New ways to tackle gender bias in physics

Britain’s Institute of Physics has been active in researching diversity issues for a decade, examining the whole pipeline of people in physics-related careers in the UK – from school, through further education and into jobs in academia and industry. From this research there are two critical parts of the pipeline where gender diversity issues stand out.

Firstly at 16, when the proportion of girls studying physics drops to around 20% of the cohort and, secondly, at senior leadership level, where it drops a further 10%, so that women are significantly under-represented in the top jobs.

Both of these inequalities have proved remarkably stubborn for physics, despite having been identified for at least 20 years.

We have made significant progress recently in raising these issues with politicians, teachers and the public and in starting to address them at a practical level in the United Kingdom.

Since the selection of subjects taken at school has such a profound impact on the choices of career, the starting point has been to look again at the factors affecting girls’ choices of subject for study post-16.

For example, our It’s Different for Girls report showed that girls at single-sex schools are 2.5 times more likely to progress to taking A-level physics than those in co-educational schools.

Then, there is the shocking statistic that 49% of mixed maintained schools in England sent no girls on to take physics A-level in 2011. So, we know that even the type of school you go to affects whether or not you are likely to study physics.

In our follow-up report, Closing Doors, we found schools with gender imbalances in physics also had gender imbalances in a range of other subjects (like psychology, which has the opposite gender balance to physics).

Our work with researchers and campaign groups has shown that girls and boys are highly gendered from a very young age and our research suggests that many secondary schools are reinforcing these stereotypes, or even making them worse.

Positive role models

Our work with schools has identified three key influences on students’ attitudes to studying physics.

It starts with their own self-concept and whether they can see themselves enjoying the subject and using it in the future. This in turn can be affected by peer pressure, parental aspirations and by their understanding of what a career using STEM subjects, such as physics, would be like.

Girls still need to see relevant role models, ‘women like them’, succeeding in the workplace before they will be persuaded.

The next influence on subject choice is their experience of the subject at school; essentially, how well it is taught. For girls in co-educational schools, this is affected by how classes are managed so that they are fully engaged in questions and discussions about the subject.

This brings us to the final influence: how personally supportive students find their physics teacher. We have heard too many anecdotes during the course of our research of girls being told by teachers that ‘physics is hard’ and ‘you might get better grades in another subject’.

If these are the kinds of things teachers are saying to female students, it is little wonder that many do not wish to take the risk of continuing to study physics when they have the choice.

Having done so much analysis and set out the difficulty and complexity of the problem, what can we do about it? We are embarking on projects funded by the UK government to pilot some new interventions.

The one project, Improving Gender Balance, involves pilot projects with a selection of partner schools in England.

As well as working with girls to build their confidence, ability and resilience, and with teachers to improve girls’ experiences in the classroom, we are trying a new whole-school approach to gender equality – making visible the gender stereotypes and unconscious bias held by both students and teachers, and developing an action plan for reducing their impact.

Gender equality audit

A second project, Opening Doors, involves two pilot networks of schools that will be visiting each other for a gender equality audit, with the aim of developing a best practice guide from findings from these visits.

This is a similar approach to the Juno Project, which we have been running with university physics departments, to tackle unconscious gender bias in their culture, policies and the ways that they are managed that are then affecting women’s careers and contributing to the lack of women in senior roles.

Juno is beginning to affect the culture in the departments that have adopted it and we are looking to embed similar changes in schools.

Natural ability is a very powerful concept in our society and is often perpetuated in school and in the workplace. Boys are often told that they are good at conceptual thinking and problem solving, and they believe it and so see STEM careers as being aligned with their natural abilities.

In contrast, girls are often told that their brains are ‘not wired for science and maths’ and they believe that too, despite the evidence to the contrary that many girls get just as good, if not better, grades in these subjects. This unconscious bias persists into STEM careers and the workplace.

Culture change is going to be key throughout the career pipeline if we are to achieve not just gender diversity, but the diversity of ideas and approaches, as well as the number of STEM literate people that we need, to address the scientific and engineering challenges of the 21st Century.

* Dr Frances Saunders is President of the Institute of Physics, UK.