The real reasons fewer girls choose math and physics at school: stereotypes, beliefs and role models

At Simon Langton Grammar School in Kent, Mabel Shave learns to measure radiation levels in tea bags. She is one of the few girls here to study A-level math and physics, and practical experiments like the ones she talks about help her “realize science.”

Shaving has always liked physics, especially the element of mathematics. “I enjoy solving the problem,” he says. “Recent news shows the opposite.

Last month, Katharine Birbalsingh, chairwoman of the Social Mobility Committee, said fewer girls were learning physics because there was “very difficult math.” During a proof session at the House of Commons on April 26, Birbalsingh announced that only 16 percent of A-level physics students at his school were women.

“As far as I know, physics is not something that girls want, don’t want to do, don’t like,” he told parliamentarians.

Birbalsingham’s comments have been criticized over the days – many leading scientists and officials, including the Institute of Physics, have expressed concern about “sustainable use of outdated stereotypes” as girls adapt more to “softer” topics such as art and crafts. the humanities, and boys are “naturally” better at science.

Birbalsingh is right in the numbers: Last year, only 23.1 percent of A-level physics graduates were women. However, they outperformed their male counterparts – according to the Royal Society, 25.3 percent of female candidates in physics achieved an A * rating compared to 20.9 percent of boys.

The same was true for mathematics: 61 percent of high school entrants were men, but girls who took the subject outperformed boys in achieving the best A * grades.)

Girls are equally successful in STEM subjects and consistently outperform boys in every level of education and subject. However, gender differences in high school graduation choices still surprise people: is there any truth in the stereotype that most boys naturally prefer science and math? Were the brains of the two sexes, which scientists believed centuries ago, structured differently?

Many believe that the answer is no. Research on what men and women are more or less willing or able to do is still quite common, but the only solid evidence of any gender difference between us is social conditioning and the strengthening of sexual norms in our lives.

Centuries ago, scientists could have widely accepted the idea that the brain was biologically “male” or “female,” but now experts believe that the idea of ​​a “sexual brain” is nonsense.

“Obviously, there are some differences in how you perceive and reward your peers for their behavior during adolescence or adolescence. But this is not a birthright, “said Christina Pagel, a professor of operations research at University College London.

In any case, there is no neutral way to “test” the brains of men and women for differences, because everything we learn is the product of our experience. “I don’t know how to say that unless we change the social structures we have,” says Pagel. and. “Girls are treated differently from birth, and boys are treated differently. These perceptions follow us throughout our lives, and that’s why girls are more involved in science in single-education schools – because they’re a little more protected from it. ”

Given that Ucas data performed better than boys in all GCSE subjects, girls may have “more A-level choices.” But there may be another simple answer to why fewer girls choose physics over GCSE, Pagel adds. “I think girls postpone their physics degrees for better or worse, and instead go into a biomechanical career where you need medicine, veterinary medicine, biology and math, but you don’t need physics. You can’t do all three levels of science and math – you have to throw one. ”

Many point to broader systemic problems that do not encourage girls to take STEM subjects outside of GCSE. Asia Ranjan, a 13th-grader at Stratford-based London Academy of Excellence, excels in all subjects and hopes to go to Cambridge University later this year to study mathematics. Ranjan went to girls’ high school and says he “never encountered a gender stereotype there,” but admits he lacked the confidence his classmates had when he entered sixth grade.

“Many boys believed in their math skills. I haven’t felt it … People sometimes treat girls like that in the news and elsewhere. If you hear you can’t do it, or you’re inferior, you can start believing it, he says.

After the teacher persuaded him to apply for a scholarship, Ranjan decided to specialize in mathematics “partly by accident.” “I don’t think I would have graduated from university if I hadn’t crossed that confidence barrier,” he said.

As most people remember from their school days, a teacher’s sympathy can make a big difference in how close you are to a topic – and here the numbers give an extra clue.

In addition to the belief that “physics is not for girls,” another problem affecting high school graduation is the persistent shortage of teachers, and last year’s recruitment of physics teachers met only 22 percent of the government’s target. “The lack of specialized physics teachers means that this unconscious prejudice against girls in physics has never been broken, and girls have few role models or teachers in schools,” said Ulrike Tillmann, chairman of the Royal Society’s education committee.

Finally, STEM work environments need to change to disrupt the cycle and encourage girls to take subjects such as physics. Figures show that jobs are improving – perhaps partly due to changes in parental leave and flexible working hours – but women still make up less than a quarter (24%) of the population in STEM-based jobs. “There’s more work to be done to support women in STEM than it does now,” Pagel said.

If he gets a degree, Mabel Shave hopes to pursue a career in cryptology after college. Teacher Becky Parker is confident that she will succeed. “Now, especially for girls, there are more opportunities to go out there and see how physics can help solve the climate crisis, cybersecurity and other big problems of our time,” Parker said. “It’s in our interest to throw out these harmful stereotypes and be the change we want to see.”

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