Girls do not choose physics A-level because they dislike “hard maths”, the government’s social mobility commissioner has claimed, prompting anger from leading scientists.
Addressing a science and technology committee inquiry on diversity and inclusion in Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths), Katharine Birbalsingh said fewer girls chose physics because “physics isn’t something that girls tend to fancy. They don’t want to do it, they don’t like it,” she said.
Birbalsingh, who is headteacher of Michaela Community school in Wembley, north-west London, said that only 16% of A-level physics students at her school were girls – lower than the national average of 23%. When asked why so few girls progressed to physics A-level, despite outperforming boys at GCSE, she said: “I just think they don’t like it. There’s a lot of hard maths in there that I think they would rather not do.”
“The research generally … just says that’s a natural thing,” she added. “I don’t think there’s anything external.”
Birbalsingh, a French and philosophy graduate, said she was “certainly not out there campaigning” for more girls to do physics. “I don’t mind that there’s only 16%,” she said. “I want them to do what they want to do.”
Dame Athene Donald, a professor of experimental physics and master of Churchill College, Cambridge, said the comments were “terrifying” and “quite damaging” and questioned to which research Birbalsingh was referring in suggesting that girls had an intrinsic lack of appetite for maths and physics.
“It’s not a case of campaigning for more girls to do physics, it’s a case of making sure that girls aren’t discouraged by remarks like this,” Donald said. “We want girls to be free to pursue what they’re good at and, equally, boys should also be able to go into professions like nursing. We aren’t in a society like that.”
Dr Jess Wade, a physicist at Imperial College London who campaigns for equality in science, said: “I honestly can’t believe we’re still having this conversation. It’s patronising, it’s infuriating, and it’s closing doors to exciting careers in physics and engineering for generations of young women. Whilst girls and boys currently choose A-level subjects differently, there is absolutely no evidence to show intrinsic differences in their abilities or preference.”
The comments come after girls outperformed boys in both A-level and GCSE maths for the first time last year.
Rachel Youngman, the deputy chief executive of the Institute of Physics, said: “The IOP is very concerned at the continued use of outdated stereotypes as we firmly believe physics is for everyone regardless of their background or gender.”
Youngman said the comments ran contrary to the experiences of young people, “including many girls, who tell us they face barriers to studying physics because of who they are rather than their ability”.”
“Outdated ideas need to be eradicated,” she added.
Research by the IOP has highlighted that girls at single sex schools are almost two-and-a-half times more likely to progress to A-level physics compared with mixed schools, which it said strongly suggested gender biases played a role in A-level choice.
Its report concluded that teacher-student relationships played a significant role in A-level choices and that gender stereotyping by teachers, parents and the media continues to be an issue, with a recommendation that all teachers be trained in unconscious biases and gender stereotypes.
Birbalsingh was urged to apologise by Munira Wilson, the Liberal Democrats’ education spokesperson.
Wilson said ministers had “failed to challenge the culture of misogyny and unconscious biases in our education system for years”, and that every child should get the chance to “thrive and follow their passions during their time at school”. She added: “The government must finally step up to the plate and act. We need new measures to challenge these biases, backed up by legislation, and Katharine Birbalsingh should apologise for her remarks.”
Anneliese Dodds, Labour’s shadow equalities secretary, said the “appallingly outdated and damaging thinking is the very opposite of promoting social mobility”. She called on ministers to condemn the comments and added: “Girls deserve a government that backs them, not one that talks down their ambitions.”
Prof Ulrike Tillmann FRS, a mathematician at the University of Oxford and chair of the Royal Society’s education committee, said: “We continue to see significantly lower numbers of female entrants to A-level physics, despite female students attaining higher grades when they do pursue the subject. In 2021, while only 23.1% of physics entrants were female, they outperformed their male counterparts, with 25.3% of girls achieving an A* compared with 20.9% of boys. Highlighting the success of female pupils and women throughout Stem careers should be a priority for dispelling lingering myths that these are ‘boys’ subjects’.”
Prof Catherine Noakes, a mechanical engineer at the University of Leeds and a prominent member of the government’s Sage committee during the pandemic, said: “It is really disappointing to see comments like this that are based on incorrect assumptions about gender differences and what seems like a lack of any interest to even explore reasons why.
“Girls are so often told that mathematics, physics and engineering are not for them and this is conditioned by society.
“In some cases this includes the expectations and attitudes of teachers in schools, but it is also pervasive in the toys and clothing that are aimed at them. Scientific and technology careers are so diverse and rewarding that we need to make sure that the opportunities are open to all, and are not closed off by assumptions and stereotypes at an early age.”