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The Physics Problem

By Emily Macleod, on 21 November 2018

By Dr Julie Moote

ASPIRES 2 Research Associate Dr Julie Moote recently spoke at the first workshop on high energy theory and gender at CERN. Threaded through the theoretical physics presentations by scientists were a series of gender talks by academics working across the field. This blog is a summary of Dr Moote’s presentation of findings from the ASPIRES 2 project; ‘Understanding Young Women’s STEM Aspirations: Exploring aspirations and attitudes between the ages of 10 and 19 in England’.

Background

Participation in post-compulsory physics remains low and unchanged, with the proportion of students studying physics at A level in the UK noticeably lower than those studying other sciences. Not only do a minority of students tend to see physics as ‘for me’, but the field of physics itself also shapes and normalises its elite status.

Beyond issues of the STEM skills gap, physics especially suffers from under-representation of women and minority groups. The Institute of Physics recently found that boys were four times more likely to progress to A-level having done triple science over additional science, a disparity that is reflected to a slightly lesser extent across the STEM disciplines. This imbalance carries through to physics-based employment; for example although the number of women in engineering in the UK is growing, women still only make up 11% of the UK engineering workforce.

Who is studying physics? The ASPIRES 2 Findings

The ASPIRES 2 project found that gender was the biggest difference between students taking physics A Level and those taking other sciences at A level. Physics students were also more likely to have high levels of cultural capital, be in the top set for science, have taken Triple Science and have family members working in science.

Students’ interest, enjoyment and aptitude is not enough to pursue physics post-16

The ‘gender problem’ in physics is a long-standing issue with women remaining under-represented despite decades of interventions. Therefore, physics remains a challenging education and career option for women. In fact, girls’ choices not to pursue post-16 physics are rational and strategic, especially as gender inequality within physics renders their success harder. Physics is highly effective at maintaining its elite status by discouraging ‘non traditional’ students and by ensuring that those students who do gain entry accept the status quo;

  • Firstly, the popular and prevalent, gendered notion of the ‘effortlessly clever physicist’ (e.g. see Carlone’s 2003 study) means that many young women think they are not ‘naturally’ clever enough to study physics further. In turn, this maintains physics’ status as the ‘hardest’ science. The fantasy of the ‘effortlessly clever physicist’ deters even highly able, interested young women from aspiring to post-18 physics education and careers. If the most highly attaining young women don’t see themselves as ‘clever enough’, who is?
  • Gatekeeping practices by schools work to block potential students from studying Physics and leads other students to self-exclude.
  • The separation of ‘real’ and school Physics gives the impression that ‘real’ Physics is only for the privileged few with the endurance to attain it (paper under review).
  • Young women with very high Science Capital are more likely to continue with Physics.

Recommendations

Significant change is needed and will only be achieved by transforming the field of Physics itself, rather than focusing on just changing the students (e.g. changing their aspirations and attitudes).

We strongly encourage those who work within the field of Physics to understand and challenge the existing (often taken-for-granted, everyday) ways that the subject reproduces inequality in participation. We see a real value in opening up the current excessively tight gatekeeping practices around entry to Physics A level. In particular, there is a need to disband notions of the ‘effortlessly clever’ physicist, and the notion that physics is ‘harder’ than other subjects – otherwise it will remain the preserve of just a small number of ‘exceptional’ students.

We propose changes to the way school science – and Physics in particular – is taught and experienced:

  • Differences in marking and grade severity across and between subjects should be eliminated.
  • Science and particularly physics should be taught in ways which better link to diverse students’ interests and lives. The Science Capital Teaching Approach has been shown to be helpful in this respect for increasing student engagement and participation in school science.
  • Physics (and indeed all) teachers should be better supported to understand the complex and sometimes hidden ways in which gendered, classed and racialized inequalities are reproduced through teaching.

For more information about the conference please visit CERN’s website. Following the event, CERN published a statement; CERN stands for diversity (which can be found here). For Dr Moote’s response to events at the conference please see here.

Further reading

We also recommend the following reading from the ASPIRES 2 project on the topic of physics and gender:

Additional papers under review. Sign up to receive project updates and publication news here.

Photo by Ramón Salinero on Unsplash.

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