A growing number of schools, districts and countries are attempting to understand the lack of interest in hard sciences among women. Jon Cartwright, writing for The Daily Telegraph, reports that in Britain only about 20% of students taking physics GCSEs are female.
Although physics has long been one of the abstract disciplines like math and chemistry viewed as mainly a masculine pursuit, over the past decade the number of girls and boys who take courses in the latter two subjects have roughly equalized — yet physics classes at the secondary school level and even more so in college continue to be overly populated by men.
The numbers are so uneven that there are no women taking A-level physics classes at nearly half of England’s mixed state schools.
The trend is worrying from an egalitarian perspective. Physics is a facilitating subject that improves analytical and problem-solving skills, and those who go on to study physics at university can expect higher salaries than the average graduate. But there are economic concerns, too. Last year the Royal Academy of Engineering linked the “lack of women” to the estimated annual deficit of 10,000 science, technology, engineering and maths graduates required to keep UK industry ticking over.
In Redland Green, a 6-year old school on the outskirts of Bristol, one of the boys in the GCSE physics explains that the imbalance is a matter of natural aptitude. He says that boys are better at “maths and space stuff,” while girls’ inborn set of skills lead them in another direction.
This is not a new theory and has been offered as an explanation on stages much larger than a high school physics classroom, but a number of his female classmates seem to disagree. One female student says that this is not a matter of skills but rather of interest, and that women may be more interested in other academic areas.
Molly echoes what a lot of girls say about physics – there’s too much maths, it’s not relevant to life, and, above all, it’s boring. Taken at face value, such comments make it easy to conclude that girls do not have a natural interest in the subject. But recent research suggests there might be an underlying deterrent: a lack of belonging. Girls just don’t feel at home with physics.
A recent experiment where 19 college-aged students were asked to rate their preference and the skills of their lecturers after viewing four identical physics lessons delivered by two female and two male professors produced predictable results. While women preferred female professors and men preferred being lectured by other men, both genders viewed the male teachers as more qualified than their female counterparts.
Amy Graves of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania – who performed the experiment – said that the findings pointed to “confirmation bias,” meaning that students viewed male professors as being more qualified because they expected men to be better in physics.