“The failure of numerous initiatives to make a “revolutionary” impact on girls’ uptake of physics has led the IOP to take a new approach outlined in its report, Improving Gender Balance: reflections on the impact of interventions in schools, IOP head of education Charles Tracy said at its launch.
Speaking to an audience at the Institute’s London centre on 22 March, he said that the proportion of A-level physics students who are female had stuck “resolutely at around 22%” since the mid-1980s with some minor fluctuations.
“I think the lesson we took from this about six years ago was that something new was needed – whatever was being done wasn’t working and it needed a new approach”.
Tracy said that in its latest pilot projects, described in the report, the IOP had exceeded all previous interventions by using a blended approach of working with students, working with physics teachers and working with the whole school staff. “Each intervention has an effect on its own but it was by blending all three that we saw a potentially transformational change in uptake,” he said.
Though the IOP’s work with teachers of physics through the Stimulating Physics Network (SPN) had resulted in improvements – eg, from 17% to 23% in girls’ uptake of A-level physics in participating schools – it was felt that more improvement was needed, particularly as 30% female participation was considered to be a tipping point in bringing about change.
Recent studies have pointed to unconscious biases and cultural stereotyping as possible reasons for this continuing gender imbalance, and they indicate that an embracing culture within the whole of a school is an important factor. Our latest project, Improving Gender Balance, and the pilot funded by the Drayson foundation trialled different interventions in schools and looked at the impact they had.
This report sets out the results and recommendations from that latest work, and will inform our continuing efforts to break down barriers and ensure that students are truly free to choose subjects based on their own aptitudes and interests – and if they choose, to find fulfilment in physics.