Some facts on getting girls into science

There’s a lot I’d like to say about women and science, but most must wait for another day. After the brouhaha today over that terrible Science, it’s a girl thing video I thought it would be useful to do a quick post with some actual research and facts about women and science.

The first thing to say is that in most areas of science the problem isn’t really getting girls to study it in the first place, but the a leaky pipe after that.

Loads of girls (in the UK*, which is where I’ve looked at the stats for) do science GCSEs, slightly fewer do A Levels, fewer again do a science degree.

Of those who do a science degree, fewer women than men do PhDs. Of those who do PhDs, fewer do post-docs… and so on up the seniority ladder.

It’s not the same in all subjects – biology and medicine-related subjects get plenty of women (at least in the early stages). Physics, computer science and engineering less so.

Here’s a UKRC report on this with all the stats

There is research on the subject issue – why do few girls study physics (despite stereotypes it’s not because they are less able at it) and what can you do that makes them more likely to study physics?

For example this research, found that girls whose science teachers had talked about the under-representation of women in physics, were more likely to go on to study physics.

This extensive research project for the Department of Education has all sorts of useful information and tips. Including the finding that showing how physics could be socially relevant, and to do with people, engaged girls more.

One piece of research suggests that trying to recruit girls by showing very glamorous and feminine role models (as in the video) is counter-productive. Although that research may not be that robust.

So, is that video going to do anything about the leaky pipe problem? Do you think it will encourage a woman who’s a senior researcher to go for that professorship?

Will it encourage someone just completing their PhD to apply for post-docs? Make a university department more likely to recruit a woman for a senior post? Improve university childcare provision or flexible working practices?

It seems intuitively unlikely, doesn’t it?

Some people on twitter were saying the offended people weren’t the target audience. That it was aimed at 11/12 year old girls. Well, leaving aside the problems of promoting short skirts and makeup to pre-pubescent girls, in that case it doesn’t need to get them interested in biology and chemistry, but should concentrate on physics.

I’m thinking Charlie’s Angels dancing round test tubes and lipstick isn’t going to do much to persuade girls in secondary school of the social relevance of physics. It looks a lot to me like the people who commissioned this video have completely ignored all the existing evidence on what the real problem is and what strategies might be used to fix it.

Wouldn’t it be nice if things like this were done with a bit of sensitivity, and with reference to the facts?

Declaration of interest – I developed and still act as a consultant for I’m a Scientist, Get me out of Here! This is a schools science programme where kids interact with real scientists. In my view it does a lot of the things recommended by the DfE report – showing cutting edge science, making it relevant and showing it’s to do with people, bringing students into contact with a range of interesting and realistic role models, etc. I bet the cost of making that shiny video would double I’m a Scientist’s budget for the year…

*Excluding Scotland, who have a different education system.

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6 responses to “Some facts on getting girls into science

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful post.

  2. Womwn are underrepresented in physics, but the ones I know are amazing. I’d like you to know them too. Listen to them explain wizard level physics on the titanium physicists podcast, and put the myth of women’s capacity in physics to bed, and then smother it to death with the pillow of firsthand experience!

  3. Pingback: 10 links for June — News from Somewhere

  4. Pingback: #sciencegirlthing blogs | @RoyMeijer

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