Monday, October 08, 2012

Girls and Physics

In Biology, 55% of  'A' Level candidates are girls, in Chemistry it's 50%, but in Physics, it's only 20%.

Now my initial response was:

"So what?" If we were to look at the figures for Nursing, English or Sociology, we would find that boys were in the minority.

However that wouldn't make much of a post, so let's have a look at the three possible reasons.

1) Girls on average are not as good at Physics as boys.
2) Girls are not very interested in Physics.
3) Something else discourages girls from studying Physics.

Let's look at each in turn:

1) Doesn't seem very likely as girls do better at the Physics GCSE than boys. (As in pretty much all subjects.)
Now you could argue that the GCSE is female biased with its modular assessment and coursework. Maybe the male brain is more analytic and logical, which makes it more suited to studying Physics at a higher level rather than a woolly subject like Sociology for example. Maybe girls are also put off because of the Maths content.

Hard to say without doing a lot more research. It's also a taboo topic in teaching.

2) On average this is certainly true. My completely unscientific questioning of seven women (one of whom was a science teacher!) concluded that with the exception of Prof. Brian Cox, no aspect of Physics held any interest for them whatsoever. I then asked seven males and two admitted to finding the subject interesting. Maybe the things that most boys naturally gravitate towards- cars, guns mechanics, taking things apart, explosives, computers and football lead them in some way towards having more of an interest in the physical world.

3) Most Physics teachers are male, as are the vast majority of Physics students at University. (The same is true of Maths, Computing and Engineering). Most physics related jobs would involve working in a male dominated environment. I suppose that would certainly put off many females.

A BBC article stated that girls are much more likely to study Physics if they go to an all-girls school. However they failed to note that this might simply be because such schools are almost always private and tend to be very selective academically. Physics is one of the hardest subjects and so it's not surprising that more of the brighter girls study it.

Finally you could ask- do we actually need more women Physicists?


Sutton Tutor said...

You're begging (or twisting) the question with your final comment here, Frank. Just because a girl studies physics, it does not mean that she is (or will be) a physicist.
Maybe we could do with more women teachers of physics, though, eh? And I'm sure it would be a very handy subject for those purveyors of that well-known predominantly feminine profession, the estate agent.
(That was supposed to be a joke, but flopped badly - apologies for that).

QPT said...

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2012 was awarded jointly to Serge Haroche and David J. Wineland "for ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems".

Anonymous said...

hThe only 2 girls in our last Physics A-level set were indeed the 2 cleverest girls in the school. Just to back up your findings!
I myself was never drawn to Physics, although I did well at Biol & Chem, because of the Maths content (I'm still Crap At Maths).
P.S. These security characters are almost impossible to identify!

Peter S said...

Its all down to the teacher. My daughter is in year 11. She loathed physics with a vengeance at the beginning of year 10. She is now planning to study it at A level.

I also run a tutoring business and find that requests for help in all sciences are equally required by girls as well as boys. It does not seem to matter what type of school they go to, girls/boys only, private or state school.

Peter S

Anonymous said...

I'm female, I loved computers breaking and fixing stuff and explosions, but I hated physics at school. The boys were enabled to run riot and we were told at the end of every lesson
"the boys may leave the girls will tidy the lab"
I dropped physics.
I still hack and do IT but the sexism is almost overpowering.

See more physics scare stories at