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Women in science: Physics is not done better by men

David Porter
Eistein 300x225 Women in science: Physics is not done better by men

(GETTY IMAGES)

The Institute of Physics report last week on the lack of girls progressing on to study physics at A-level continues to cause concern but is not surprising. Of course we need more positive female role models in the sciences and physics in particular and of course the media need to give more exposure to those that do exist.

However there remains, in both society in general and more worryingly parts of the (male) scientific community in particular, a belief that physics and engineering is better done and done better by men. I understand that some of my fellow male scientists may find such an accusation insulting but I believe that those of us that know that girls make just as good physicists and engineers as boys need to make our views known at each and every turn.

In the same way that negative racial stereotypes persisted for far too long, even in the face of insurmountable evidence that people of any ethnic background were as capable of being intellectual, driven and successful in their chosen field, so will this misguided gender prejudice. It will not change until, like the now much diminished common racism, it is challenged whenever it is encountered.

When a mother at a school parents evening excuses her daughter’s poor performance in a test on wave properties with “well physics isn’t really for girls” or “her father and me don’t do science” it needs to be challenged by the teacher (male or female). When a careers officer questions a teenage girl’s desire to do physical science and maths at A-level, colleagues should ask why the concern. When a senior school leader jokes about a bright 17-year-old girl needing to transfer from physics to ‘something easier’ all her teachers should react. You may think that such examples are extreme but they are all from my personal experience as a teacher and physics undergraduate.

It is obviously difficult to collect firm evidence but one of the reasons that girls in single sex education are more likely to continue with their studies in physics is that they are less exposed to such negative attitudes. I think it is certainly true that for girls to succeed in physics at A-level, in a coeducational environment, that they need to be particularly strong-minded and very focused on what they want to achieve. Whereas a boy at 16 may wander into physics in the sixth form with a general feeling that it will impress university admission officers and maybe open up job prospects in the future, a girl at the same stage will generally have already settled on a narrower range of career paths for which physics is a prerequisite.

This was certainly my experience for the majority of girls that I taught post sixteen physics to and the majority of them went on to study physical sciences at university; I do not have figures to hand but my feeling was not the same for the (larger numbers of) boys that I taught.

I now run the Royal Institution’s L’Oréal Young Scientist Centre and am happy to report that in the past year nearly 60% of our visitors have been girls and this is without making a special effort to attract them. I will admit to running primary workshops in ‘Cosmetic Chemistry’, but we also have sessions on engineering safer cars and building motors and generators.

Indeed in the recent competition for Key Stage 4 students to become the Royal Institution’s L’Oreal Young Scientist of the Year, we again saw the majority of entries come from girls, where they had to produce a time line of mankind’s interaction with electricity. Girls do not lack interest in science and physics but we must give them more reason to believe that it is a subject for them to pursue and that they can excel in it if they want to.

David Porter was a science teacher in a secondary school before becoming the manager of the Royal Institution’s L’Oréal Young Scientist Centre which provides science workshops as an extension to classroom learning for 8-18-year-olds.

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  • ScaaarBeeek

    I understand that some of my fellow male scientists may find such an
    accusation insulting but I believe that those of us that know that girls
    make just as good physicists and engineers as boys need to make our
    views known at each and every turn.

    But ALL we ever hear in the politically correct media, I’m afraid, are your views.

    However, EXPERTS in cognitive psychology, such as Dr. Doreen Kimura of the University of Vancouver, who have found that men have a far superior spatial awareness/memory than women (although women are better verbally), are completely ignored and sidelined. And this is the talent that’s pertinent to sciences rooted in number, such as physics and to mathematics itself.

    Other groups in Stockholm and Barcelona have drawn the same conclusions.

    Dr. Paul Irwing of the University of Manchester found differences in intelligence patterns. Men have a bigger spread in intelligence, whereby there are twice as many men as women on IQ 120 and 30 times on 170.

    No wonder men have made all the scientific discoveries and invented everything. Time to get real: the people to put our educational resources into for sciences are BOYS, not girls.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dinal.webb Dinal Webb

    Coming straight from the horse’s mouth – i.e. Tracy Morter’s, below (far too pretty to be described as a horse, of course – couldn’t resist given the context)

    “As a girl who studied Physics (thanks to my amazing A-level teachers who gave me the confidence)”,

    there we are!

  • http://www.facebook.com/dinal.webb Dinal Webb

    Just read the article again, and quoting from it

    “When a senior school leader jokes about a bright 17-year-old girl needing to transfer from physics to ‘something easier’ all her teachers should react.”

    NO THEY ABSOLUTELY SHOULD NOT – not, at least, in a critical and presumptuous way if the school leader genuinely feels she is not cut out for a career in it!! It’s kneejerk reactions like this that result in pedagogues being lynched for open honesty. Good heavens, some people won’t be content until we’re all marching to the beat of an impotent and humourless middle class drum. Should they also ‘react’ if the same well-intentioned advice is given to a male student?

    I wonder if the author of this article has ever had to contend with Bessel functions in the context of density functional theory, for instance. It isn’t sociology (go on – ‘ave a go!)and genuinely isn’t for everyone. Intelligence takes many forms – not all of it quantitative. She may be good enough to play with the Berlin Phil. Militant ignorant claptrap masquerading as empowerment at such an important stage in life can lead to later misery and regret.

  • http://www.facebook.com/aaron.stjhon Another-Random Mexican-Bloke

    Wow, Hopefully I cannot be judged like a sexist, but I find this article kind of biased, attributing merely the cause of the problem to cultural reasons, and the supposed increase of interest in science shown by women to a real change in attitude. By the way, I’m not saying at all that women cannot do science.

  • Beans1900

    I studied computer science which suffered from the same gender-imbalance. I have to say the reason I saw that very few women studied the course was that they didn’t want to, and they didn’t have to to get on in life. In many of the softer option arts subjects had a reverse gender-imbalance. Now decades on these women have (on average) exactly the same standard of living as the men, so they were probably right to make the choices they did. If we have to call this a problem maybe accepting that at times it’s not that women are cheated, tricked, coerced and so on, but that they have pretty much every opportunity to get to wherever they want, and make their own choices on where that is.


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