Archive for sexism

Have we reached Peak Physics?

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on August 17, 2015 by telescoper

One of the interesting bits of news I picked up concerning last week’s A-level results is a piece from the Institute of Physics about the number of students taking A-level physics. The opening paragraph reads:

Although there was an overall rise of 2% in the number of A-level entries, the number taking physics fell to 36,287 compared with 36,701 last year – the first time numbers have fallen since 2006. The number of girls taking physics rose by 0.5%, however.

The decline is slight, of course, and it’s obviously too early to decide whether we’ve reached Peak Physics or not. It remains the case however that Physics departments in UK universities are competing for a very small pool of students with A-levels in that discipline. With some universities, e.g. Newcastle, opening up physics programmes that they had previously closed, competition  is going to be intense to recruit students across the sector unless the pool of qualified applicants increases substantially.

The article goes on to speculate that students may be put off doing physics by the perception that it is harder than other subjects. It may even be that some schools – mindful of the dreaded league tables – are deliberately discouraging all but the brightest pupils from studying physics in case their precious league table position is affected.

That’s not a line I wish to pursue here, but I will take the opportunity to rehearse an argument that I have made on this blog before. The idea is one that joins two threads of discussion that have appeared on a number of occasions on this blog. 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. This year’s modest increase doesn’t change the picture significantly.

The second line of argument is that A-level Physics is simply 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 both of abilities 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 when it comes to selecting “near misses” during clearing, for example.

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 at entry). 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.

I am grateful to fellow astronomer Jonathan Pritchard for pointing out to me that a similar point has been made to drop A-level Physics as an entry requirement to  Civil Engineering degrees, which have a similar problem with gender bias.

Advertisements

The Tim Hunt Debacle

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on June 14, 2015 by telescoper

After a whole day off yesterday to recover from an exceptionally busy week I’m back in the office on a Sunday to sort out a few things before leaving tomorrow on a short trip to the Midlands, of which more, perhaps, anon.

In a way I’m quite glad I have been so busy over the last few days, with Exam Boards and the like. Had I had time I might have been tempted to write a post at some point about the Tim Hunt affair which broke on Tuesday. As it turns out, everything moved so quickly that anything I wrote would have been overtaken by events. In any case I didn’t feel that I had much to add to the excellent response written by the Head of the Department of Physics & Astronomy, Prof. Claudia Eberlein, in the Huffington Post on Thursday.  However, now I have a little bit of time I thought I would add a few comments.

I hope it goes without saying that I thought Tim Hunt’s comments about female scientists, made in public at an event in South Korea, were outrageous and indefensible.  My heart sank when I found out what he’d said. I might have believed his story that they were intended to be humorous had it not been for an awful non-apology on Radio 4, which effectively made that line of defence untenable. Nobel Prize winning biochemist he may be, but Tim Hunt clearly has a lot to learn about how to interact with people. When we find ourselves in a hole, most of us have the sense to stop digging.

I know my opinion here differs from that of some of my friends and colleagues, but I also think University College London did the right thing in asking him to resign. I’ve heard it argued that it over the top for him to lose his job over his remarks. But that’s not what happened. In fact, Tim Hunt is in his seventies and has been effectively retired for many years; his position at UCL was honorary (i.e. unpaid). I don’t think the severance of his relationship with UCL can be construed as an excessive punishment. In today’s Observer there’s a piece in which Tim Hunt claims he has been “hung out to dry” . I have to admit that I find his attempt to portray himself as victim to be as nauseating as his earlier apology.  I think UCL were fully justified in severing their relationship with Tim Hunt. This is not an issue of freedom of speech. Tim Hunt had every right to express his opinions. Those opinions are, however, completely incompatible with the values of the institution with which he was associated and his statement of them harmful to the reputation if UCL. He simply had to go.

On the other hand, there’s a lot about this story that troubles me greatly. Although some of the social media reaction to Tim Hunt’s comments was incisively humorous, some was unpleasant and some downright nasty. Worse, the Twitterstorm that raged last week also unleashed the gutter press, chiefly the Daily Mail, whose hacks tried to drag Prof. Mary Collins (Hunt’s wife) into the story. That was unpleasant, even by the standards of the Daily Mail. Mary Collins’ private life has nothing to do with her husband’s failings.

Anyway, I hope that a line will now be drawn under this episode. Tim Hunt should now be left alone to enjoy his retirement. As someone once said of someone else “I’ve nothing against his family, but I’m glad he will be spending more time with them”.

Nobody should be deluded that the departure of one high-profile academic will solve anything.  Tim Hunt was one senior academic stupid enough make offensive comments in public. There are countless others in positions of power and influence who hold very similar opinions but only express them behind closed doors, or under the cover of anonymity. Indeed, I know a number of senior academics who put on a public show of being in favour of equality and diversity but in private have acted deliberately to undermine the careers of, usually junior, female scientists. The culprits aren’t always men, either..

P.S. In the interest of full disclosure I should point that I have never met Tim Hunt so do not know what his views really are. Neither do I have any connection with University College London.

How to Address Gender Inequality in Physics

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on January 26, 2014 by telescoper

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.

Welcome to Astronomy (unless you’re female)

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , on September 14, 2013 by telescoper

I’m here on campus preparing to attend a series of receptions at the start of Freshers’ Week to welcome new students to the University of Sussex. Over the next few days I’m going to be involved in a lot of events aimed at helping all our new undergraduate students settle in, before teaching starts properly. There’ll also be events for our new postgraduates, at both Masters and Doctoral levels.

Every year the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) funds an Introductory Summer School for new postgraduate research students in Astronomy. It’s held at a different university each year and is a long-running tradition. I attended such a School at Durham University way back in 1985, long before STFC was invented! We organized and ran one at Nottingham while I was there and last year the corresponding fixture was held at Sussex University, though that was before my time here and I wasn’t involved in it at all. This year, the Introductory Summer School was held at Queen Mary, University of London (often abbreviated to QMUL).

I spent eight happy years at Queen Mary (from 1990-98) so it pains me to have to criticize my friends and former colleagues there, but I really feel that I have to. Look at the programme for the Summer School. You will see that 18 (eighteen) lecturers were involved, covering virtually all areas of current research interest in the field. There is not a single female lecturer among them.

Yesterday I blogged about the invisibility of LGBT astrophysicists, but this is a glaring example of the problems facing female scientists embarking on a career in the same discipline. What message does a male-only programme send to aspiring female astronomers and astrophysicists? The lack of female speakers probably wasn’t deliberate, but was clearly thoughtless. Discrimination by omission is real and damaging. I mean no disrespect at all to the lecturers chosen, but looking through the topics covered I could easily have picked a female alternative who would have done just as good a job, if not better.

I think this is a scandal. I’ll be writing a letter of complaint to STFC myself, and I encourage you to do likewise if you agree. It’s too late to do anything about this year’s School, of course, but STFC must make sure that nothing like this happens again.