On Wednesday 27 April, the Science & Technology Committee's inquiry on Diversity in STEM called Katharine Birbalsingh, Chair of the Social Mobility Commission as a witness.

Watch the evidence session on Parliament TV

In response to questioning around quality of teaching, she spoke on the proportion of girls studying physics at A Level at the school where she is headteacher, Michaela Secondary School in London (rated Outstanding by Ofsted). Birbalsingh said:

…physics isn’t something that girls tend to fancy. They don’t want to do it, they don’t like it.

When probed further by Chair of the Committee, Rt Hon Greg Clarke MP, on why this number is so low, she reasoned:

There’s a lot of hard maths in there that I think they would rather not do. *

Birbalsingh then went onto say there has been “research” that has shown this aversion to physics from girls is “natural”, and that she believes there are “no external factors” at her own school.

* The percentage of maths A Levels being awarded to girls has declined year-on-year, mirroring the decline in the numbers of boys (WISE, 2019)

The British Science Association’s (BSA) response

The BSA wants science to be more representative of society. We believe that making assertions that perpetuate longstanding stereotypes, such as those made to the STC inquiry, are damaging and fail to address the systemic issues that have led to the chronic underrepresentation of women and girls in science today.

In the UK, less than 23% of the students awarded a physics A Level were girls and just 27% of the STEM workforce are women. To compare:

The evidence shows that better representation is possible and that there’s no “natural” propensity for boys to study science more than girls. Barriers to science in the UK have made it systemically inequitable.

Through providing the secretariat for the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) in STEM, the BSA have seen clear evidence that inequities in STEM education prevail into the workforce, creating environments that are not welcoming to minoritised groups including women. A workforce that deters a significant proportion of the population will not be as competitive or innovative as others that are able to attract the diversity of talent available.

Inclusion starts at an early age and the education system has a vital role to play; schools' role in GCSE options selection in particular is leading to inequity, especially in the most disadvantaged areas.

Inclusionary practices should therefore be implemented early on, challenging beliefs such as “physics is for boys”, to unlock the potential of children and ensure their ambitions are not restricted by society.

In the report on inequity in STEM education, APPG on D&I in STEM recommends that steps should be taken to ensure that all teaching and learning approaches and resources are broad and inclusive. This refers to the knowledge and practices they represent, and that they do not reproduce normative ideas of who does STEM. There are already a wide range of interventions seeking to tackle equity in STEM education, but for many there is a need for consistency, better targeting and better evaluation of the results.

Dr Heather King, VP for Education at the BSA says:

“More boys than girls report being encouraged to pursue maths and physics by parents and teachers, which highlights just how prevalent and entrenched the gendering of science subjects is in our society.

“School-age girls also report lacking confidence in their maths’ and physics’ abilities, despite their teachers viewing them just as capable. This demonstrates systemic problems in the design of curricula, assessments with school science and accepted beliefs of who can and should ‘do’ science.

“More work is needed to create learning environments that support and nurture learners from a range of backgrounds, not just to pave the way for a more inclusive workforce but to ensure everyone in society is empowered to participate in STEM in their own way.”

Katherine Mathieson, former Chief Executive of the BSA, also gave evidence to the inquiry.

Read more about the BSA’s testimony at the Diversity in STEM inquiry