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 342.

    I went to a state girl's grammar school in the '50's.We did Gen.Science 1 & 2 at O level, then separate A levels.I did Physics, Chem and Zool, -there were at least 6+ girls doing each subject,with women teachers. Since comp. education, the word 'geek' has been used to sneer at anyone with brains, especially girls.Teach girls separately for science but include BTech as well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 341.

    Stats are fun:

    Nurses - 89% female
    Primary teachers - 85% female

    Cambridge Assessment A level uptake stats:
    Psychology - more than 2x more girls than boys
    Sociology - nearly 3x more girls
    Eng Lang& Lit, RS, Arts, languages ~ 2x more girls

    and more than half of FE students in UK are female

    So, there's a failure is there? of what and by whom?

  • rate this

    Comment number 340.

    Why are a greater proportion of girls in single-sex schools choosing Physics? Is it (1) Due to teachers - i.e. are there more female physics teachers in all-girls schools than mixed schools; (2) Peer/Society pressure - is it uncool for girls to be seen doing physics; (3) Male environment - do girls feel too intimidated by the current gender inequalities, which results in a catch 22 situation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 339.

    I did my A levels in the mid 70s, and they were talking about this issue then. I remember at the time a cover story on New Scientist - First female Physics Professor - and thinking how sad that this was a. True and b. the most significant science news item of the week. Even more sad that it is still making the news now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 338.

    Why is it always someone elses fault. Surely its the girls who are not interested in physics . Maybe the reality is that the facebook,blackberry generation are not interested in anything around them unless its on thier mobile.

  • rate this

    Comment number 337.

    When was last time a physicist was given an interview in Cosmopolitan or She? Is Cosmopolitan part of the patriarchal conspiracy or are they just making a realistic evaluation of the interests of their readers?

  • rate this

    Comment number 336.

    What if... there is a fundamental difference between the genders in their interests and their perception of the world. Or what if physics really isn't that interesting and girls get that and boys don't?

    Can't we just leave it at that and stop going completely melodramatic when large differences show up in the statistics?

  • rate this

    Comment number 335.


    Oh, I didn't mean to dismiss your examples. I was just theorising =D As you say, there are lots of female chemists and doctors in movies, and as far as I know girls are keen to take up those subjects.

    I don't know, to me it seems obvious that if every time you show someone a mathematician or a physicist they are male, that's going to create a sense that they're "male" subjects.

  • rate this

    Comment number 334.


    "Feely-nurturing type scientists"

    You obviously don't know much about Geologists if you think... climbing up and down hills and valleys all day in 35 degree C heat (Spain & Italy)
    ... or in freezing cold wind and rain (Scotland) to map rock outcrops in the field
    ...or sitting next to a drill rig down a mine - again at 35 deg C
    can be classed at "nurturing type" science...

  • rate this

    Comment number 333.

    Good grief does it matter?

  • Comment number 332.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 331.

    There seems to be an attitude that when girls do better than boys, it's because girls are better. When girls fail to perform, it's because the system is against them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 330.

    Come on girls, national benefits and achievements are to be made in UK science and engineering.
    Be inspired. Read proposal on future power from a recent party conference:
    Learn about the UK space sector, employing over 24,000 people with annual turnover of £7.5 billion. Read up on BAE, ASTRIUM, University of Surrey. Go for it and help. We need you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 329.

    The Big Bang Theory.
    All the actors are playing the roles of Scientists.
    Only one of them actually has a PHD in real life and that is the girl who acts Amy (previously Blossom.)
    She is a Neuroscientist.
    Maybe it's boys who are being left behind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 328.

    Well lets not dilly-dally, we have to get the number of women up in the following professions:
    oil rig worker, trucker, farmer, ironworker, lumberjack, roofer, taxi driver, welder, builder, soldier, fisherman, security guard...
    In dirty and dangerous jobs like these, can you believe the workforce can be up to 100% male?! I dont know how the equality police missed it

  • rate this

    Comment number 327.

    This is yet another example of why mixed-sex education in secondary schools simply doesn't work!

  • rate this

    Comment number 326.

    Physics is boring, girls should study climate change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 325.

    Thinking about how 'tailor' and 'chef' are considered acceptable careers for men, but textiles and home economics at school would be social death for teenage boys, I wonder if the way some subjects at school are treated as essentially domestic and therefore female is the problem. The reserve may also be true. Some subjects are 'male nerds only' and social death for girls? What a shame for them all

  • rate this

    Comment number 324.


    Please stop trying to use Darwin's name to validate your conservative worldview. You're not going to convince anyone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 323.

    Is this really of any interest.Is society to blame that on average, girls aren't interested in engineering and therefore physics.
    It's just life. Get over it.
    Girls like certain things, boys like other things.
    It's what makes the world tick.


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