December 9, 2013, by Lindsay Brooke

Study physics girls and start a revolution!

Cosmologist tells girls to reach for the stars!

In many ways I am the worst person to write about why young women chose not to study physics because I have been studying physics since I picked my A-levels in 1999. I’ve never regretted that decision, it was the first step on a path that has allowed me to travel the world, study some of the biggest mysteries in the Universe and has led me to where I am now – a Research Fellow at The University of Nottingham.

So why don’t more young women start along this path?

According to a report published by the Institute of Physics the answer is that in a majority of schools young people are still being given the message that some subjects are for girls and some are for boys, and physics is definitely for boys.

Who hung the ‘no girls allowed’ sign on the door of the physics club house?

The answer seems to be sexism. In 2011 the Institute of Physics found that 46% of schools with female students sent no girls on to do A-level physics (compare with 14% for boys). Today’s report tells us that schools with a gender imbalance in physics also had significant gender imbalances in other subjects including those where girls were in the majority. I doubt whether there are many teachers today saying out loud to their students that boys should do physics and girls should do psychology. The message comes in subtle, sneaky, cultural ways that are hard to spot and even harder to counter.

Why does it matter?

The young women who are choosing not to do physics get just as good grades at GCSE as their male friends. If something puts them off studying physics further we are both limiting their opportunities and losing out on many brilliant future scientists and engineers.

There is some good news in the IoP report though. They find that a small number of schools show that it is possible to counteract gender imbalances by actively engaging with the issues. The statistics I quoted above can be changed, but it requires us all to acknowledge there’s a problem and to actively try to change it. We need to challenge gender stereotypes when we see them and we need to talk to young people, both boys and girls, about the imperfect world we live in and how they can help to change that.

Choose physics girls and start a revolution

To any young woman who is thinking about what A-levels to study – I say: Choose Physics and start a Revolution. Society is still trying to tell you what you should be doing, and that some things are not for you. This really is your opportunity to change the world. If you’ve ever looked up at the night sky and been awed by the stars, I promise you that they only become more beautiful the more you understand about what they are and where they’ve come from. There’s still so much that we don’t know about the Universe and so many ways in which physics will change the world we live in. Don’t let anybody tell you that you shouldn’t be a part of that.

Dr Clare Burrage
Royal Society University Research Fellow/Proleptic Lecturer
School of Physics and Astronomy
Faculty of Science
The University of Nottingham

Dr Burrage is a member of the Particle Theory Group and recently spent a week in Westminster on the Royal Society Pairing Scheme

Posted in Physics and Astronomy