Improving Gender Balance – Not Just Girls in Physics ! Break Stereotypes

A father and his son are in a car crash. The father is killed outright , but the son survives. In a critical condition. the boy is rushed to hospital and into surgery. The surgeon comes in, looks at him and says “I can’t operate on him as he is my son” How can this be?

If the answer isn’t immediately obvious, you may need to consider your  unconcious bias !

There have been lots of initiatives to try and increase the proportion of girls doing A Level physics compared to boys. The figures, for example,  2012/13 show that there isn’t actually a STEM problem with girls, just physics. Biology has a girls:boys ratio of 3:2 , Psychology 7:3, Chemistry around 1:1 and Physics less than 1:4 . The percentage of girls taking A Level physics has remained stubbornly below 25% despite all the initiatives and has actually declined slightly since 1985. A program of support for physics teaching within individual schools from the Institute of Physics increased girls participation in A level from 17% to 25%. Good teaching is important, but there are clearly other factors at play as the 25% level seems very hard to break.

Maths initiatives  have  been successful in raising participation levels of girls with more than twice as many girls taking A levels in 2014 compared to 2004 with a proportional increase from 30-40%  of girls  since 1985. A briefing document with research and suggestions for increasing the proportion of girls doing Maths is outlined here

What is the difference in gender scores in PISA tests across the World ?  Boys overall outperform girls in Maths and Science, but when you compare boys and girls with equal reported self-  confidence levels, these differences disappear. Could just improving the confidence of girls be the simplest solution? The OECD have written a report on Gender Gaps in Education and Beyond

The report states

The study also finds that, when required to “think like scientists” at school, girls underperform considerably compared to boys. For example, girls tend to underachieve compared to boys when they are asked to formulate situations mathematically. On average across OECD countries, boys outperform girls in this skill by around 16 PISA score points – the equivalent of nearly five months of school. Boys also outperform girls – by 15 score points – in the ability to apply their knowledge of science to a given situation. This gender difference in the ability to think like a scientist may be related to students’ self-confidence. When students are more self-confident, they give themselves the freedom to fail, to engage in the trial-and-error processes that are fundamental to acquiring knowledge in mathematics and science.

So  is this what  is going on in physics?  It is perceived as being a challenging subject, not attractive to those with fragile confidence?  Is this why it is so unattractive to girls?  Or is it just not a girl thing?

It would appear that the problem is not with girls in physics classrooms, but with the classrooms the girls are in. Girls are far more likely to choose physics if they are in a single sex school than in a co-ed. The IOP report It’s Different for Girls outlines these issues

t’s Different for Girls: The influence of schools (PDF, 2 MB)

It's different for girls: the influence of schools

Using data from the National Pupil Database, which tracks pupils as they go through school, the report looks at differences in the patterns of choice of A-level physics for girls and boys in different types of schools.

Main findings from the report:

  • 49% of maintained co-ed schools sent no girls on to take A-level physics in 2011. The figure for all secondary schools is 46%
  • Girls were almost two and a half times more likely to go on to do A-level physics if they came from a girls’ school rather than a co-ed school (for all types of maintained schools in England)
  • Twice the percentage of girls who went on to do A-level physics came from a school with a sixth form, compared to schools that only teach up to age 16 (for co-ed maintained schools in England)
  • For maintained schools in England, the positive effect of single-sex education on girls’ choice of physics post-16 is not replicated in the other sciences

The report includes recommendations to government and its agencies, to head teachers and to parents. These include:

  • The large number of schools that send no girls on to study A-level physics is unacceptable.  Co-ed schools should have a target to exceed the current national average of 20% of A-level physics students being girls.
  • Gender equity needs to be part of the OFSTED inspection criteria, so that a school cannot be judged outstanding if there are clear participation issues that are not being addressed.

The IOP then followed this up by investigating further. What were the characteristics of schools which were successful in encouraging girls (and those that were not !) This research indicated whole school issues.

Closing Doors: Exploring gender and subject choice in schools

Closing Doors: Exploring gender and subject choice in schools (PDF, 1.3 MB)

This report uses the National Pupil Database to look at progression to a number of gendered A-level subjects from co-educational schools.

Main points include:

  • Nearly half of co-educational state-funded schools (49%) are actually making the gender imbalance in these subjects worse
  • The small number of schools (19%) that send on relatively more girls to do A-level physics also have a smaller gender imbalance in progression to other subjects
  • It follows that whatever factors limit the progression of girls to A-level physics in a school are likely to depend on the whole school environment

Recommendations include:

  • School accountability measures should include an indicator of gender imbalance in progression to A-level and other post-16 qualifications
  • Ofsted should require schools to monitor and counter gender imbalance in progression, participation and achievement
  • Schools should reflect on their own statistics and put in place whole-school measures to counter gender stereotyping

The issue of under representation of girls appears to be a whole school environmental issue. The figures suggest  Gender Balance is important. ie the schools which have a boys in biology or boys in psychology problem are also likely to have a girls in physics problem.  The percentage of girls taking physics may be a crude indicator of the way that the school deals with gender issues.

An education system that limits  by race/gender/sexual orientation  is one that needs reforming. The barriers are not explicit – Girls are allowed to do physics, but  socially constructed norms may prevent them from doing so. At GCSE girls do as well as boys and their A level results are also comparable. A small change in culture can lead to a large change in outcomes. As Peter Knight says in  It’s Different for Girls

Other research has shown that perceptions of physics are formed well beyond the physics classroom: the English teacher who looks askance at the girl who takes an interest in physics or the lack of female physicists on television, for example, can play a part in forming girls’ perception of the subject. We need to ensure that we are not unfairly prejudicing girls against a subject that they could hugely benefit from engaging with.

We have a Catch 22 type  situation. We need more female role models in order to attract more girls so they can become role models. An A level physics classroom full of boys can be intimidating to girls There is no quick fix solution and the attitude of some males in the science establishment like this certainly don’t help:

Women scientists should work in same-sex labs because they distract men from their work, fall in love with male colleagues and cry when they are criticised.


Though the reaction of the female scientists through the #distractinglysexy on twitter was brilliant  and continues to run on.

The EU  has an Initiative – Science – It’s a Girl Thing  that has some useful ideas. Although they also released what is possibly the most ill informed video ever – Now thankfully removed, but a good resource for looking at how many things are wrong with it

Gender Stereotyping 

The NUT did some research on early gender stereotyping in  Breaking the mould  with promising effect.
How do we deal with those who feel gender stereotyping is not an issue? Attacking someone’s belief system has a tendency to push that person into strengthening and reaffirming that belief.  Trying to force people to adopt a strategy will likely end in failure if they cannot see the point.

Jonathan Haidt in Righteous Minds

If you ask people to believe something that violates their intuitions, they will devote their efforts to finding an escape hatch – a reason to doubt your argument or conclusion. They will almost always succeed.

Part of the problem of dealing with things like the language within gender issues is that it can be seen as being simply political correctness.  Politically correct has become inextricably linked to Political Correctness gone mad.  White males such as  Richard Littlejohn or Jeremy Clarkson get lauded in some quarters for ‘Telling it how it is”  being “wonderfully, politically incorrect”  Complaining about their views  labels you as a boring  ‘killjoy’. Paying lip service to language changes without a fundamental belief in the need to change is possibly worse than doing nothing. The stereotyping simply becomes more hidden .

Cambridge Online Definition of Politically Correct:

Someone who is politically correct believes that language and actions that could be offensive to others,especially those relating to sex and race, should be avoided.
A politically correct word or expression is used insteadof another one to avoid being offensive:Some people think that “fireman” is a sexist term, and prefer the politically correct termfirefighter“.
Firefighter rather than fireman? What difference does that make?

The comments on the video on YouTube for anyone believing in gender balance are depressing – People seeming to see it as an attack –  A fairly typical example:

Fascinating that you didn’t just ask them if they believed women where capable of these jobs,but if they answered yes,you wouldn’t be able paint the image of false contempt of females and endeavor a guilt trip by your little showing ? Sickening. And don’t point out the fact that jobs you ask about are primarily male 
The anger seems to stem from some peoples refusal to believe there is a problem (or the admission that we are doing something wrong ) In so doing they dismiss the video as simply feminist propaganda, not considering that girls feel restricted by a society that stereotypes them.  There is no physical barrier or law preventing girls from doing anything so nothing needs to change in their eyes. Those benefitting from privilege can struggle to see the factors weighted in their favour


Gender Balance  are not just initiatives to improve the lives of girls. They are about breaking stereotypes and removing societal imposed  limitations on all. Boys can be nurses, hairdressers or anything they want to be too, without societal pressure. An IOP support session did a similar thing to the video but had a female scientist , a male nurse and hairdresser. The year 6s involved all drew the stereotypical male scientist, female hairdresser and nurse.


What can be done at the other end of the education system? Female role models 

There are some great role models on youtube – for example physics girl

But these are a still a comparative  rarity. Do we do any favours by commenting on them as if somehow they are strange in breaking the stereotype? Look it is a woman astronaut ! Helen Sharman was the first Brit in space and was asked about boyfriends, lipstick and clothes – Something that Tim Peake hasn’t had to put up with.

There are several schemes  in science, for example the  Juno initiative, running since 2007, aims to redress the long-standing issue of the underrepresentation of women at the highest levels of physics academia in the UK and Ireland.

While women make up around 20% of physics undergraduates, this number drops to a tiny 7% further along academia at the level of university professor, suggesting female physicists are less likely than their male counterparts to progress into the most senior positions in physics. We need strong role models to break down the barriers.

What can we do in schools to address this gender balance?

Another IOP report Opening Doors follows up from the other two

A pilot project developing a guide to good practice in countering gender stereotyping in schools.

Opening Doors

Opening Doors is co-funded by the IOP and Government Equalities Office, running from 2014 to 2015. The project is not specific to physics, or even science, but focuses on developing a whole-school approach to addressing gender imbalance.

The evidence from the site visits was used to compile a guide to good practice for schools on addressing gender imbalance.

What did the study find?


A site has been created  Girl Friendly Physics that outlines some of the research from the IOP  and has online evaluations

self evaluation

The top 10 Tips from Girl Friendly Physics are:


  • Make the lesson as collaborative and interactive as possible, engaging all students in activities and discussion.
  • Use age-relevant, gender inclusive metaphors and examples such as a bus or the school building.
  • Find everyday language, and encourage students to use it until comfortable, then define physics specific meanings deliberately.
  • Put things into context, give examples from everyday life both applications and careers.
  • Realise that many girls will be out of their comfort zone and will need to express their feelings and should be encouraged to realise they can be successful in physics without losing their femininity.


  • Plan lessons in which students only look and listen and are not allowed to touch or talk.
  • Use metaphors or examples which may exclude girls.
  • Use scientific language too early in the introduction of a concept.
  • Assume students automatically understand the ‘big picture’.
  • Make comments that suggest it’s unusual for girls to be interested in physics or that boys are naturally better than girls at physics.

There is an interesting and often frustrating tendency for some high achieving girls to opt out of challenges. This is outlined in The Trouble with Bright Girls and the work of Carol Dweck

She found that bright girls, when given something to learn that was particularly foreign or complex, were quick to give up–and the higher the girls’ IQ, the more likely they were to throw in the towel. In fact, the straight-A girls showed the most helpless responses. Bright boys, on the other hand, saw the difficult material as a challenge, and found it energizing. They were more likely to redouble their efforts, rather than give up.

Bright girls were much quicker to doubt their ability, to lose confidence, and to become less effective learners as a result. 

Researchers have uncovered the reason for this difference in how difficulty is interpreted, and it is simply this: more often than not, bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice. 

How do girls and boys develop these different views? Most likely, it has to do with the kinds of feedback we get from parents and teachers as young children. Girls, who develop self-control earlier and are better able to follow instructions, are often praised for their “goodness.” When we do well in school, we are told that we are “so smart,” “so clever, ” or ” such a good student.” This kind of praise implies that traits like smartness, cleverness, and goodness are qualities you either have or you don’t.

This is certainly true to  the feedback I get from teachers in high achieving girls schools. We should do whatever we can to make girls resilient. Physics is presented all too often as being hard and challenging and we don’t want bright girls ducking these.

“Girls when faced with challenges don’t see the problem and the level of challenge, they just see a problem. Whereas boys see a difficult challenge and they don’t see the  pressure if they fail, they see it as a challenge -that’s a prowess thing. The potential benefits make the challenge worthwhile to boys, but not to girls. “ – Physics Teacher

Improving gender balance is not just about getting girls into physics. It is about creating a more tolerant society. A society where stereotypes are easily challenged and that no one feels restricted on their choices based on their gender (or race, religion or sexual orientation)  The Institute of Physics is continuing and extending their work on IGB so keep in touch through their forum on

Please add any more ideas or your own experiences  in the comment section

3 thoughts on “Improving Gender Balance – Not Just Girls in Physics ! Break Stereotypes

  1. What is the optimum gender balance in physics? 50:50? Why?
    I can understand a concern that far too few people are science literate, but why is gender balance so important in physics specialists?
    I do not see similar concerns being expressed that there are insufficient male teachers or nurses. Is it really about breaking down societal stereotypes or promoting a better image of physics ?

    1. Its not really about trying to reach parity. Its about removing self imposed restrictions. There is a huge disparity between the number of girls choosing physics in schools and boys biology and psychology in some schools. The project looks at why some schools do not have this issue and tries to bring best practice to all schools. My take on it is it is about removing stereotypical barriers.

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