How to get more women to study physics

Want more women to study for a physics degree? Stop asking for a physics A level, says Peter Coles

August 18, 2015

One of the interesting bits of news I picked up concerning last week’s A-level results is a piece from the Institute of Physics about the number of students taking A-level physics.

The opening paragraph reads:

Although there was an overall rise of 2 per cent in the number of A-level entries, the number taking physics fell to 36,287 compared with 36,701 last year – the first time numbers have fallen since 2006. The number of girls taking physics rose by 0.5%, however.

The decline is slight, of course, and it’s obviously too early to decide whether we’ve reached “Peak Physics” or not. It remains the case however that physics departments in UK universities are competing for a very small pool of students with A levels in that discipline.

With some universities, for example Newcastle, opening up physics programmes that they had previously closed, competition is going to be intense to recruit students across the sector unless the pool of qualified applicants increases substantially.

The article goes on to speculate that students may be put off doing physics by the perception that it is harder than other subjects. It may even be that some schools – mindful of the dreaded league tables – are deliberately discouraging all but the brightest pupils from studying physics in case their precious league table position is affected.

That’s not a line I wish to pursue here, but I will take the opportunity to rehearse an argument that I have made before. The idea is one that joins two threads of discussion that have appeared on a number of occasions on my blog.

The first is that, despite strenuous efforts by many parties, the fraction of female students taking A-level physics has flatlined at 20 per cent for more than a decade. This is the reason why the proportion of female physics students at university is the same: 20 per cent.

In short, the problem lies within our school system. This year’s modest increase doesn’t change the picture significantly.

The second line of argument is that A-level physics is simply not a useful preparation for a physics degree anyway, because it does not develop the sort of problem-solving skills required, or the ability to express physical concepts in mathematical language – both abilities on which university physics depends.

Most physics admissions tutors that I know care much more about the performance of students at A-level mathematics than physics when it comes to selecting “near misses” during clearing, for example. Hitherto, most of the effort that has been expended on the first problem has been directed at persuading more girls to do physics A-level.

Since all universities require a physics A-level for entry into a degree programme this makes sense, but it has not been successful. I now believe that the only practical way to improve the gender balance on university physics course is to drop the requirement that applicants have A-level physics entirely and only insist on mathematics (which has a much more even gender mix at entry).

I do not believe that this would require many changes to course content but I do believe it would circumvent the barriers that our current school system places in the way of aspiring female physicists. Not all UK universities seem very interested in widening participation, but those that are should seriously consider this approach.

I am grateful to fellow astronomer Jonathan Pritchard for pointing out to me that a similar point has been made to drop A-level physics as an entry requirement to civil engineering degrees, which have a similar problem with gender bias.

Peter Coles is professor of theoretical astrophysics at the University of Sussex. This post originally appeared on his blog.

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Reader's comments (2)

My daughter dropped physics after AS. The main reason was that she was going to be the only girl in the class - during AS there was another girl. There is a clear gender divide that is unique to the UK and is entrenched by specialising too early, having to think about the University degree at the age of 16 or earlier, and realising that careers that require A-level physics, like engineering, are dominated by men. It also baffles me why the A level physics avoids using calculus, when most students study Maths. I agree with the article in that the current A level physics is not a good preparation for University physics. It does not teach problem solving skills. Too many topics are covered in a superficial manner, with too much focus on 'exciting' applications rather than fundamental principles and problem solving. The textbook is simply appealing! A lot of time is wasted on lab demonstrations instead of problem solving. And more time is wasted on revising for exams using condensed revision books, which contain many errors. However, I don't agree that physics should be dropped from the admissions requirements. It needs to be taught better and have stronger links with Maths.
It's simple, dump the professors who humiliate their students for asking questions. As a freshman with a burning desire to become an engineer, I asked one question in BASIC Physics class about a derivative. I was humiliated in front of the entire class for asking such a stupid quesiton. I dropped out of college at that point, gave up a full scholarship, deeming higher education a waste of time. I went back much later to find I had asked a legitimate question and the professor's humiliating response was wrong. Not partially wrong, but completely wrong. Way to go dummy. I'd call him out, but his name is not worthy of recognition. As a professor myself, in a technical field, I ensure my students don't go through the same gender-specific male cow excrement common in higher education. I think this safe learning environment is why I have a 100% pass rate in a demanding field which includes practical physics.