Archive for gender inequality

Girls, Physics and “Hard Maths”

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on April 28, 2022 by telescoper

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).