We are all keen to engage more girls in physics. And, certainly in the UK, there have been initiatives and large amounts of money thrown at this problem for the past 30 years. Yet the percentage of girls taking physics up to age 18 and as undergraduates has remained stubbornly at about 20%. We can only conclude that everything we have tried has made NO difference to the uptake of physics by girls.
It’s quite true that the total number studying physics in the UK up to age 18 and at university in the UK has increased over the past few years. There is no doubt that the multitude of activities designed to enthuse young people and encourage them into science has had an effect –but the increase has been mainly in the number of boys choosing the subject.
So what are we continuing to do wrong? The answer is that we continue to treat girls as if they are ‘proto-boys’. We assume a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach will work just as well for girls as for boys. This is true for a small percentage of girls (the 20% who are choosing the subject). But the majority are just not convinced. There is now clear evidence that simply enjoying the subject or finding it interesting is not sufficient to persuade girls to choose physics at university. All those initiatives that aim to show ‘physics is fun’ are missing the point. It seems that girls, in the UK at least, are far more pragmatic than we realised. They are keen to keep their career options open and are convinced that studying physics actually limits their career choices. We have spent so much time talking about ‘being a scientist’ that the girls now think that, with a physics qualification, they will be limited to being a scientist (or a teacher). It would be far better to emphasise the wide range of choices available: to demonstrate the careers ‘from’ physics – to show physics as a springboard rather than a funnel becoming ever more narrow.
Then there’s another issue: the vocabulary. Social Scientists will point out that, on average, women talk about themselves or their life dreams using adjectives while men will use verbs. (Many female readers at this point will disagree, but of course you are the women who DID choose physics so you are used to working in a masculine world and may have adapted to masculine vocabulary/behaviour – I’m talking about averages). If all of our conversations with young people are based upon verbs, then many girls may not recognise themselves as being part of the picture. It is for this reason that many girls will agree that physics is important and it is interesting. But they will then conclude that ‘it isn’t for people like me’.
Parents often talk a child’s natural aptitudes and even relate them to being inherited from a particular relative – “she’s very musical, it must have come from my Great Aunt Gertie who played the piano”. If a girl has absorbed these messages, then she will have added them to the complete self-portrait that she is creating as she grows into womanhood. As a young teenager she is acutely aware of her self-identity, the aptitudes, talents and natural abilities ascribed to her, and have worked out just who are ‘people like me’.
So unless we talk about ‘people like her’, girls will continue to see physics as something for the others.