Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Girls in physics

Why are there fewer women than men in physics? And... is it actually a problem? 

What women want in a job and what physics can offer them can sometimes seem to be completely opposed, especially for those women with a desire to start a family. This morning I met 22 female A-level students who offered suggestions on why this might be and more importantly, what they think should be done about it.

I ran this morning’s session with Joanne Walker and Jo Barstow from Atmospheric & Planetary Physics at Oxford, for a group of 22 female A-level students. Most of the girls are studying physics but all have come to Oxford for a couple of days to learn more about Women in Science.
To kick off, we asked the girls to write down adjectives describing the job they would like to have one day. The words they came up with included “interesting, challenging, varied, social and flexible” among others. We then asked them whether or not they thought these words described a career in physics. Apart from challenging and interesting, most of the words got a tepid response from the girls when they thought about physics as a job.

Prior to the session Jo, Joanne and myself had come up with words to describe our (current or future) job. For example, mine were “creative, diverse, respected and international” to describe my (hopefully) future job as a research scientist and lecturer. Notably, many of our words overlapped with the words the girls had come up with. I was surprised this worked as well as it did - but I guess the fact that none of the girls had listed ‘lucrative’, ‘easy’ or ‘menial’ made the task much easier. I think employers underestimate the extent to which good students value the intellectual challenge of a job, rather than just settling for long and stressful working hours in some highly-paid city job.

We then went on to discuss with the girls the ‘problem’ of low numbers of women in physics, particularly at higher levels, highlighted by the fact that they could name only one female physicist (living or dead) - Marie Curie. Needless to say they could name more than 15 male physicists (they had done, in a quiz the night before).

The challenge? To get more women into physics. The solutions? Here is what the girls suggested:

“Years 7-9 in school seem to be the tipping point when students decide they don’t like physics. Chemistry is exciting with lots of explosions and colourful experiments. Biology introduces us to the human body and even if it’s gory, that will get the attention of students. So what about physics? Cars or balls rolling down inclines planes, or drawing a radiator to illustrate convection currents just doesn’t stand up to the other sciences at this level. It is as if physics simply falls by the wayside. Getting students more interested at this level might help them to see the relevance and excitement of physics.”

“News and TV programs usually seem to show men doing science. Even if there are less women doing physics, they should be equally represented in the media to provide both male and female role models. That said, Brian Cox’s ‘Wonders of the Solar System’ wouldn’t have been as popular with a female presenter - simply because there aren’t any as well known as Brian.”

“Encourage more physics graduates to teach in schools. We want teachers who are passionate about their subject and have a degree in it, even when we are in GCSE. It shows if they don’t, and it puts us off studying the subject further.”

“More should be done to make sure that women (and men) who want to have a family are able to re-enter research or do it part-time alongside bringing up young kids. Bursaries, grants and a bit of an attitude-change in research environments would really help achieve this.”

I thought the girls suggestions were insightful and right on the mark. It certainly made me think about where I should be aiming my efforts in outreach and what I should be campaigning for in terms of flexible working in the future. These girls are bringing the right kind of thinking into making decisions about their own career choices, and I hope each and every one of them achieves what they want to in their careers, and their lives.