Girls, Physics and “Hard Maths”

There was an appropriately hostile reaction from people who know things yesterday to bizarre comments by Katharine Birbalsingh, who is apparently a UK Government commissioner for something or other, but who seems to know very little. Birbalsingh is in charge of a school in which only 16% of the students taking physics A-level are female, whereas the national average is about 23%. She tried to explain this by saying that girls don’t like doing “hard maths” and as a consequence…

..physics isn’t something that girls tend to fancy. They don’t want to do it, they don’t like it.

There is an easy rebuttal of this line of “reasoning”. First, there is no “hard maths” in Physics A-level. Most of the mathematical content (especially calculus) was removed years ago. Second, the percentage of students taking actual A-level Mathematics in the UK who are female is more like 40% than 20%. The argument that girls are put off Physics because it includes Maths is therefore demonstrably bogus.

An alternative explanation for the figures is that schools (especially the one led by Katharine Birbalsingh, where the take-up is even worse than the national average) provide an environment that actively discourages girls from being interested in Physics by reinforcing gender stereotypes even in schools that offer Physics A-level in the first place. The attitudes of teachers and school principals undoubtedly have a big influence on the life choices of students, which is why it is so depressing to hear lazy stereotypes repeated once again.

There is no evidence whatsoever that women aren’t as good at Maths and Physics as men once they get into the subject, but plenty of evidence that the system dissuades then early on from considering Physics as a discipline they want to pursue. Indeed, at University female students generally out-perform male students in Physics when it comes to final results; it’s just that there are few of them to start with.

Anyway, 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 here.

The first is that, despite strenuous efforts by many parties, the fraction of female students taking A-level Physics has flat-lined at around 20% for at least two decades. 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 the school system.

The second line of argument is that A-level Physics is not a useful preparation for a Physics degree anyway 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. In other words it not only avoids “hard maths” but virtually all mathematics and, worse, is really very boring. As a consequence, most physics admissions tutors that I know care much more about the performance of students at A-level Mathematics than Physics, which is a far better indicator of their ability to study Physics at University than the Physics A-level.

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 UK universities require a Physics A-level for entry into a degree programme, this makes sense but it has not been very successful.

I 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, bypassing the bottleneck at one stroke.

I suggested this idea when I was Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at Sussex, but it was firmly rejected by Senior Management because we would be out of line with other Physics departments. I took the view that in this context being out of line was a positive thing but that wasn’t the view of my bosses so the idea sank.

In case you think such a radical step is unworkable, I give you the example of our Physics programmes in Maynooth. We have a variety of these, including Theoretical Physics & Mathematics, Physics with Astrophysics, and Mathematical Physics and/or Experimental Physics through our omnibus science programme. Not one of these courses requires students to have taken Physics in their Leaving Certificate (roughly the equivalent of A-level).

19 Responses to “Girls, Physics and “Hard Maths””

  1. All uk university engineering degree courses insist on a physics A level. Unless you go for a degree apprenticeship, where the companies actually employing the young engineers ignore the physics qualification and demand high grades in Maths. Which is how my youngest son got to study engineering. The physics teachers at his school were poor, and don’t get me started on how boring the physics A level is now! I took Astronomy at UCL back in the 1980s, it was my Maths that got me through.

    • As I have my School’s entrance requirements open in a tab right now, I can tell you this isn’t true. The engineering dept require maths plus physics *or* technology *or* something else vaguely engineering related. We in the physics dept do require physics though!

  2. Not detracting from the points you raise, but I think something in the opening paragraph got mangled during editing: “Birbalsingh is quoted as saying that girls is in charge of a school in which only 16% of the students taking physics A-level are female”

  3. Susan Pyne Says:

    Does your idea work? What proportion of physics students at Maynooth are female? And in general, how do you persuade students who haven’t done A level physics (or equivalent) that they would actually like to take it at university?

    • telescoper Says:

      The three-year average from 2018 to 2021 is 41% female, 59% male. We have a general first year which allows students to sample subjects that they didn’t necessarily do at school. I

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    It would be a modest proposal also to have a physics A-level that helped prepare the way for university physics. How did universities let it happen that this was not the case, and how might it be reversed?

    • To a first approximation, universities don’t have any say at all in the content of A levels.
      (I am two years older than Birbalsingh and my A level Physics didn’t have calculus in it. So she’s repeating a story that wasn’t true even at the time she was doing A levels herself.)

      • telescoper Says:

        Yes, A-levels are run by private companies who compete with each other for business and don’t seem to be very accountable to anyone. One thing I like about the Irish system is that there is only one Leaving Certificate, and it is publicly run.

  5. John Peacock Says:

    Agreed with all of this – and nothing changes: when I took physics A-level back in the 1970s it was so boring that I was completely put off the subject and went to university to study chemistry (more real physics in that subject at school level – atomic structure). If I hadn’t gone to Cambridge and had to do a year of physics, I would never have realised that chemistry wasn’t the right choice. If only physics could achieve what SMP managed with “new maths”: university academics completely redesigning the school syllabus to make the path to university smoother. I don’t know how they got to do that.

    • telescoper Says:

      I followed the same path. My favourite subject at A-level was chemistry – I had a really excellent teacher for one thing – but liked Physics much more in 1A Natural Sciences so switched in 1B,e even though I got higher marks in Chemistry in 1A than Physics.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I loved chemistry first, but in the term I took my O-levels I could feel my primary allegiance changing to physics in a way I had no control over. I loved A-level physics, and I enjoyed A-level chemistry very much, too; I never contemplated “double maths and physics” for A-levels. But once at Cambridge I had had enough of chemistry, and couldn’t wait for the second year with physics and its mathematics only. In the first year at Cambridge, physical chemistry was basically physics, inorganic chemistry was more like regular chemistry and OK, but organic chemistry as taught via curly-arrow electron motion in reactions drove me up the wall. I could see no uniqueness theorem in it.

        The length of the organic practicals was extremely demanding in one’s first term. One fellow student seemed to be a lot faster than, me, so I decided that I would simply keep glancing at what he was doing and ‘mirror’ him; but somehow I just couldn’t keep up. He went on to be a professor of organic chemistry…

        Has chemistry been hollowed out, so that at the research frontier it is now either biochemistry (ie, organic chemistry on speed) or physics (ie, modelling electron motion in reactions)? I base this question not on prejudice but on the Nobel chemistry prize awards this century. Is this a fair comment?

      • telescoper Says:

        I actually liked organic chemistry because it offered a different kind of puzzle to solve: I particularly liked concocting synthesis chains. However it seemed to me that enjoyable though it was it didn’t connect with other things much. As you say, physical chemistry was basically physics and I liked the connection with atomic physics in orbitals etc. I also found practicals difficult and they tended to give me a headache. At first I thought that wearing a white coat would make me feel more like a scientist, but it didn’t really work. I remember making aspirin once, but I wasn’t sufficiently that what I’d made was actually aspirin that I never dreamt of taking any of it.

  6. John Peacock Says:

    But specifically on the gender balance issue, something I haven’t seen any comment on is that stereotyping works both ways. The girls who don’t do physics must end up in more female-dominated subjects (I don’t have the stats, so I’m guessing: Drama? English?). I can well imagine that the pressure on young boys not to do subjects that are perceived as effeminate is intense. So it could be in part that girls avoid physics because they have in effect a wider range of choice, whereas some boys feel compelled to do the subject even though they aren’t at all suited to it. I emphasise that I don’t at all deny thay sexist teachers are a big part of the problem: I well recall a Mr Lamont who was adamant that my daughter wasn’t suited to chemistry, despite being completely unable to say why this was. But I wonder if re-educating such neanderthals would 100% cure the problem.

    • telescoper Says:

      It’s worth mentioning perhaps that Computer Science has a gender balance issue that is even worse than Physics.

  7. The Physics A-level falls short in many ways. Too boring and too theoretical. Students come in being afraid of lab work!

    With many students only doing three A levels, requiring both physics and math is restrictive. I would be in favour of dropping the requirement for a physics A level. But it does make me wonder whether that would lead to physics disappearing from the curriculum altogether.

    Howe many of our physics students end up going into teaching?

  8. …has the change in entry requirements resulted in more female entrants to those courses Peter? Really interested to see what happened as a result of the changes.

    • telescoper Says:

      It hasn’t changed – it’s always been like it is now! The three-year average from 2018 to 2021 across Theoretical Physics & Experimental Physics is 41% female, 59% male. The % of female students for EP is slightly higher than for TP.

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