Why don’t more girls study physics?

Published in The Telegraph, 16 Mar 2013

Jon Cartwright investigates why just 20 per cent of pupils who take A-level physics are female, and what’s being done to address the issue

The girls at Redland Green School have little enthusiasm for atoms, forces, energy and stuff. Unlike the boys. “I like physics,” says James, 16, a GCSE student. “It explains everything. It’s the way the universe works. It’s pretty much the entirety of existence. And it’s cool.”

Redland Green is a modern comprehensive, built six years ago in the heart of the affluent, liberal northern area of Bristol. Its physics teacher, Sarah Webb, is so enthusiastic about her subject that she has just completed a PhD in atmospheric spectroscopy on the side. And yet, like most other British schools, Redland Green is struggling with a basic physics question: why there are so few girls. Just 20 per cent of the pupils in its A-level physics class are girls – precisely the UK average.

That physics is a male-dominated subject will not come as a surprise. Together with chemistry and maths, physics is often associated with an abstract, oddly masculine type of cleverness. But chemistry and maths have outgrown this stereotype. Since the Eighties the proportion of girls in chemistry and maths at A-level has risen steadily, to the extent that the ratio of girls to boys is now roughly equal. (In chemistry it’s just under 50 per cent girls; in maths, about 40 per cent.) Not so in physics. According to a recent report by the Institute of Physics, nearly half of all mixed state schools have no girls studying A-level physics at all. […]

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