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The Institute of Physics reported last week that girls are under-represented in Physics at A level across the UK. What is really baffling is that 93% of girls who achieved an A* or and A at GCSE (Physics or Double Science) in 2009 decided not to study Physics at A-level. The gender divide is very wide – it’s the 4th most popular A level subject for boys, yet only the 19th for girls.

The following chart, produced by the BBC says it all – 20% of those taking A level physics are girls versus 50% for chemistry and 55% for biology.

I was left asking the questions: how can this be the case and what can be done to address it.

Seeking to understand the problem, I spoke to a secondary school teacher who told me that students usually opt for two sciences out of the three that they took for GCSE. Students tend to drop physics as it is often considered the most difficult and tedious.

What they are missing I think, is an understanding that physics is highly regarded by employers precisely because it is tough and requires you to develop the sorts of analytical skills prized by businesses.

We tweeted this story last week. This led to an enlightening chat with Elizabeth Craven, a student and aspiring physicist, which gives us a greater insight into what she sees as the problem and some possible solutions.

To understand why girls were left uninspired by physics, Elizabeth pointed to the lack of female role models.

“Female representation of physics in the media is almost unheard of. I have seen a recent increase in media coverage in the field of physics, and yet very rarely seen female figureheads or communicators – only the astronomer Maggie Aderin-Pocock, comes to mind. We’ve all seen Stephen Hawking and Professor Brian Cox, but where are the females?”

She also discussed the need to increase the profile of physics early on in a student’s school life.

“The best way to interest girls is through early exposure. Girls with an interest in science during childhood are far more likely to enter a scientific field in adulthood. An early scientific interest is amazingly powerful – it helps girls develop academic confidence long before the stigma that is often experienced in secondary schools can prevent their scientific development.”

Elizabeth went on to talk about the role of parents and careers advisors.

“Many parents are either unaware of the scientific paths available or fear directing their daughters down the route because it’s unheard of. Careers advisors need to develop connections with students and parents much earlier in secondary education; many students do not meet their careers advisor or recieve guidance until Year 11 – until then, they’re left in the dark.”

So what are we to make of this?

Creating greater interest in physics is a great idea. Evidence the success of the STEM ambassadors who are visiting schools to give students an insight into the world of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Physicists have played a role in this, but surely something more is required in inspire girls about physics.

Encouraging parents to champion physics? Again a good idea. The wider problem, is that many of us whose life does not involve physics may  simply struggle to understand its importance and the great careers that it can open the door to. Like it or not, our children listen to what we have to say and if we guide them away from physics then there is little the careers service can do.

My personal opinion is that the biggest factor is the teaching. Thinking back to my school days, it was an inspirational economics teacher that influenced my early career in business. It’s about bringing physics to life. I am left wondering the proportion of physics teachers who are female, maybe increasing their number might also help.

On a practical level, a website called girl friendly physics gives teachers the tools and tips to improve the uptake of girls in Physics. I will be really interested to see if these result in a greater uptake, only time will tell.

I am honesty left with a feeling that unless something is done at the top and by that I mean by central Government, then little will change. Why not include physics modules in Biology and Chemistry for example – if the mountain won’t come to Mohammad. Must pen a letter to Michael Gove….

Our thanks go to Elizabeth Craven (@SElizabC on Twitter) for her help in writing this article.

2 Comments

2 Responses to “Why do girls avoid A level physics?”

  1. Dr. Fred Young

    The teaching is the key. Students of either gender respond when they think you care. I was once accused of being unfriendly to males because the girls felt they could speak up in my class. No. The boys spoke and the girls spoke too. This is crucial.

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  2. Dorsa

    I definitely agree with Dr. Fred Young – the teaching skills of one is essential in the fact that they can adapt to suit the needs of the student to how they learn best. A teacher who targets one sex in Physics – or any other subject – does not demonstrate that they teach properly, “properly” meaning professionally. However, if this is the case for anyone, I advise one to seek advice from any other teacher, relate to parents or appropriate adults, or consider participating in extracurricular activities in which you can revise in areas of a subject you are hesitant on.

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