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Girls in STEM

Posted: 23rd November 2018

two female scientists doing an experiment

We don’t tend to question how we can speak in to a little metal box on one side of the world and be heard through another little metal box on the other side of the world. We don’t ponder why we don’t drift away from the earth…we all know it’s due to gravity and that’s enough of an explanation to satisfy most – but not Physicists. In my opinion, a lot of Physics and how the world works is just accepted without needing to be explained. However, one thing that Physics can’t explain is why so few girls choose to study it.

As an intersectional feminist, I acknowledge that gender isn’t binary, and that gender identity is complex. This aside, it is glaringly obvious that girls are seriously under-represented in Physics classes. It’s shocking that last year only 21.5% of A level Physics students in the UK were girls. In relation to my year group at Brampton, this number seem huge – only 2 out of the 13 students taking Physics are girls. In my class, there’s me and 7 boys. This feels like extra pressure (not in the force over area kind of way) to do well, as though doing badly somehow proves the old-fashioned, traditional view that women don’t belong in the world of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths). I also take Chemistry and Maths A levels – however in both of these subjects the gender balance is more equal and I don’t feel the same pressure. So what sets Physics apart?

Chemistry and Maths are heavily related to medical careers, paths that appeal to many students. Despite gender stereotypes within the work place (such as nurses being seen as primarily a job for women), there are countless options relating to Medicine. Physics seems different to the other sciences (Chemistry and Biology) due to not being directly related to Medicine. Careers stemming (no pun intended) from Physics may be perceived as quite single pathways – people know of engineers, mechanics and electricians, and that’s about it. These are all stereotypically male jobs due to being hands-on and a bit greasy. When we think of someone rolling out from underneath a car in grease-stained overalls, we don’t generally picture a girl.

When you’re passionate about a subject and are considering pursuing a career in it, having an inspirational role model, someone to look up to, someone to guide you, is incredibly helpful, especially if this person is someone you can relate to. According to the New Scientist magazine (10 Nov 2018), women make up only 7 % of Physics professors in the UK. Despite the high standards of teaching at Brampton, there are no female Physics teachers. Surrounded by male peers and taught by men only, I feel like the anomaly because of my gender.

In the New Scientist article various Physicists weighed (not in the mass multiplied by the acceleration of gravity kind of way) in on why they believe there’s a gender imbalance in physics and what we can do about it. Here are some of their ideas:

“Children learn about accomplishments of historical male physicists, male physicists win the prizes and chair the panels and appear in the media. They are seen as the authority figures of physics” – Jessie Christiansen (Astrophysicist, NASA Exoplanet Archive).

“In the UK, our society, culture and schools convey the message that physics is not for girls through attitudes, toys and education. Additionally, unlike most other countries, we require decisions about subject choice to be made early, around 14. This is an age when children are particularly susceptible to external pressures and messages, be they from peers or adults” – Athene Donald (Experimental physicist, University of Cambridge).

Personally, I enjoy Physics because it uses Maths and logic to explain how the world works. From how airplanes fly to why bridges don’t collapse; from the design of transport and technology, to how one walks in high heels; Physics influences our everyday lives, regardless of gender. I hope in the future, more girls will be encouraged to study Physics and innovate the world.

Categories: Student Blog