WISE Young Women’s Board: The IOP Girls in Physics Advisory Panel

Jess’ WISE report on the IOP Girls in Physics Advisory Board

The IOP have been supporting research into Girls in Physics since 2006, when they wrote a comprehensive review of girls’ participation in physics. There are lots of exciting new projects they’re championing: Improving Gender Balance, Opening Doors and the Drayson Pilot, and the IOP advisory board met to hear the latest findings.

It was an immense privilege to be asked to attend on behalf of the WISE campaign. The IOP are doing great work in unravelling the story behind girls not taking physics and it is an honour to be present for some part of that.

First we heard about Improving Gender Balance (IGB), a DfE-funded pilot project, which will run until 2016. IGB has three different ‘strands’ which address different factors surrounding girls in physics:

Strand A: Working with girls at KS3-4 to build confidence and resilience (8 schools)

Strand B: Working with teachers of physics to enhance the experience of girls in the physics classroom (8 schools)

Strand C: Working with senior leaders, governors, pupils and teachers across all subjects on gender equity and whole school culture (4 schools)

IGB is insanely interesting in itself. We first heard updates of the pilot plan in Scotland, where the IOP are working with skills development and Education Scotland. What’s the physics picture like for Scotland? On the whole, generally better, but still ‘skewed’. IGB Scotland is targeting the problem from nursery – secondary level. Their first foray into the nursery world; parents here are more involved and the IOP are learning a lot! Scotland are doing a brilliant job of promoting modern apprenticeships and scientific Advanced Highers.

The first results of IGB across the 20 English schools are back, and it looks like girls are more confident and teachers are changing their practise. Despite more of the students thinking they’ll do well in GCSE maths or get an A* in GCSE physics, they don’t think they’ll take physics A-level. Why do I think this is ? Because we can only choose four: you have to really love a subject (and have a clear idea of what you can do with it at the end of the day) to choose it. The IGB project has managed to get happier teachers in the staffroom who are finally discussing non-stereotypical careers. We’ll updated on IGB in late February when the current scheme comes to an end. 

We were updated on Opening Doors, an initiative which has correlated the site visits from IGB and formed a Guide to Good Practise. Opening Doors the conference happens on Tuesday 20th October, where a resource pack will be distributed to all IGB schools including power points, parents evening information and lesson plans. Opening Doors recommends 9 measures for best practise ranging from appointment of a Senior Gender Champion to Subject Equitation (not going strong on ‘maths is hard, physics is hard’). The resource pack even includes some common classroom practises that are ‘Okay and Not Okay’. The 9 steps do make it clear that you can gauge your efforts based on how much they’re needed and adapt the approach to the ages you think need it. Many schools looking at the list can feel reassured that they are doing certain things absolutely right, then reassess what they could do better.

The difficult part comes in the implementation: 

  • How can schools translate the good practise into practical advice?
  • How you can evaluate the impact of such a resource pack?
  • How will schools know whether that their action plans are working?
  • Should the IOP arrange some kind of voluntary accreditation, equivalent to the Athena Swan award scheme in universities?
  • If they do, will it be the female teachers who get left with the majority of the work?
  • Can the IOP generate some classroom / staffroom posters reminding students and staff that for some people, English and Art are hard?!
  • Would it be possible to generate a check box list to evaluate how schools are doing?
  • Could we link the resource pack to student councils, where students are often looking for things to do?
  • Can we engage with the teachers unions?

The discussion raised the ‘Roadmap’ of guidance for increased diversity created by the Science Council. The roadmap lets you move from ‘Gaining Commitment’ to ‘Establishing A Baseline’, ‘Agreeing Priorities’ and ‘Communicating Success’- perfect questions for any project.

Teaching equally with the Science Capital Lens. The audience also asked an important question: what’s the best way to approach physics for gils? Do we provide special lessons, separated from the whole class, or normal lessons with a ‘twist’? Can we include more information on careers? Can we embed more emphasis on gender equality?

So what do we need to do as Girls in STEM supporters? We need to promote the IOP resource and get people to sign up to the Opening Doors conference on 20/10/15.

The final subject was very close to my heart: Outreach. How to evaluate, how to regulate, what does it all mean? How can national STEM projects use all of the extensive knowledge of the IOP and their members?

A while ago the WISE campaign attempted to create a map of all of the Girls in Physics initiatives going on. Their finding? It’s impossible. Yes, the huge diversity gives you a big reach, but we need to learn from each other about that does and doesn’t work. Outreach is pretty important and a bad interaction can put people off science for life: so how can we find out what people are doing well?

The Institute don’t want to brand all outreach initiatives with the IOP logo as the motivation behind each project is often confused. Could we collate the grant applications and reports for public engagement to share results and frameworks? Diversity must be imperative on all of these award schemes: a requirement not just an option.

  • We need to educate all ambassadors visiting schools on issues around gender balance and diversity. STEMnet should probably do this nationally!
  • UCL are running a great scheme at a university level: if schools want to visit to run sessions on engineering, they can only do so if they bring equal numbers of boys and girls.
  • The IOP sponsored two I’m A Scientist UK zones last year and is doing the same this year. They’re going to analyse the male/ female interactions.

Just like at the WISE launch of ‘People Like Me’ there was some discussion about how detrimental the negative picture painted of career paths for women in STEM. Why do we encourage girls to go into physics when we’re not supporting the ones who are in it? Why are we overwhelming the media with sad statistics of female engineers and physics professors? TFL have just launched a celebration of 100 years of women in transport. Instead of emphasising how hard these ladies have had it, they’re shouting ‘COME AND JOIN US!’.

I’ll keep you posted on all my WISE board adventures.

Who goes: senior people! Prepare to be the youngest and least impressive in the audience. The guest list is super well-respected and have an awful lot of important things to say- rest your wrists!

Where is it? Somewhere swanky. 2015 was held in the Hallam Street Conference Centre, W1W.

How to dress: Smart casual 😀

What to take: a good pen (they’ll likely just have pencils)

Super interesting reports:



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