by girls went from 16 students (in 2014) to 52 (in 2016).

This work was not without challenge, however, The report also concluded that it was absolutely important to get buy-in from senior-leadership within the school. Without that, room for improvement was limited. There are many reccomendations (you can read them yourself), but the overall message I interpret as this:

Yes, the gender imbalance can be improved. That has been demonstrated. But we will not achieve this across the board without substantial effort across the whole physics and teaching community.


*I use the words 'girls' and 'boys' here since these are the same words used by the Institute of Physics to describe females and males under the age of 18. I apologise in advance if readers believe that 'women' and 'men' would be better words here.

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