They are competitive high achievers. They come from families of scientists. And they are often short-haired tomboys, who pride themselves on their difference from other girls.
These are the types of girl who take physics A-level, according to the latest findings from a 10-year study of pupils’ science aspirations.
Louise Archer, professor of sociology of education at King’s College London, has been tracking the science aspirations of 13,000 pupils. Among the students, who are now in Year 11, nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) of girls said that physics was the most difficult subject, compared with more than a third (36 per cent) of boys. Of those who planned to take physics at A-level, 64.7 per cent were male and only 35.3 per cent were female.
Deterred by teachers
The study reinforces the findings of a recent report from the Institute of Physics, which says that teachers are unwittingly deterring girls from taking maths and science subjects by suggesting that these are more difficult than other subjects.
“Many of the schools…were inadvertently reinforcing the notion that certain subjects are harder than others,” the IoP report states. “For example, teachers of other subjects commonly admitted to pupils that they had struggled with mathematics.”
Professor Archer conducted detailed interviews with 70 of the Year 11 girls who had chosen to study physics at A-level. She found that the students shared a number of key characteristics. In particular, they were proud to be different from other girls.
“That’s kind of the beauty of being someone that is good at science,” Year 11 pupil Davina said. “You’re not like your average person.”
Another, Hannah, said: “I quite like making people surprised.”
Many distanced themselves from conventional femininity: they wore jeans or boys’ clothes, cut their hair short, swore or listened to rock music. Nonetheless, they were aware of the advantage that being female would confer on them in their professional life.
“I know there are not very many women in physics,” Hannah said. “It might make you stand out.”
All the girls strongly identified as high-attaining, intelligent pupils, and were confident in their own academic abilities. They also knew that others recognised these abilities. The students described themselves as academically competitive and many wanted to be among the highest achievers in their class.
The interviewed pupils attended schools that explicitly pushed girls into physics A-level, and they mostly came from families with strong science backgrounds. Their parents tended to have degree-level science or technology qualifications, and post-16 science was strongly valued and encouraged. Or, as Davina phrased it: “Yeah, [in] my house, science is where it’s at.”
Naomi Weir, of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, acknowledged that certain factors – such as family background and school priorities – played a key role in determining which pupils pursued science A-levels.
But she pointed out that schools with an imbalance of sexes in science tended to lack balance in other subjects, too.
“It’s actually around school culture,” she said. “There are certainly major cultural roadblocks that we put in front of young people making decisions about what they want to do with the rest of their lives.
“We need to look at the stereotypes that we hold around subjects and career aspirations.”
Stars in their eyes
But the girls’ relationship to physics also had many common factors, the interviews showed. The majority preferred theoretical over practical physics. “I really like thinking about life or, like, the universe,” Thalia said. “I want to know how it works.”
Professor Archer suggests that this preference emphasises girls’ desire to prove their own intellectual heft. “Girls are awesome at physics,” she told TES. “That’s a good message to get out there, because a lot of them don’t believe they are.”
How schools can promote physics to girls
Louise Archer, professor of sociology of education at King’s College London, recommends the following:
Do not promote physics as being harder than other subjects. Make it clear that all subjects are equally difficult.
Analyse your school’s rates of female progression in physics. Work out which strategies are being used already and other measures that might be needed.
Try to offer a broad, balanced representation of science. Not all scientists conform to the Brian Cox, “brainy boy” model.
Emphasise that anybody can use physics: it is not just a subject for scientists.
Offer training to teachers so that they understand how to address issues of equality effectively.
Begin promoting physics to pupils’ families early on. By the time girls are choosing their A-levels, it is often too late.
Remind girls repeatedly that they are highly capable at physics and just as good at the subject as boys.
Remember that many girls do not believe they are any good at physics, even when their results suggest the opposite.