(Lack of) Diversity in STEM Subjects

Among the things I learnt over the last few days was some interesting information about the diversity (or, rather, lack of diversity) of undergraduates taking undergraduate degrees in STEM subjects in the UK universities. For those of you not up on the lingo, `STEM’ is short for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Last year the Institute of Physics produced a report that contains a wealth of statistical information about the demographics of the undergraduate population, from which the following numbers are only a small component.

























For completeness I should point out that these numbers refer to first-year undergraduates in 2010-11; I have no particular reason to suppose there has been a qualitative change since then. “BME” stands for “Black and Minority Ethnic”, and “Socio-Economic” refers to students whose with parents not employed in managerial or professional positions.

Overall, the figures here at the University of Sussex are roughly in line with, but slightly better than, these national statistics; the proportion of female students in our Physics intake for 2010/11, for example, was 27%.

There are some interesting (and rather disappointing) things to remark. First is that the proportion of Physics students who are female remains low; Physics scores very badly on ethnic diversity too. Mathematics on the other hand seems a much more attractive subject for female students.  Notice also how Physics and Chemistry attract a very small proportion of overseas students compared to Engineering.

In summary, therefore, we can see that Physics is a subject largely studied by white  middle-class European males. What are we doing wrong?

Despite considerable efforts to promote Physics to a more diverse constituency,  the proportion of, e.g., female physics students seems to have been bumping along at around 20% for ages.  Interestingly, all the anecdotal evidence suggests that those women who do Physics at University do disproportionately well, in the sense that female students constitute a  much larger fraction of First-class graduates than 20%. This strongly suggests that the problem lies at school level; some additional IOP information and discussion on this can be found here.

I’m just passing these figures on for information, as I’m quite often asked about them during, e.g., admissions-related activities. I don’t have any really compelling suggestions, but I would like to invite the blogosphere to comment and/or make suggestions as to promote diversity in STEM disciplines.

20 Responses to “(Lack of) Diversity in STEM Subjects”

  1. Thanks for the links to the IOP reports. One of the important points in the report about the schools is that many more girls actually would do physics if they attended a different type of school – in other words, many schools are reinforcing gender stereotypes. Half of state-funded co-ed schools send no girls at all to do A-level physics. Another important point is that, whatever various people have been trying over the last few decades (!) has not worked; some of it has probably made the situation worse. That’s why we have started to work with social scientists, to understand the problem better and to put in place measures that might be effective. The first thing we shall be doing is setting up a benchmark on gender stereotyping for schools and seeing how schools compare with it. Then we will try to help the strugglers to improve. But this is tough work – we live in a society that reinforces stereotypes and it is hard to turn that around just by working with schools.

    • telescoper Says:

      I think it may not just be at school level – it may simply be the effect of one physics teacher. I recall a conversation I had with a female undergraduate at Cardiff whose physics teacher told her quite bluntly that “girls don’t do physics”…

  2. George Jones Says:

    I know rather well one of the exceptions.

    My wife is in the Female and BME categories, and she has B.Sc. and M.Sc. degrees in physics and a Master’s in engineering, each from a different Canadian university. She came to Canada at age seventeen from Africa and south Asia. She teaches maths and physics, including university transfer courses, at the local community college.

  3. Ben Volartis Says:

    We also need to work on why males are doing disproportionately worse than females on physics courses. Something needs to be done about the lack of male attainment in this case, perhaps greater resources spent on extra male-only classes?

    • Ben, Imagine 100 male students and 100 female students. Imagine that male students each have an aptitude to do physics from 1 to 100, all of them holding a unique aptitude number – 1,2,3,4… etc. The 100 female students also follow this aptitude pattern. In the male students it is only those with an aptitude of 50 and above that decide that they will study physics because(over simplified criteria) they find it interesting, are good at it. Now imagine that female students have the same criteria for choosing to study physics as their male counterparts and in exactly the same degree (they find it interesting and are good at it). However for some reason female students are put off from studying physics but female students with an aptitude of 70 or above get such good marks that they feel at home studying physics and those good marks counter the unknown reason that puts female students off from studying physics.

      In this situation it is perfectly normal that female students would do proportionally better than male students.

      Female students doing disproportionately better than male students is an indicator that there is something dissuading female students from studying physics.

      • I wish I could rewrite that for clarity and to add a few “could”s and “mights”. It is a very complex issue with many variables. Here are 2 other examples of disproportionate success, in this case regarding classification by ethnicity: Jesse Owens; and Tiger Woods.

  4. telescoper Says:

    I never suggested that overt discrimination was behind this – it’s not about trying to ensure the same proportion of male and female students, for example. It’s all about trying as hard as we can to ensure that we don’t inadvertently alienate parts of the community, and that people who would be suited to physics aren’t wrongly persuaded that they are not. Ultimately the diversity agenda is selfish, in that it’s about trying to ensure we get the best people into the subject regardless of race/gender etc.

  5. George Jones Says:

    I have heard a math prof friend offer the following speculative argument. Elementary school teachers tend to be weak at maths. young girls tend to be more aware of the feelings of others than young boys. Young girls are more likely to be aware of their teachers’ maths anxiety. Young girls are more likely to think “If my teacher feels this way about maths, then maths is something of which I should be scared.”

    Of course, their are exceptions to every step of this argument.

  6. nameless37 Says:

    I studied physics in a university in Russia. In my university, it was unusual for women to comprise more than 10-15% of the class. Figures in the neighborhood of 15% were reached in the physical biochemistry specialization. Theoretical/abstract fields saw figures closer to 5%.

    This is such a universal cross-cultural phenomenon that asking “what are we doing wrong” makes no sense. Either all countries and all cultures are simultaneously doing something wrong with the same end effect (lots of boys in physics and lots of girls in teaching and medicine), or maybe boys and girls have differently wired brains.

    I am more surprised by the 41% female figure in maths. To me that sounds VERY high. I can only guess that most of them change majors later on.

    Look at the list of Fields medalists. Fields medals have been awarded to 52 mathematicians to date, and all 52 were male.
    But it’s possible that there are barriers keeping women from becoming distinguished scientists. Look at the field in high school competitions like International Math Olympiad: with the exception of Serbia and Montenegro, none of the top 30 countries averaged more than 15% girls on their IMO teams over the 1988..2008 period. (The UK actually did better than most. Russia, Canada and the UK all averaged 10-12%. USA and China averaged 4%, France averaged 3%, Japan averaged 2%.)

    • telescoper Says:

      Students do not “change majors” in the UK system to any significant extent, so the proportion of female students graduating is the same as in the first year.

      Also, the lack of female physics students is *not* as universal as you suggest. In Italy, for example, the numbers are much higher.

  7. I suspect the ‘problem’ lies somewhere in between primary and secondary school. I will not speculate as to what the causes may be however. I do note that on recent PhD interviews I encountered a rough 50/50 split of men and women and the only reason I noticed this is my partner had once mentioned that she didn’t think women did physics whereas I’ve never thought otherwise. Perhaps a worthwhile question to answer is do girls have an interest in the physical sciences in primary school but lose it in secondary school?

    • In fact, that is one of the areas the IOP will be looking at, working in schools. This is undoubtedly a multi-faceted issue and is related to the way gender is developed in schools and society at large. Just go into toy shops and look at the pink and blue – similarly in primary schools. One of my female colleagues had a note from her daughter’s primary school saying that were having a science day at school and could any of the fathers help….

      • Hmmm, I think questions need to be asked and answered before any conclusions can be drawn so it’s very important we don’t say it’s undoubtedly one thing or another before hand.

  8. The problem of course persists further down the career path. The fraction of physics female staff decreases from PhD students to PDRAs to heads of department. It becomes a vicious cycle with the lack of visibility of female leaders discouraging (or not encouraging) girls to give it a go. But there seems to be a relation to field, with *at least here) more female students/PDRAs in the stellar corner compared to cosmology. Perhaps men are more attracted to fields perceived as more important/prestigious/competitive? Perhaps the quickest way to address the problem is halving all salaries.

  9. I am surprised you appear to be surprised by the figures, since the low numbers of women have been much talked about for many years and the improvement is dishearteningly slow. The causes are clearly many and varied but will include: the way parents and other people react to their children (gendering of toys purchased being one small example http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/athene-donald/gender-segregation-toys_b_3229472.html?just_reloaded=1); the way teachers interact and may subtly discourage girls (http://occamstypewriter.org/athenedonald/2012/10/04/why-is-it-different-for-girls/ and a companion piece on Guardian with lots of anecdotes in the comments) as well as peer group pressure making girls think physics isn’t for them; the way the media presents scientists, the Einstein wild hair and white labcoat look, not exactly making girls feel there is a role model for them there; and stereotype threat (http://occamstypewriter.org/athenedonald/2013/02/10/lets-get-stereotypes-out-of-science-education/). I apologise for simply linking to my own posts on the topic, but in them you will find links to further studies with plenty of evidence.

    • telescoper Says:

      I wasn’t surprised by the figures, and nowhere in the piece does it say that I was…

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Athene, do you preclude any difference between boys and girls as an explanatory factor? I am uncertain whether it is a factor but would not wish to exclude it *a priori*.

  10. I think there might be cultural issues too – a friend of mine from Sri Lanka said it was a family expectation he should become a medical doctor, another friend of Sri Lankan descent said there is strong parental pressure to only go into certain careers that are considered to have good job prospects, and academic science is not considered such a career.

    Having said that I (white and male) was strongly advised not to go into physics research by my parents too, and maybe the difference is only that I did not listen to them!

  11. […] prompted me to look into the statistics of female physics & astronomy professors. I’ve already posted about how the proportion of female undergraduates studying physics as been stuck at around the 20% […]

  12. […] already posted about how the proportion of female undergraduates studying physics as been stuck at around the 20% […]

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