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.

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15 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. Underlying this is the assumption that if there were no “barriers”, then the proportion would be 50/50. I don’t want to invoke the ghost of Larry Summers, but still one must consider the fact that encouraging people to do something they don’t want to do (“come on, I know you’ll like it”) is not really a desirable goal.

    Is the proportion of other “types of people” in physics, astronomy etc the same as in the population as a whole?

    Most professions are not 50/50, for a variety of reasons. If one has a goal of 50/50, shouldn’t it be 50% for women and men (and x% for whatever other groups one wants to consider) with no exceptions? It seems to me that it is a slippery slope if one says that it is OK if women don’t want to be dustwomen (if that’s the term; there is no corresponding Lonnie Donegan song) or that straight men don’t want to be fashion designers.

  4. 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.

    • “The real solution is much harder; we have to address the forces that make girls (and boys) conform to gender stereotyping.”

      Society needs to decide two things. First, whether having the same proportion of some group in some profession or other occupation be the same as in the general population and second how to implement it. If this is desired, then I see no reason to cherry-pick, and many reasons not to. There are fewer men who teach primary school, fewer women in the armed forces…the list goes on and on. By picking some group (physics students, boards of directors of firms listed on the stock exchange, public-sector jobs, companies with more than 200 employees, whatever) one sends the message that gender (and other) equality is important here but isn’t elsewhere.

      Note that I am not thinking of discrimination. Discrimination is wrong whenever and wherever it happens and the consequences for those responsible should be dire. Yes, it was Not Correct when Max Planck told Lise Meitner that she couldn’t work at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute because there were no women’s toilets. However, I don’t think that all inequality is due to discrimination in the traditional sense.

  5. 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.

  6. Have a look at this link to see the potential distortions to gender equality that commercial pressures produce:
    http://www.lettoysbetoys.org.uk/the-let-toys-be-toys-2013-silliness-awards/

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

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

  7. C Mundell Says:

    Three interesting links; quite a perspective when taken together:
    http://slate.me/1f4h7IT
    http://bit.ly/1fkuuVp
    http://bit.ly/1fkuB3h

  8. 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.

    References:
    http://www.ams.org/notices/201201/rtx120100010p.pdf
    http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2012/01/surprise_surprise_gender_equal.php

    • Just to be clear, Summers’s claim was that the variance is larger among men than women (which, at least in some areas, seems to be supported by the data and, although the cause is not always clear, at least in some cases this might be due to the Y chromosome being essentially inactive, resulting in an “all or nothing” phenotype—in any case the observed variance certainly is larger (more male criminals, more male 3-star chefs, more mentally retarded males, more male top-level chess players) though again the cause is not clear). Thus, any observation of the tails of the distribution (such as admission to Harvard) will show more men. What many people forget is that the other tail is also dominated by men.

      However, even assuming that basic ability is identical in both mean and variance, this does not imply that, even in the absence of discrimination, prejudice etc on the part of those hiring, one should expect a balanced distribution. There are both external pressures which influence behaviour as well as (Pinker has convinced me) internal differences. (That at least one of these must exist is obvious; otherwise there would be no discussion.)

      Someone not originally from but working in Italy explained the relatively high number of women in astronomy as follows: Astronomy isn’t well paid, so many men leave the field in order to support a family, which opens up positions for women whose main income is their husbands’ salary. In other words, a “macho” external environment can increase the number of women in a particular field.

      As usual, the details are messy: http://xkcd.com/552/

      • Just to be clear, I am certainly not claiming that no discrimination of women has existed or exists today, such as Max Planck telling Lise Meitner that she couldn’t work at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute because there were no women’s toilets there (the fact that Nordita has unisex toilets shows that there is more than one solution to this problem). However, one shouldn’t assume that all imbalance is necessarily due to discrimination, prejudice etc on the part of those directly involved.

        In another thread, I mentioned yesterday that I am reading Martin Harwit’s new book. He recounts Hilbert trying to convince his colleagues at Göttingen that Noether* should not be excluded because she is a woman, famously declaring that a faculty is not a swimming pool ( eine Fakultät sei doch keine Badeanstalt). Although Harwit uses this as an example of Hilbert being more progressive than his colleagues, in retrospect in many countries today he would be decried as reactionary for assuming that men and women shouldn’t bathe together.

        A first step to a more useful discussion of this issue would be to separate the issues “women in astronomy” from “people with children in astronomy”, not only but also because many people (rightly) think that men should be as involved with children as women—by conflating the issues one reinforces the stereotype. Although I am sure there are enough other reasons (poverty, lack of genius, bad luck to name just a few), I once mentioned in a conversation that supporting 4 children has certainly been detrimental to what little academic career I have had, to which a radical feminist replied that it has been statistically proven that having children, while a disadvantage for the female career, is an advantage for the male career. While this might be true in some cases, especially among rich men who can hire several nannies (Ferdinand Piëch and his 12 children come to mind, though I am sure that there are many other reason’s for Piëch’s success), it is completely irrelevant for me. (I might as well interject (or should I say ejaculate) into a discussion of equal pay for equal work with relation to sex, gender etc the true but in most cases irrelevant fact that female porn actresses are generally paid much better than their male, shall we say, counterparts.)

        *Although perhaps best known among physicists for the Noether theorem, this was just a small part of her work, most of which was in pure mathematics, where she was one of the main players at the time.

      • Just to be clear, I am certainly not claiming that no discrimination of women has existed or exists today, such as Max Planck telling Lise Meitner that she couldn’t work at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute because there were no women’s toilets there (the fact that Nordita has unisex toilets shows that there is more than one solution to this problem). However, one shouldn’t assume that all imbalance is necessarily due to discrimination, prejudice etc on the part of those directly involved.

        In another thread, I mentioned yesterday that I am reading Martin Harwit’s new book. He recounts Hilbert trying to convince his colleagues at Göttingen that Noether* should not be excluded because she is a woman, famously declaring that a faculty is not a swimming pool ( eine Fakultät sei doch keine Badeanstalt). Although Harwit uses this as an example of Hilbert being more progressive than his colleagues, in retrospect in many countries today he would be decried as reactionary for assuming that men and women shouldn’t bathe together.

        A first step to a more useful discussion of this issue would be to separate the issues “women in astronomy” from “people with children in astronomy”, not only but also because many people (rightly) think that men should be as involved with children as women—by conflating the issues one reinforces the stereotype. Although I am sure there are enough other reasons (poverty, lack of genius, bad luck to name just a few), I once mentioned in a conversation that supporting 4 children has certainly been detrimental to what little academic career I have had, to which a radical feminist replied that it has been statistically proven that having children, while a disadvantage for the female career, is an advantage for the male career. While this might be true in some cases, especially among rich men who can hire several nannies (Ferdinand Piëch and his 12 children come to mind, though I am sure that there are many other reason’s for Piëch’s success), it is completely irrelevant for me. (I might as well interject (or should I say ejaculate) into a discussion of equal pay for equal work with relation to sex, gender etc the true but in most cases irrelevant fact that female porn actresses are generally paid much better than their male, shall we say, counterparts.)

        *Although perhaps best known among physicists for the Noether theorem, this was just a small part of her work, most of which was in pure mathematics, where she was one of the main players at the time.

      • ” it has been statistically proven that having children, while a disadvantage for the female career, is an advantage for the male career”

        Of course, still today, but even more in the past, the presence of a large number of children was probably more often a consequence of a man’s success, rather than the cause of it.

  9. […] 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 […]

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