How to Address Gender Inequality in Physics

Last night I was drinking a glass or several of wine while listening to the radio and thinking about a brainwave I’d had on Friday. Naturally I decided to wait until I reconsidered it in the cold light and sobriety of day before posting it, which I have now done, so here it is.

The idea that came to me simply joins two threads of discussion that have appeared on this blog before. The first is that, despite strenuous efforts by many parties, the fraction of female students taking A-level Physics has flat-lined at 20% for over a decade. This is the reason why the proportion of female physics students at university is the same, i.e. 20%. In short, the problem lies within our school system.

The second line of argument is that A-level Physics is not a useful preparation for a Physics degree because it does not develop the sort of problem-solving skills or the ability to express physical concepts in mathematical language on which university physics depends. Most physics admissions tutors that I know care much more about the performance of students at A-level Mathematics than Physics.

Hitherto, most of the effort that has been expended on the first problem has been directed at persuading more girls to do Physics A-level. Since all universities require a Physics A-level for entry into a degree programme, this makes sense but it has not been successful.

I now believe that the only practical way to improve the gender balance on university physics course is to drop the requirement that applicants have A-level Physics entirely and only insist on Mathematics (which has a much more even gender mix). I do not believe that this would require many changes to course content but I do believe it would circumvent the barriers that our current school system places in the way of aspiring female physicists.

Not all UK universities seem very interested in widening participation, but those that are should seriously consider this approach.

10 Responses to “How to Address Gender Inequality in Physics”

  1. Peter – easier for Scottish Universities than English ones. You’d need a kind of Foundation Year option, but we have that already because of our traditional four year BSc/ five year MPhys. If you have good A-level Physics, you can go straight into year-2, and indeed people do. But if you have only Highers Physics, or don’t want the stress of going straight into second year, you can start in first year, which is basically halfway in between a traditional English A-level and a traditional English University First year.

    Another point – for us at least, the gender balance is much better for Astrophysics entry than for other flavours of Physics…

    • telescoper Says:

      We do have a Foundation year already at Sussex, but it’s not quite right for students with good maths but no physics.

  2. Interesting suggestion. Students without physics would be at a disadvantage but perhaps not unsurmountable. I would wonder why students who did not want to do physics at age 16 would have changed their mind two years later! How could you get them interested?

  3. I have two major quibbles with this idea. First, if A-level Physics is so bad, we should fix it not discard it. There are at least two unwarranted assumptions in the argument – that the intuition and background knowledge that students acquire at A-level are useless and that universities are any better in inculcating the sort of problem solving skills espoused. By this argument, we should abolish the degrees too and go direct to PhD.

    The second major quibble is that, although girls make up 40% of the maths cohort, it is a breath-taking logical jump to say that the measure would lead lead to more girls taking physics degrees. Many engineering departments already do ask only for maths, which is presumably why they are flooded with girls at 14% of their cohort, even less than the proportion that do physics A-level.

    The real solution is much harder; we have to address the forces that make girls (and boys) conform to gender stereotyping. This we are trying to do but quick fixes like abolishing A-level physics are unlikely to succeed. And, as a final point, if we lost the identity of physics at school, it is entirely likely that the numbers of both girls and boys would fall.

  4. Brian Schmidt Says:

    I agree! Physics performance at High School depends on many factors – especially teaching. I did not have the opportunity at High School to take advanced physics ( I did take physics at a pre-calculus level), instead I took advanced biology which served me well in exploring research.

    I also believe we should look at merging the teaching of calculus and the teaching of advanced physics at High School level. Calculus makes sense in the context of physics – without physics, it is abstract and obtuse except for the most mathematically inclined.

  5. Have a look at this link to see the potential distortions to gender equality that commercial pressures produce:

    It’s an amusing and horrifying article in equal measure!

    See in particular the “Special Achievement Award for Outstanding Sexism”.

  6. C Mundell Says:

    Three interesting links; quite a perspective when taken together:

  7. The fact that the gender balance in a field varies significantly from country to country argues strongly that
    it’s not due to “intrinsic” factors (cf Larry Summers), but
    rather due to cultural differences in how various possible
    careers present themselves (and are presented by others
    in a society) to young people contemplating what to do
    with their lives.

    For example, in the Czech Republic there’s no gender
    difference (neither mean nor variance) in math scores of
    high school students. In Tunisia girls’ math scores have
    a smaller mean than boys’, but a larger variance. In Bahrain
    the opposite is true: girls have a larger mean than boys,
    but a smaller variance. If one looks at all the available
    data, we find that country-to-country variation in math
    scores with gender (that’s what this study looked at) seems to be
    determined by sociocultural factors that differ among
    countries, not by “intrinsic” gender factors.


    Click to access rtx120100010p.pdf

  8. […] fact, as I’ve pointed out before, that the current A-level Physics courses are part of the reason why we have so few female physics […]

  9. […] I thought of a way of addressing gender inequality in physics admissions about 8 years ago. The idea was to bring together two threads. I’ll repeat the arguments […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: