Girls see physics as being for ‘white males’, female Cambridge scientist claims

Dame Athene Donald said it was “pretty damning” that the national curriculum did not include mentions of female scientists

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A female Cambridge scientist has said girls absorb the message that physics is for “white males” early in life, which leads to a lack of uptake later on at A-level.

Professor Dame Athene Donald, Master of Churchill College and professor emerita of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge, told the Commons Science and Technology Committee it was “pretty damning” that the national curriculum did not include mentions of female scientists.

Dame Athene said the fact that “most of the images one sees of scientists, physicists, are white males, I think is relevant”.

She added: “And this starts really young, the message society gives is that they are white males, and I think there is evidence to show that if you are black or if you are a woman, you don’t see yourself fitting in.”

Girls absorb the message that physics is for “white males” early in life, a scientist has claimed
Girls absorb the message that physics is for “white males” early in life, a scientist has claimed

Dame Athene said she thought some of the problems with representation in science at a later stage of education, in terms of girls from ethnic minority backgrounds taking up subjects such as physics, may be because they have thought “I don’t belong, I don’t fit in”.

“The fact the national curriculum has no women scientists named, for instance, is pretty damning and I think that this idea of ‘is this for me?’ we should really be looking at much earlier,” she said.

Dame Athene said girls absorbed these ideas “subliminally” very early on, referring to research from the US that showed that by the age of six girls felt “you had to be really, really smart” to do physics and that it was not for them.

She said there was a “societal belief” that physicists were much more “brilliant” than linguists, for instance, and that while the “conditioning, it’s never made explicit, I think teachers at every stage can fuel that accidentally”, in terms of the questions they asked boys as opposed to girls.

Dame Athene said she had gone to an all-girls’ school and that “no-one said girls don’t do physics”.

Speaking about comments made by Katharine Birbalsingh, headteacher of Michaela School in Brent, to the committee, where she said the low uptake of A-level physics among girls in her school was because they disliked “hard maths”, Dame Athene said: “It would seem to me that probably they (Michaela School) haven’t thought about it.

“The internal messages that girls may believe – if teachers aren’t actively trying to counter that, they may not realise that the girls are being driven by things that aren’t their natural choices,” she added.

The University of Cambridge
The University of Cambridge

“There’s a difference between active discouragement and not active encouragement, and I think a school which isn’t keeping an eye – I mean she talked about 16% of girls doing physics A-level – the national average is 23 percent, so she’s below the curve as it were, and I would assume that’s just because it hasn’t been an item on their agenda.”

Dame Athene also said she would like to dispense with the “intimidating” Cambridge interview to widen access.

“To be honest, and I know my colleagues in Cambridge don’t like this, we would do away with the interview for exactly that reason, we think it is intimidating to those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds,” she said.

“We think it is much easier if you’ve been to a school that has got a track record of sending people to Oxbridge, those people will be better prepared. It is not a view that my colleagues in Cambridge are willing to accept,” Dame Athene added.

Dr Jasper Green, an Ofsted inspector and science lead at the inspectorate, said that schools allowing pupils to choose between double and triple science GCSE too early could be a barrier to disadvantaged pupils from taking A-level sciences later on.

“If that decision comes too early, let’s say in Year 8 or Year 9, then you are potentially disadvantaging a number of pupils from doing triple science and then that has impact in terms of those pupils who go on to do A-level,” he said.

Students who were not selected for triple science may feel science is not for them and you can lose those students “prematurely”, Dr Green added.

“Where there is choice, that can lead to certain groups who are perhaps already underrepresented being selected against.”