Physics is different for girls…

By Marcus Wilson 04/10/2012

The Institute of Physics (in the UK) has just released this report looking at the uptake of the physics A-level  (done in the final two years at secondary school) by girls.  The report, titled ‘It’s different for girls‘ makes for some very interesting and perhaps dismal reading.  While it’s a UK report, not a NZ, I have little reason to think that the results would be vastly different in NZ. Moreover, given that the NZ Institute of Physics isn’t knee-deep in used hundred dollar notes (being the Waikato NZIP contact person I have some idea) I don’t think NZIP will be replicating the study here, so this one will have to do.

Here are the key findings, lifted more or less straight out of the report:

1. Uptake of physics A-level by girls is really low.  Nearly half of all schools had no girls doing physics A-level.

2. There is a huge difference in uptake of physics A-level amongst girls at a girls’ school, as opposed to girls at a co-ed school. A girl in the former group is two-and-a-half times more likely to study physics at A-level compared to a girl in the latter group. Interestingly, this difference is not seen in chemistry and biology.

3. Girls coming from a school which has a sixth-form (i.e. one that offers the final two years) had twice the likelihood of choosing physics compared to girls who had to move to a sixth-form college for their final two years of study.

So, as the title of the report says, physics is somehow different for girls. How? Why? What can be done? These are big questions. There is a strong suggestion that there is a lot of stereotyping going on – the impression given that physics is not for girls. This is particularly true at a co-ed school. That might not be deliberate on the part of the teachers (and the implication from the report is that it’s not just the physics teachers to blame for this), but the overall message the girls get is that physics is not a place where girls live.

The report suggests that parents should use the percentage of girls taking physics at the school as an indication of how well the school teaches physics. I’d be interested into delving deeper into this one. Is it true that better physics teaching means a higher percentage of girls will be involved? Interestingly, in my physics degree at Cambridge, there were approximately 100 male students in the third year, and exactly one female student. Does this mean that the teaching I got at Cambridge was really bad?

How do we counter this?  A lot of examples of physics-in-action are inherently boy-focused. Cars, for whatever reason, do seem to be more boy-ish than girl-ish, and cars do make nice, easy examples to use in much of physics. We, the teachers, may need to be a little less lazy in our selection of contexts in which we present the physics.

How am I shaping up? After all, this blog is intended to show physics in action – that is, physics is something for everyone. Including girls. So, a quick flick through the past few entries reveals that I’ve talked about:  Galaxies, hobbits, cats, the Higgs Boson, Auckland, our most utterly adorable baby, static electricity, time travel in a car (tut, tut on this one), neutrinos, building with reinforced concrete, who owns water? (Oops, I mean, who has rights to water?), Brownian motion, testing students …

I don’t think that’s desperately male-centric, but you judge for yourself.


0 Responses to “Physics is different for girls…”

  • Maybe it’s not that “physics is different”, but more “girls are different”. I’m not trying to be sexist or stereotypical, but the one-size-fits-all approach might be flawed. Do you also want to figure out why hardly any boys do sewing?

  • I did sewing at school! (Admittedly, not as an A-level). We were all forced to do sewing, home economics (which was cookery), woodwork and metalwork in our first two years at secondary school. Sewing I think was universally hated, mostly because of our teacher Miss Morley, who was the size of a hobbit, the age of Gandalf, and had the temper of Smaug. She had boys twice her height trembling with fear every Friday afternoon.

    Anyway, back to the subject – I think the most significant finding is that girls at girls’ schools are far more likely to study physics than girls’ at mixed schools. Why is that? Is it that it is only viewed as a boys’ subject when in the presence of boys? Are teachers at girls’ schools better at using examples that work for girls? I recall last year at the NZ Institute of Physics conference a talk by David Lillis, a NZ Qualifications Agency Statistician. NZQA routinely looks at sex-bias (and culture-bias) in questions on its exams – that’s easily done after the students sit the exam but the trick is to catch it before they do the exam. As I recall, only an occasional question was found to bias one sex over another – that is, the physics curriculum and exams (as for other subjects) at NCEA are not boy-focused per se.

  • Possibly all-girl schools have less chance of priming their students with Stereotype Threat.

    Girls who know they will be compared with boys may perform poorly and may also be less likely to participate in activities (eg physics) where this will be the case.

    Ultimately this means our stereotypes of women/girls/men/boys will have to change. I think this is happening, but slowly.

    ps, I liked home ec. and sewing at Intermediate.

  • shadowmind – you are, even if you don’t mean to, being sexist by suggesting that there are innate differences in ability or interest between girls and boys around subjects.

    I’d like to refer you to the excellent book Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine, which looks at the science behind claims of innate gender differences behind abilities and interests in STEM subjects (amongst other things) 🙂 (I actually did a a talk about this a year or two back!)

    Dacry – I agree.I think stereotype threat would be a major issue in this. All girls’ school will likely have less stereotype threat going on (well, provided the school isn’t like mine was, namely a Trophy Wife Training Institute, heh) than co-ed schools.

  • Hmm.
    It is kind of odd the patterns that emerge in education. I don’t have much experience of physics at high school, but it did feel like a more ‘male’ domain. (I went to a co-ed school). For one thing, the teachers were male too- which did make it standout. Numbers (if my memory is correct) favoured the boys. But in biology it was entirely the other way around. I was in a definite minority taking the senior biology classes. Even at university the proportion of women-students were high (my 300 level animal physiology group had 3 young women and myself, but they may have had a selection bias produced by the ease with which putting fistulas into the throats of rats could be offloaded onto me).