State schools 'failing girls who want to study physics'

Girls physics lesson Teachers should challenge the misconception that physics is not for girls

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Nearly half of all state schools in England do not send any girls on to study A-level physics, research by the Institute of Physics (IOP) has found.

The IOP study indicates that the situation is likely to be similar in schools across the UK.

The research also shows that girls are much more likely to study A-level physics if they are in a girls' school.

The Department for Education said it was working to attract top physics graduates into teaching with bursaries.

An analysis of data from the national pupil database showed that 49% of state co-educational schools in England did not send any girls to study physics at A-level in 2011.

Girls were two-and-a-half times more likely to go on to study A-level physics if they came from a girls' school. The same is not true of other science subjects, suggesting that physics is uniquely stereotyped in many mixed schools as a boys' subject.

Start Quote

Physics opens doors to exciting higher education and career opportunities - this research shows that schools are keeping these doors firmly shut to girls”

End Quote Professor Sir Peter Knight President, Institute of Physics

The study was of English schools because comparable data is not available from schools in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But the disparity and problems were likely to be largely similar, the IOP said.

It said that schools should be set targets by the government to increase the proportion of girls studying physics from the current national average of just one in five.

It has also asked head teachers to challenge the misconception among teaching staff that physics is not for girls.

Girls at Lampton School in London talk about why they love physics

There has been a slight increase in the number of girls studying physics in recent years but this has been dwarfed by a more rapid increase in boys studying the subject.

In 2011 physics was the fourth most popular subject for A-levels for boys in England. For girls it was the 19th most popular. IOP president Prof Sir Peter Knight says many girls are not receiving the education they are "entitled to".

Graphic showing A level entries for science

"The English teacher who looks askance at the girl who takes an interest in physics or the lack of female physicists on television, for example, can play a part in forming girls' perception of the subject. We need to ensure that we are not unfairly prejudicing girls against a subject that they could hugely benefit from engaging with," he said.

Science is a Girl Thing Some felt the European Union's "Science: It's a Girl Thing" missed the mark and caused great offence

The salaries of physics graduates are well above the national average. Over a working lifetime, the average physics graduate earns about £100,000 more than graduates of non-science subjects.

Prof Knight said: "Physics is a subject that opens doors to exciting higher education and career opportunities. This research shows that half of England's state schools are keeping these doors firmly shut to girls."

The disparity is much greater for physics than any other science subject. There are slightly more A-level entries for biology from girls in 2012, for chemistry the numbers are about the same and 40% of pupils studying A-level maths are girls. Of those studying A-level physics, only 20% are girls.

Dr Heather Williams is a medical physicist working for the NHS and head of ScienceGrrl, an organisation trying to inspire more girls to study science. She believes that while many attitudes toward women have changed across many areas of society, science, and physics in particular, remain stuck in the past.

Start Quote

These figures are eye-wateringly bad and it is extremely depressing to see how many schools fail to excite girls' appetite for physics”

End Quote Prof Athene Donald Cambridge University

"Physical sciences are seen as a male dominated area," she said.

"That's partly because there is a lack of visibility of female physicists to act as role models and so girls don't see themselves following a number of career paths."

Prof Athene Donald, a physicist and gender equality champion at the University of Cambridge also feels a lack of role models is partly to blame.

"These figures are eye-wateringly bad and it is extremely depressing to see how many schools fail to excite girls' appetite for physics.

"From the statistics alone it is impossible to tell whether this is due to factors within the school, peer pressures and cultural cues, lack of role models or a genuine lack of interest in the subject.

"That girls from single sex girls' schools don't seem to lack interest in physics, however, suggests it is not the last of these. It is to be hoped that these figures will serve as a wake-up call to schools to investigate where the problems do lie."

Earlier this year the European Commission launched a video taster of an initiative to engage more girls in science called Science: It's a Girl Thing. The video aimed to reach out to a young female audience normally uninterested in science by having a pop feel.

There is some market research information that indicates that girls did find the imagery positive, engaging and fun. But many, including Dr Williams found the video offensive.

The anger generated by the video was the impetus for the formation ScienceGrrl (hence the Grr). Dr Williams believes efforts to engage girls by telling them that science is relevant to cosmetics and fashion are misguided.

Girls and boys that went on to take physics A-level (%)
Percentage of girls and boys that went on to take physics A-level

"The thing that I would object to is that that is not what science looks like. It is actually something that I find useful and fascinating and fun."

A Department for Education spokesman said: "We are working with the Institute of Physics to attract the brightest physics graduates into teaching with the highest ever bursaries.

"We are also giving the IOP £6.85m over the period 2011-14 to provide an inspiring, engaging and innovative programme of physics lessons and continuing professional development for teachers.

"We want to see new recruits developing pupils' interest in the subject and pushing schools with low take-up and attainment in physics to encourage more girls to study physics at A-level."

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  • rate this

    Comment number 302.


    Of course, but then, in the same movies you will find that 100% of men are design architects with awesome kendo skillz who are in fledgling relationships with quirky women who run bakeries. So... not sure they're THAT committed to realism.

    Off the back of Silence of the Lambs and The X-Files, female applications to the FBI increased hugely. Realism can be self-reinforcing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 301.

    I did GCSE /A level physics 20 odd years ago.I had no problems, mainly because the teacher was so into physics he didnt care who you were- he just wanted to teach. Amazing teacher. It was at University that I experienced sexist attitudes- including one who clearly marked my work down and one who always referred to me as poppet (bet he made that EU video...)

  • rate this

    Comment number 300.

    I studied Physics at University. The ratio of girls on physics courses is very low. In my isolated experience it's nothing to do with teachers or schools (maybe it was in the past). It's a wider cultural thing (There are subjects/trades where men are a minority too) The girls I did study with were generally excellent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 299.

    Sainsburys, in Tunbridge Wells at any rate, put magazines like New Scientist and Scientific American in the "For Him" section of their display stand. What chance do girls have if attitudes like this prevail?

  • rate this

    Comment number 298.

    "I can't remember the last movie I saw that had a female physicist in it."

    World is Not Enough? Dr Christmas Jones... played by Denise Richards
    Jennifer Connelly in Hulk
    Famke Jansen in X men
    That one in the crap Saint movie?
    countless biologists, chemists, anthropologists, geologists, doctors, lawyers, officers, politicians and presidents though

  • rate this

    Comment number 297.

    No Schools do not fail girls in Physics.

    Should read

    School Girls fail Physics.

    Please, get the facts right.

  • rate this

    Comment number 296.

    Communism also tried to defeat Genetic Darwinism with political dogma
    Lets ignore 10 million years of evolution folks

    The system we have, boys being boys and girls being girls is the way it is because that is the most successful system

    Darwinism doesn't CARE about your opinions

    Darwinism only allows the winning combination to thrive, in 10 million years all other combinations have been defeated

  • rate this

    Comment number 295.

    It could be argued that because it's much more difficult to get a good grade in physics than other subjects that the girls are proving to be more pragmatic decision-makers in avoiding it.
    I took physics to degree level and know for a fact I could've gained the same level qualification-wise (or higher) in different subjects with a lot less effort.

  • Comment number 294.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 293.

    284. "Feminists complain but women are just as bad at discrimination."

    Apart from the odd fringe theory, feminism has pretty much always been about equality, not female dominance. There's a pretty good chance that women who discriminate against you aren't actually feminists.

    I've worked in majority-female places before; it's different, but I never felt like I had to put up with sexism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 292.


    "I can't remember the last movie I saw that had a female physicist in it. I think it might've been Contact."

    But if only 20% of women study it to A level, the fact that you don't see many in the movies is representative of real life.

    I can't remember the last movie I saw about a male secretary/dressmaker...etc

  • rate this

    Comment number 291.

    @144: "I studied double maths A-Level and I was the only girl in the class. I had to put up with constant sexist rubbish from the other pupils."

    Did you? Did you really have to put up with constant sexism from the male students? The horror? Or, did you learn to say that line in your social studies and media communications sit ins?

    Feminism is now a banal sport for the worst kind of women.

  • rate this

    Comment number 290.

    So again we ignore the fact that men 'dominate' (lol) the workforce in manual, dirty and dangerous jobs? An american did a study and found that in 24/25 of the worst rated jobs the workforce is 95% male. Sure, thats ok, but if a girl doesnt choose physics for an A level we stop the press.

    Here's to the 50% rule - may it be applied equally and without prejudice ;)

  • rate this

    Comment number 289.

    This all seems to be a bit of a witchhunt. When at school I met not a single girl in any year who displayed even the slightest interest in physics. Not to stereotype but Chemistry and Biology do seem far more popular with girls and in many classes they outnumber boys 2-1 or more. Maybe it's just a pattern rather than sexism, boys tend to be physics orientated and girls don't usually.

  • rate this

    Comment number 288.

    Our education system is always failing someone. It's too rigid and not enough money is put into individuals. Every child is funnelled into the "middle" ground. Those are the top are left to be bored and unchallenged.

    Choice is practically none existent. I tried to drop GCSE German at school as it bored me. Because I was nearly top of the class they wouldn't let me. I haven't used German since.

  • rate this

    Comment number 287.

    Sadly it seems that things have not changed enough since I was taught A level Physics by a male teacher who made it clear that he did not think he should have girls in his class, my response was to make sure I came top.
    My daughter went to a girl's school where no such prejudice exists but it's a pity that that single sex schooling seems to be the way to break down these barriers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 286.

    For years it was stated that girls were underperforming so the exam system was adjusted, now it's taken for granted that girls will outperform boys. So we get into specifics, not enough girls do physics? Why, it must be discrimination.
    However, boys continue to underperform at school, fewer males go on to university - espec to elite courses, so males are stupid, lazy etc, discrimination where?

  • rate this

    Comment number 285.

    We do seem to have an asymmetric attitude here, as several have pointed out. If a subject has few girls, it must be a fault in the system; if it has few boys, it must be the fault of the boys! Given that girls still outperform boys, which way should 'positive discrimination' be working?

    @laughingdevil, at least the girls will have learned to spell Psychology :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 284.

    Big deal.

    As a man trying to work in administration I often get discriminated against, simply because I'm a man and offices are dominated by women.

    A job I had in 2005 was a case of "if you're not a woman you're not with the in-crowd" and thus you were ostracised, unless you happened to be a young/attractive bloke.

    Feminists complain but women are just as bad at discrimination.

  • rate this

    Comment number 283.

    What this really seems to be saying is boys will go to great length to try and 'prove' they are better than girls - but not the coursework.


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