Despite many attempts to raise awareness of, and widen participation in, STEM subjects the lack of diversity in the field of Physics is a continuing concern for science educators and policy makers. Research shows that this may be due to multiple factors including the influence of teachers[i] and the prevailing view that Physics is seen by many as ‘for boys’[ii].
From our recent survey of 13,421 Year 11 students it is clear that female exclusion from Physics is a real trend; only 35% of the students interviewed intending to take Physics A level were female (in our relatively ‘science-focussed’ sample). Nationally, this percentage drops by over ten per cent.
In addition to surveying students, for our 10-year study into the science and career aspirations of young people we have conducted four rounds of interviews with a smaller cohort of students. In 2015 we conducted interviews with 70 of the students, now in Year 11 (age 15/16), and 62 of their parents, in which we asked about the under-representation of women in Physics in order to analyse whether, and why, people think that ‘Physics is for boys’.
We found that there were two key issues:
- Physics is represented as a subject for men. The lack of representation of women in Physics (both in reality and as presented in popular media) encourages the assumption that women are unable to, or unsuitable for, work in Physics. One student gives the example of the TV show, The Big Bang Theory; ‘the two girls who are scientists – they’re both biologists. And then all the guys are Physics. So like there is kind of this underlying sort of thing where you’re a bit like ‘Mm, why is Physics not a girl thing?’’. This view was shared by many – so much so, that some of the girls interviewed reported not wanting to continue with Physics post-16 because of a fear of being “the only girl” in the class.
- Physics is seen a ‘hard’ subject – and ‘hard’ subjects are seen as ‘for men’. Many of those interviewed described Physics as ‘the hardest science’ or ‘more difficult’ than other subjects. This, in conjunction with the underrepresentation of women, means that many young women are left feeling daunted by Physics because it is so ‘hard’, and therefore not for them. One student, Kelsey, went as far as to say that it would be ‘weird’ for a girl to take Physics at A level, because people ‘don’t really expect girls to be that smart’. In another instance, one student told of how a teacher said that you need to be ‘geeky’ and have a ‘boy brain’ to study STEM subjects.
In light of these findings it is clear that it is not only science educators and policy makers who must take action in encouraging more young women into STEM; following in the path of the Institute of Physics, Physics learned societies must strive to present Physics as accessible to all, and exam boards must stop the grade severity in Physics which is contributing to it being seen as a ‘hard’ subject. Without radical steps to recruit and present women in Physics, the problem of women’s (lack of) access to Physics, and lower uptake of Physics study at post-16, will clearly continue.
For more information: Becky Francis, Louise Archer, Julie Moote, Jen DeWitt, Emily MacLeod, & Lucy Yeomans. (2016). The construction of Physics as a quintessentially masculine subject: Young people’s perceptions of gender issues in access to Physics. Sex Roles pp. 1-19. doi: 10.1007/s11199-016-0669-z
Author: Emily MacLeod
[i] See: Mujtaba, T. & Reiss, M. J. (2013), What sort of girl wants to study physics after the age of 16? Findings from a large-scale UK survey. International Journal of Science Education, 35(17), 2979-2998.
[ii] See: Gonsalves, A. (2014). “Physics and the girly girl—there is a contradiction somewhere”: Doctoral students’ positioning around discourses of gender and competence in physics. Special issue on Gender and Science in Cultural Studies in Science Education, 9, 503-521.