Katharine Birbalsingh made a comment about girls and choosing physics A-levels when addressing a Science and Technology Committee inquiry on diversity and inclusion in Stem subjects.
Professor Michele Dougherty CBE, FRS, Head of Department of Physics and Professor of Space Physics, Imperial College London, said:
“As a female Head of one of the largest Physics Departments in Europe, this is not behaviour I recognise. We have worked incredibly hard in the UK in recent years to ensure that anyone who is interested in studying physics feels supported and enabled to do so and this is something we will continue to focus on. I am so very proud of all that my students and staff achieve as they carve out their careers – irrespective of their gender. It is astounding to me that senior leaders in the UK continue to make such unbelievably stereotypical comments, which are not backed up by data.”
Dr Hayaatun Sillem, Chief Executive, Royal Academy of Engineering, said:
“It’s very disappointing to hear outdated gender stereotypes being perpetuated in this way. There are many examples of outstandingly successful women pursuing careers which require physics qualifications, and it is extremely unhelpful for senior leaders to reinforce this erroneous perception that the gender imbalance in physics simply reflects girls’ preferences.
“There is strong evidence that factors limiting the progression of girls to A level physics in school are likely to depend on the whole school environment. For instance, schools with sixth forms tend to be more gender-balanced than schools without; independent co-ed schools tend to be more gender-balanced than state co-ed schools; and while pupils are less likely to study A level physics if they are at a school with a higher proportion of pupils receiving free school meals, this has no effect on gender balance. Moreover, nearly 40% of A level maths students are girls, compared to 20% of A level physics students, debunking the idea that girls steer clear of physics because of the maths content in those courses.
“Through initiatives like This is Engineering, the Royal Academy of Engineering and its partners right across the profession have been working hard to increase the diversity of young people that can see a future for themselves in engineering and allied disciplines, so that they can access these future-shaping, creative, well-paid and fulfilling careers.”
Prof Becky Parker, Visiting Professor in Department of Physics and Astronomy, Queen Mary University of London, and Physics Teacher at Simon Langton Girls’ Grammar School, said:
“My reaction is that this is an extraordinary comment, which makes me shudder with disbelief.
“I certainly have found that girls don’t think this at all.
“I have taught loads of brilliant women physicists who would be appalled at this remark which undermines efforts of trying to counteract stereotyping.
“The way I dramatically increased the number of girls from my state school going to study physics at university was by opening up the opportunities for my students to experience physics first hand in the real world, including being part of experiments at CERN, at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, and investigating dark matter. That way they could see a future they could be part of solving some of the world’s biggest challenges.”
Prof Ulrike Tillmann FRS, Chair of the Education Committee, Royal Society, said:
“We continue to see significantly lower numbers of female entrants to A level physics, despite female students attaining higher grades when they do pursue the subject. In 2021, while only 23.1% of physics entrants were female, they outperformed their male counterparts, with 25.3% of girls achieving an A* compared to 20.9% of boys.
“Highlighting the success of female pupils and women throughout STEM careers should be a priority for dispelling lingering myths that these are ‘boys subjects’.
“In addition to the perception that physics is ‘not for girls’, another challenge affecting the pursuit of the subject at A level is the persistent shortage of teachers, with last year’s physics teacher recruitment only meeting 22% of the government’s target. The lack of specialist female physics teachers means that this unconscious bias against girls doing physics is never broken, with girls having few, if any, role models or champions in schools.
“Addressing the gender gap in A level physics, and in the sciences and mathematics as a whole, will help to ensure that we have a highly skilled workforce for the future.”
Rachel Youngman, Deputy Chief Executive, Institute of Physics (IOP), said:
“The IOP is very concerned at the continued use of outdated stereotypes, as we firmly believe physics is for everyone regardless of their background or gender.
“We need to listen to the experiences of young people before making assumptions which can further perpetuate the challenges they face in doing physics. Young people themselves, including many girls, tell us that they face barriers to studying physics because of who they are rather than their ability.
“Removing the barriers that currently prevent girls, disabled young people, those from disadvantaged backgrounds, LGBT+ young people and ethnic minorities from doing physics requires a united effort from us all, including parents, teachers, the media and our governments.
“Outdated ideas need to be eradicated, all young people need to be encouraged to learn physics and other sciences, and we need specialist teachers to provide this education.
“We at the IOP are already engaged in lots of conversations to bring this about.”