At Simon Langton Grammar School in Kent, Mabel is learning to measure radiation levels in shaved tea bags. She’s one of many girls to study math and physics for A-levels, and it’s practical experiments like this that she says “help bring science to life”.
Shave has always enjoyed physics, especially the element of mathematics. “I like the problem-solving side,” she says—though a recent news story would have you believe otherwise.
Last month, Catherine Birbalsingh, chair of the Social Mobility Commission, said that fewer girls study physics because “it involves a lot of difficult math”. During an evidence session in the House of Commons on 26 April, Birbal Singh revealed that only 16 percent of A-level physics students in his own school are women.
“From my own knowledge of these things, physics is not something girls like, they don’t want to do, they don’t like it,” she told lawmakers.
Birbalsingh’s remarks have been dismissed since those days – several leading scientists and bodies, including the Institute of Physics, have expressed their concerns over the “continued use of old stereotypes” that girls are more suited to “softer” subjects such as that the arts and humanities while boys are “naturally” better at the hard sciences.
Birbal Singh is not wrong on the numbers: Last year only 23.1% of Physics A-Levels were female. And yet they outperformed their male counterparts—according to the Royal Society, 25.3 percent of female physics candidates scored an A*, compared to 20.9 percent of boys.
The same was true of math: 61 percent of A-level candidates were men, but girls who took the subject outperformed boys in getting top A* grades).
Girls are clearly just as capable of succeeding in STEM subjects, and consistently outperform boys at every educational level and subject. But the gender disparity in A-level options still leaves people questioning: is there any truth to the stereotype that most boys prefer science and math-based subjects? Are the two genders, as scientists believed centuries ago, just different wired brains?
The answer, according to many, is: not likely. Studies of what men and women are more or less likely to do or feel are still fairly common, but the only solid evidence of any gender differences between us is through social conditioning and the reinforcing of sexist norms through our lives. To do.
Centuries ago, scientists may have widely accepted the idea of the brain being biologically “male” or “female”, but these days experts think the idea of a “gender brain” is nonsense.
“What is clear is that when you are an adult or a teenager there are some differences in how you are perceived and how your behavior is rewarded by your peers. But this is not intuitive,” at University College London Christina Pagel, professor of operational research, says.
In any case, there is no neutral way to “test” the minds of men and women for differences, because everything we learn is a product of our experiences. “Unless we change our social structure, I don’t know how we can tell,” Pagel tells I, “Girls are treated differently and boys are treated differently from the time they were born. These beliefs follow us throughout our lives and that’s why girls in single-sex schools do more science—because they do a little more than that.” are safe,” she says.
It may be that girls have “more choices at A-level”, given that UCAS statistics show that they perform better in all GCSE subjects than boys. But a more direct answer may be why fewer girls take physics ahead of GCSE, Pagel says. “For good or ill, I think girls are put off by degrees that require physics and instead go on to medical or vet school or biomechanical careers, which require you to study biology. And math is required, but you don’t need physics. And you can’t do all three science and math at A level – you have to skip one.”
Not encouraging girls to take up STEM subjects beyond the GCSE points to a number of widespread, systemic problems. Asiya Ranjan, a 13-year-old student at the London Academy of Excellence in Stratford, is a top-performing student in all her subjects and hopes to go to Cambridge University to study mathematics later this year. Ranjan attends a girls’ secondary school and says she “never encountered gender stereotypes there”, but admits she lacked the same assurances that her male classmates did when her sixth form debuted .
“Many boys had a strong belief in their abilities with maths. I didn’t realize it… Sometimes people treat girls like this in the news and elsewhere. If you’re constantly told that you can’t do it or that you’re short, you may start to believe it,” she says.
Ranjan decided to specialize in mathematics “partly by chance” after a teacher asked him to apply for a scholarship. “I certainly don’t think I would have finished doing math in university if I hadn’t overcame that confidence barrier,” she says.
As most people will remember from their school days, liking your teacher can make a huge difference in how much you engage with a subject – and the statistics here offer a few more clues.
“Besides the perception that physics is ‘not for girls’, another challenge affecting subject pursuit at A-level is the persistent shortage of teachers, with last year’s physics teacher recruitment meeting only 22 percent of the government’s target.” Ulrike Tillman, chairman of the Education Committee of the Royal Society, said in response to Birbalsingh’s comments. “The paucity of specialist female physics teachers means that this unconscious bias towards girls doing physics has never broken, girls have some Are there role models or champions in schools, if any.”
Ultimately, in order to break the cycle and encourage girls to pursue subjects like physics, the STEM work environment needs to change. Statistics show that things are improving – possibly helped by changes to parental leave and flexible working hours – but women still make up less than a quarter (24 percent) of the population in STEM-based jobs. “There is more work to do to support women in STEM than we currently do,” says Pagel.
If she gets the grades, Mabel Sheve hopes for a career in cryptology after university. Her teacher Becky Parker is confident she will succeed. “There are so many opportunities now, especially for girls to go out and see how physics can help solve the climate crisis, cyber security, and other big challenges of our time,” Parker says. “It’s in all our best interest to let go of these harmful stereotypes and be the change we want to see.”