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Slick videos and glossy exhibitions do nothing to encourage girls to study physics – and may reinforce gender differences

Poorly designed outreach activities may be self-defeating

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Since the 1980s, there have been concerns about the number of girls participating in STEM subjects after the age of 16 and pursuing related career paths, including engineering. Around the beginning of that decade, just 23% of the physics A-level cohort were girls. Everyone agreed that something must be done.

Literally dozens of initiatives were launched. The argument went something like this: people choose subjects that interest them; girls do not choose physics; therefore, if girls are exposed to interesting physics, they will flock to do the subject. In other words, if only girls can be made to see the error of their ways, the problem would be solved.

This approach, known as the deficit model, led to a plethora of outreach activities targeted at girls. The net effect was to decrease the proportion of girls taking A-level physics from 23% to 21%, where it sits today. Astonishingly, given this spectacular and abject failure, the deficit-model approach remains the orthodoxy and eye-watering amounts of money are still spent on glossy exhibitions and slick video presentations. One might have expected scientists to pay more attention to evidence.

More recently, there have been attempts to look critically at the issue. In a series of reports, the Institute of Physics (IOP) revealed that 49% of schools send no girls at all onto A-level physics and most of the rest send only one or two. The type of school a girl attends also has a massive effect on whether she chooses physics as one of her A-levels: girls attending single-sex schools are three to four times more likely to choose physics, indicating the importance of school culture on that choice.

In parallel with this work, two ESRC-funded longitudinal studies, Aspires, led by Professor Louise Archer at King’s College London and now UCL, and Understanding Participation in Maths and Physics (UPMAP), led by Professor Michael Reiss at the Institute of Education, provided new insight into how and why schoolchildren make subject choices. Important factors include the presence of a significant ‘other’ who has a science background, often a family member or close friend. School culture also plays a major role, confirming the observations from the data.

UPMAP reported that they found no evidence that outreach events made a difference to any person’s choice and Aspires found that a lack of interest in science was not a major factor, either. It is not that science outreach is intrinsically bad, just that it does not affect anyone’s choice.

However, there are reasons to believe that poorly designed outreach activities may actually reinforce some of the reasons why girls do not choose physics. For example, physics and mathematics are often believed to be ‘difficult’ and such a perception can affect girls more than boys. A gee-whizz physics talk may be great fun, but it is very easy for the speaker to present as a very clever person working on a very difficult topic, thereby deterring the girls who may lack confidence.

Another IOP project compared six subjects, three supposedly ‘male’ (physics, mathematics and economics) and three that are usually taken more by girls (biology, English and psychology). It was striking that 87% of mixed schools were either reinforcing or exacerbating the dismal gender differences in the subjects. From a physics perspective, however, the important result was that the schools that beat the stubborn 21% ratio of girls tended to be beating the gender ratio in the other subjects, too. The conclusion of the work was that the way to tackle the issue of girls in physics requires a whole-school approach to tacking gender stereotyping in all subjects.

A follow-up involved an external panel visiting a number of different types of school to identify what they were doing to counter gender stereotyping. Although most teachers were aware of gender stereotyping, and would have liked to address it, they were not doing so, partly because they were uncertain what to do, but principally because the school management, including the board of governors, did not see it as a school priority.

29 October saw the launch of a new kitemark for schools: Gender Action. The emphasis is squarely on breaking down gender barriers. The project is led by King’s College London, IOP, UCL and the University Council of Modern Languages and has already been piloted. The Greater London Authority has now funded a roll-out across London and schools are already able to sign up to the project and to prepare a bid for accreditation. Among the many suggested actions will be: commitment from senior management; impartial careers advice; free timetabling of subjects; classroom management; measures to address sexist language and behaviour and so on.

Gender Action has the potential to be transformative. King’s is not only part of the group leading the scheme; we also hope that both staff and students will volunteer to work with local schools to help them break down gender stereotypes. Perhaps, at last, our schools can overcome gender stereotyping and make education open and fair.