By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association


“Physics isn’t something that girls tend to fancy. They don’t want to do it, they don’t like it.”

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

It has been almost two months since Katharine Birbalsingh, Chair of the Social Mobility Commission, made these fateful comments, among others, at the Science & Technology Committee’s inquiry on Diversity in STEM about girls studying physics. 

The saying goes, today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s fish and chips paper; another story about controversial comments may have faded into obscurity by now, usurped by the next scandal. But Birbalsingh’s words did not happen in a vacuum. They perpetuated the deeply embedded issue around gender and science that we need to address and solve for a more equal and inclusive society, not passively allow to become more entrenched.

Therefore, to mark International Women in Engineering Day, 23 June, which aims to battle the stereotype that engineering (and its associated fields, including physics) is a male career path, we are discussing our response so far, and sharing some thoughts teachers from around the UK have anonymously shared with us.

British Science Association's response

The British Science Association (BSA) published an article the day following Birbalsingh’s comments, 28 April. We categorically disavowed the message that girls having an aversion to physics is ‘natural’, and that there are ‘no external factors’ at play in the gender gap of the uptake in physics after GCSEs, as Birbalsingh had suggested.

We highlighted that in other parts of the world, including the US and the EU, there is more equality around women and girls in physics and engineering; the issue is due, at least in part, to the societal pressures and expectations young people grow up around. In the UK the statistics – that in 2019 less than 23% of the students awarded a physics A Level were young women – suggest that we have a problem with the messaging children and young people are receiving.

Maria Rossini, the Head of Education here at the BSA, discussed this in a thought piece for the New Scientist, written in light of Birbalsingh’s words. She cited the telling statistic that at GCSE level, when science and maths are a compulsory subjects, girls outperform boys in terms of grades. This suggests that the low figure stated above of girls studying physics at A Level, 23%, is not due to inability but a belief that advanced study of physics isn’t for them. Rossini quoted research that found that girls think they’re ‘not naturally clever enough’.  

She also discussed how a lack of female scientists mentioned in the GCSE science curriculum (just two, while 40 male scientists were named) means girls have far fewer role models, something which has been proven to affect young people’s life choices. (Read our blog here on the positive impact Black teachers and academics have on their students.)

What teachers around the UK had to say

It is important to us to be part of the national conversation breaking down harmful stereotypes around science, and any constructive conversation involves multiple voices being heard. We wanted to hear the views of our audience on front line of education, so we sent out a survey in the May edition of our education newsletter with one question - What are your thoughts on Katherine Birbalsingh's statements about girls studying physics?

A secondary school teacher in North East England shared a disheartening experience one of their pupils had:

“Children need to see people like them in key STEM roles before they seriously contemplate these sectors for themselves. External factors are of huge importance - this week one of our top Year 13 students visited a top 100 apprenticeship firm's London offices as part of the selection process for a degree apprenticeship and was put off as she saw no other Black females on site that day.  She has managed to get all the way through school believing she can do Maths, Further Maths etc and has sadly just found out that such equality is much more patchy in real life.”

A primary school teacher in Scotland described how the young children they teach have not yet absorbed negative stereotypes, or had experiences similar to the one shared above, and so still happily engage with science:

“I am incredibly disappointed by these statements. Girls perform very well in maths at this level. There is still a perception (aggravated by comments like these) that physics is for boys. In my primary school girls and boys take part in science to an equal degree. The girls recently have performed particularly will with robotics and coding and are particularly creative in aspects of physics, for example understanding forces etc.”

Another respondent in North East England was concerned about how Birbalsignh’s comments and other similar views could impact social mobility:

“Her comments about girls studying physics are shocking, not least because of the organisation she represents.  While those dangerous (in my opinion) views are allowed to continue, bias against girls will remain endemic and will narrow the potential for discussion whether that is girls in physics, or whether it is based on outdated class values or cliched views around what and whom social mobility is for. It is too common that young people are 'tiered' by authority figures into what they can and can't do.”

While it is a shame that this conversation about erasing gender stereotypes in science still needs to be had, we were heartened to hear that teachers around the UK are supporting their students to pursue the subjects they excel in.

The survey is still live and we would love to hear from you, whether you’re an educator, a parent, or just passionate about social equality. Click here to share your views.