The IOP’s Opening Doors

On Tuesday 20th October scientists, mathematicians, technologists, psychologists, sociologists, neuroscientists and academics from across the world came together in a posh hotel in central London to discuss gender stereotyping in schools. The IOP have made valiant efforts to change the perception of physics amongst young women; to open the doors for a new generation of female scientists into the laboratories of the future. Opening Doors the conference is to release their ‘Guide to Good Practise’– it contains essential features, data from the IOP gender balance survey, descriptions of what’s ‘okay and not okay’ and ideas for how to disseminate meaningful careers advice.

The day was eye-opening; distressing and empowering, and it was an immense privilege to be able to represent both Imperial College and the WISE campaign. The speakers and panel discussion were chaired by Dame Barbara Stocking of Murray Edwards College Cambridge. Murray Edwards is one of the few remaining all-women colleges and Dame Stocking is interested in promoting women in science at all stages of their careers. Her idea, which I think everyone else is thinking too, is that children should be able to go to school and study the subjects they enjoy. All too often I think we lose sight of that with the big push for women in science; not all girls HAVE to study physics, but they must all know that they can.

We were introduced to the resource by the IOP’s Professor Peter Main. He’s the big name behind the report and a champion for gender equality across the board. They’ve got a lot of frightening stats: since 1985 the number of girls taking maths has increased; reflecting a society who recognise the importance of being able to sort your own finances or work out how many milligrams of medicine to take, but the number taking physics has decreased. Since 1985 there have been huge efforts to get girls to take physics (although these seem mainly clustered this side of the year 2000), none of which seem to have worked. The IOP have launched lots of investigations into the problem:

  1. It’s different for girls: this looked at the national student database and got some pretty gruesome stats on choices post GCSE. Interesting facts pop-out; not ONLY the lethal ’48 % of UK State Schools have no female physics students at A-level’, or that if you were at an all girls school you’d be much much more likely, but even that if you went to a co-ed school, if it was private you were more likely… so what are we doing wrong? Sure, there are the familiar responses of a lack of resources and lack of a brilliant physics teacher, but across the board? It’s different for girls found that school culture was largely responsible. A bar chart of male/female ratios across all a-level courses didn’t make for good viewing either: computing is 7 % women whilst physics has fallen from 23 % in 1985 to 21 %. In the order of ‘Top A-Level Choices’, physics comes in at a promising 3rd for boys and a worrying 18 th for girls. 18 A-levels!? I don’t think my school offered 18 A-levels. What’s super interesting is that biology somehow gets it right, with equal male-student numbers and rankings in the ‘my favourite a-level’ charts.
  2. Closing Doors compared 6 different subjects; 2 core (English and Maths), 2 sixth form only (Economics and Psychology) and two sciences (Biology and Physics). What’s fascinating is that even when you have no pre-interaction with any teaching staff subjects are super gendered. They used all the stats they’d collected looking at what was different for girls and rated every school in the country, giving a +1 for schools beating the stereotype and -1 if they were losing. This meant that in total they could +6 or -6 depending on how well or how badly they were doing. What they found…
    1. 81 % of them weren’t making any impact: 49 % were actually doing worse.
    2. Schools that were post-16 only had worse gender-stereotyping
    3. In one country every single school scored -5
    4. In order to get more girls to take physics, you needed to improve gender balance across the board
  3. Opening Doors takes their findings to schools (and beyond!). Actually, the government were supposed to be present at the conference, but instead they were probably hanging out with my new pal President Xi. At each school they had rank discussions and unconscious bias training, uniting teacher networks, IOP stuff and gender experts. After the project they summarised their finding in a ‘Good Practise’ guidelines, combining evidence from all of their research. A site visit comprises of meeting the school leadership team, teachers with special responsibility, departmental heads and classroom teachers, getting the students ideas at all-boy and all-girl lunches and then briefing the school team on their findings.

The audience were encouraged to ask questions (and do the classic ‘I know more than you’ fact drop, so common to academic conferences across the world…). The IOP know:

  • the head teachers and senior management have to be on board: with chairs of student governors knowing that any minute out of a classroom is a waste of time. When the IOP advertised the programme a huge number of schools signed up, and when they heard that the teachers would have to commit to a series of events, a huge number of schools pulled out.
  • schools do a big clean up when they know the IOP are coming: and all of them realised how many of the ‘inspirational quotes’ lining their walls and lecture theatres were said by men.
  • timetable blocks: to people combining subjects, or taking triple science, are gendered too
  • development training: most teaching staff don’t hear anything about gender equality amongst subjects or training in unconscious bias.
  • all schools have a ‘diversity policy’- no one knows that that is.
  • schools are collecting a lot of data– and they have very little idea what to do with it or about it.
  • racist language is not tolerated; sexist language is a grey area. There are often no formal procedures for reporting the use of sexist language, nor definitions of what is and isn’t sexist.
  • girls fear failure: we’re scared to pursue things we might not do well in.
  • British society believes strongly in ‘innate’ talent, whereas other countries appreciate hard work
  • Individual initiatives can be great: but they don’t get rolled out across the school and often leave with teachers
  • Schools say publicly they require ‘B for A-level maths and physics’- but often tell pupils behind closed doors that they NEED A*s
  • Careers advice needs to be earlier and targeted
  • Parental influence and understanding crucial: middle class parents are more progressive to the world of work

Can we get the students to take ownership?

How can the projects be sustained?

If schools only allow three A-levels, how can we convince girls that physics is important?

Can we define a set of core maths and physics pre-requisites, that even if you don’t have an A* at A-level you can study a physics degree?

‘The Maths and Physics Driving Test’ that teaches more practical skills. Can we change the physics, not change the girls?

Professor Louise Archer spoke about sociology and incredibly eloquently about all the work they’re doing at King’s. The Aspires project has found the problems are entrenched within society, and whilst it’s incredibly complex, there are things we can do… We go in strong on the ‘science is fun’ but how can we make a meaningful impact?

It starts pre-GCSE: when we tell 75 % of the student body that they can’t do science (double / triple divide).

Prof. Archer presented two sociologists and related their findings to out STEM-dilemma.

Pierre Bourdieu, a french intellectual who defines people by what ‘makes them them’. Bourdieu says that the habitus of a person, their locality, their surroundings, the social fabric, defines who they are and how they hold themselves.

Professor Archer says you ask yourself pretty quickly is science for ‘people like me’ or not? There’s not just the local habitus but a family habitus; different families make science possible and desirable

Aspires gives people a ‘science bag’, where you have space for the science you know, the way you think about science, the science you get to do and the scientists you know. They can categorise people by their ‘science capital’.

  • Affluent families recognise the need for science skills even if they aren’t scientists…
  • Young people with high science capital are signficantly more likely to go on and study science (i.e. Jess and Charlie with Dr. John Wade and Dr. Charlotte Feinmann for parents)
  • 50 % of all people with high science capital want to study science (6 % of low)
  • 80 % of high science capital students say other people think of them ‘as a science person’ (3 % low)
  • Families with high science capital are mainly south east asian
  • Boys have much higher science capital than girls.

All is not lost- things can change. We can change the views on the utility of science, and raise awareness of the huge diversity of careers.

!! NO ONE REALISES ABOUT THE TRANSFERABILITY OF SCIENCE SKILLS !! (even PhD students, 8 years in to their science degrees…)

Prof. Archer introduced the work on Judith Butler who is looking at gender: what is it? Whilst sex is biological, is gender ‘cultural’? Does it make sense to separate the two?

We see femininity and physics as being ‘opposite and incompatible’ (Gonslaves, Danielson). ‘The scientific mind is.. simultaneously contradictorily disembodied and male’. It’s often tricky for women to be seen as a physicists and a woman- and students feel they have to mangage to be part of a science department. Girls that Prof. Archer spoke to say things like ‘physics is evidently not for people like me’. Girls are complaining of the usual woes: bad teachers, a dry curriculum…

Even with the intervention and monitoring of King’s, without the rich soil of a high science capital family, all efforts fade away. Informal learning has little impact for people like them. There’s a level of regret amongst these people “I wish I’d known that then”…

We need to:

  • Encourage ‘physics for social justice’
  • Change the idea that science = scientist
  • Celebrate what individuals bring to science !


  1. Elicit- find ways to bring out your students funds of knowledge
  2. Value- when we find this knowledge, we need to nurture it, let students identify and engage on their own terms
  3. Link- we need to connect the different funds of knowledge
  4. Build- we need to make it easy to turn student’s individual funds of knowledge to science capital

Dr. Sophie Burnett Heyes, a neuroscientist by trade, gave the audience a brain 101. She was trying to figure out if there are differences in the male and female brain, and if there are differences, how do they impact education? There were various pieces of evidence that I wrote down, then some more evidence that negated the earlier findings, then some f-MRI (that no one understands), then… well. I don’t understand much about neuroscience and I wasn’t super convinced about their data. Brains do seem to change as people change (hormones, becoming a teenage). They’re looking at brain volumes with functional imaging (my dad the neurologist says this is impossible to interpret and largely useless) and tracking white matter through our brains. One set of data says women have greater ‘inter’ hemispheric paths, whilst men have greater ‘intra’ hemispheric pathways.

King’s seem to have their research in the right place: we need to excite children about the what they’re already familiar with, re-jig it and evaluate. We need to be focussing on making children link what they know with what we’re teaching and encourage ‘stronger’ learning’.

A psychologist called Gijsbert Glasgow University did some chat with some terrible data and some confusing graphs. The ‘take home’ stats were (although take them all with a super salty pinch of salt) :

Boys are 3 x worse in their ‘verbal abilities’ (what does that mean) than girls are at maths. There’s a big difference in vocational interests: whilst girls largely prefer more people based activities boy prefer things and objects.

We seem to have significantly worse numbers of women in STEM to other european countries (Romania and Latvia are winning).

Girls intrinsically do better at A-level because we ‘self-select’ the best to take it.

No one seemed to be asking how Romania and Latvia were doing so well. I’m not even convinced they are / it’s that different- the EU say “there are two Baltic States, Latvia and Lithuania, where there are more women than men in research, but also Bulgaria, Portugal, Romania, Estonia, Slovakia, and Poland, all of which have at least 40 % of women in their researchers population.” Until 1989, there was a quota system in place in Romania, and official policies targeting equality among women and men, which contributed to an equilibrate distribution of women in science/research activities. ..Within the first decade (1990-2000), generally, the number of the students in science and technological education dropped down and, within this downward trend, female became underrepresented in these educational fields and career. “ …”In Romanian Academy (the highest academic and research body in Romania) there is only one academician woman.” …”The technical/engineering /ICT fields are male dominated. The small percent of female scientist are in executive positions and their average age falls within of 45-65 years old. “ . So it’s not all swing’s and roundabouts. 

The IOP had gone large for the lunch, cake, tea and networking- so there were lots of breaks and interludes where the conversations flowed and business cards were exchanged. The audience wrote a few comments and asked questions to the panel; esteemed academic, neuroscientist and a psychologist. The audience asked:

“How can we build science capital”? “if choices are made so young, why aren’t we working with more primary schools?”

Professor Archer emphasised the need to push the ‘transferability’ of science degrees and skills. Outreach and scientists need to engage with low science capital families to make science less scary. We need to make a more active effort to interact with the 71 % of people who aren’t STEM enthusiasts, and convince them about the skills they already have: families, homes, parents- we all have science inside us, we just don’t know how to access it.

“Can the media get involved?”

The BBC have tried with science television, and they’ve made shows that are popular with a wide-reach. They aren’t quite aware of the impact of female representation; and that Brian Cox (a white, middle-class, floppy-haired, drum playing physicist). After CSI a big proportion of poor, ethnic minorities took up forensic science. We need to make it okay for non-scientists to talk about science. The IOP are working with the BBC and other learned societies  to make a series of science shows for primary students.

“we keep saying how bad it is not to have triple science… but most a-levels don’t request triple science GCSE” “are we narrowing even more choice with the IB?”

Double vs. triple science reinforces the idea that science is hard and not for some people.

“is it fair to ask students to take a tough subject”?

“if we let more students in to university to study science, will more students leave early”

“we keep going on and on about making subject choices later, but it doesn’t work in America where they never choose. Look at places like Singapore, with less choice, there are more women in science..”

“there’s not enough science choices at A-level”

“the employment sector is changing, we’re shifting toward services..boys are having to change their aspirations too”

“we’ve got a lot of hindsight: can we use history to understand? we have generations of women now who didn’t take science..”

There wasn’t enough discussion about apprenticeships and B-Tecs.

Ultimately, we need to raise awareness, address unconscious bias, look at society, and raise the UK’s science capital. Society has largely recognised maths as a pre-requisite for adult life, can we get them to recognise the significance of science too? Can we lose our “get a man in” attitude? Can Britain become more ‘can-do’? We’ve stopped making, we’ve stopped doing, we’ve just- we need to regain our country’s curiosity.

One thought on “The IOP’s Opening Doors

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s