Liveblogging: Why girls don’t do physics and boys don’t do drama – Peter Main (KCL) (9th May, 2018)


I’m here for an Athena Swan lecture at the University of Surrey (and we’ve just been awarded Athena Swan Bronze – so very timely!). Peter Main from KCL (formerly of IoP) is going to talk to us about the land of the blue and pink. Cakes and tea were provided – always a good start. The lecture theatre, we’re in, is fairly full, so very good turn out.

Number of persons present from the Engineering and Physical Sciences faculty – so, that’s good. Peter Main being the Head of Physics at KCL probably was the draw as being a scientist, it has made this session more credible to them.

The stereotypical environment

He’ll be talking about gender stereotyping from a STEM/ Physics perspectives and based on schools. Peter has shown us some of pointlessly gendered products (e.g. yorkie bars, bibles etc.).

Girls magazines are pink and focus on sex, relationships and fashion. There are no boys magazines but instead there are magazines that focus on what boys like e.g. football and how are things made.

Gendering of subjects

The percentage of girls taking A2 physics is pretty consistent since 1985, but there has been an increase in A2 maths in girls. Peter said that all the attempts to get girls to do physics in the last 20 years have failed! Girls do better in A-levels physics and maths in general. Peter is making the point that there are plenty of girls who could do maths and physics but who choose not to do it!

Very few girls do Physics (21%) or computing (7%) in schools. But girls do more media studies. Peter is making the point that subjects are gendered. But girls seem to take non-facilitative subjects i.e. those A-level subjects not needed for a degree. There appears to be a gender stereotyping of girls in schools. Peter explains it is not a STEM issue for girls, but a Physics issue.

Everyone who does Physics and Maths A-levels go onto university. No one chooses Physics without having a reason, it is not a fall-back position, as it is seen as having harsher grade severity.

He has shown us some genderfied posters to help encourage girls into STEM subjects. The one that is the most interesting is the pink cupcake one by the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) which made it looked quite stereotypical.

Fault lies in schools?

From a study from the IOP (where Peter was based), they found that the school that students attended affected the A-levels they chose. Half of state schools did not send girls to do a Physics A-levels. Girls who were in a single sex independent school, they were four times more likely to do an A-level Physics.

Then they started to ask a different question, does the type of subjects chosen by girls at A-levels dependent on schools. They looked at physics, biology, maths, English, Economics (no GCSE equivalent subject) and psychology (no GCSE equivalent subjects). 81% of state schools were maintaining or exaercebating gender imbalance. Those local authorities which have a split school system i.e. 11-16 and then sixth form, they were more likely to have a gender stereotyped schools.

Other issues in girls’ choices of subjects

Peter is now referring to Louise Archer’s ASPIRES project which showed that family science capital is important for getting girls into STEM subjects.

Peter is warning us to make sure we don’t reinforce the stereotypes by using high achieving women speakers as it reinforces that only exceptional women can do physics.

Peter has shown us some wordles of girls about girls, and it was all about being pink and pretty. Boys about boys was more about being strong etc.

Some possible solutions

The main variable for making girls do Physics, is having a good teacher (having a bad teacher will just make this worse). Peter is looking to make an Athena Swan-style approach for schools.

Peter says that career advisors talk about career jobs not the subjects required for different jobs. For example, that choosing Physics only makes you become a physicist.

There were three approaches (working together) that increased the number of girls in Physics A-levels:

  1. Supporting/ talking to girls
  2. Supporting Physics teachers
  3. Working with a Physics volunteer in a school with a similar background over a prolonged period

My reflections as a Physics graduate

Being one of those girls who did a Physics degree, I was fascinating by this talk. Firstly, I didn’t do an A-level in Physics, as the university I went to (in Guyana) had a four year degree programme where we did an intensive year of different subjects that were equivalent to the A-level curriculum. However, there were not many students doing the Physics subjects, but surprisingly, those students who did go onto to do a Physics degree were mostly girls (in my year, there were 3 physics majors, 2 of whom were girls).

There is also something to be said of family capital. My father had an agriculture science degree/ background and were keen for us all to do a pure science degree, as he told us on many occasions that a science degree can open doors for you. So, my sister did Biology, my brother did Chemistry and I did Physics (although initially I was registered for Chemistry). I found have a Physics degree did not hamper my options but instead made me open to a range of different job opportunities and possibilities for further study – I felt I could have tackled any discipline because of my Physics degree (although I’m yet to see myself doing something in the Performing Arts because of it!). Hence, why my journey into Engineering, then Education Technology and now Academic Practice, does not seem to far fetch.

I also had a range of excellent teachers who were quite passionate about their subject area which made me interested in what they did, and therefore, having good teachers who can interest you, can make you more interested in the subject. I did well in Physics perhaps also because I was good at Maths. But the results that Peter showed was that whilst maths A-levels numbers were on the increase, Physics still remained quite low. This suggests that students may not see the direct relationship between maths and Physics. If I could have done Physics, I found I could certainly do the maths, as Physics is just maths in context and where you can see some real application of it. I think seeing a real-life application of maths, such as in Physics, should hold appeal to anyone, but particularly girls who are possibly more likely to have altruistic tendencies to make an immediate difference in the world (this could be further stereotyping – but I do have some partial evidence of this from an unpublished study I did).

I feel until we can show girls the real benefits of Physics i.e. the wider applications beyond the discipline of Physics and how having that foundation can help them make a difference in the world, they would not be encouraged into doing the subject. Although it has been almost 20 years since I graduated with my Physics degree and I don’t remember much from it, the skills and confidence it has given me, has made me feel that I can tackle and problem-solve almost any problem given enough time and motivation.

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