Katharine Birbalsingh’s remark that “physics isn’t something that girls tend to fancy” (Girls shun physics A-level as they dislike ‘hard maths’, says social mobility head, 27 April) sidesteps the crucial question of why girls become so turned off from physics and other Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths). As she observes, the gender disparity in Stem subjects seems to arise in large part from the educational and career choices that girls make – but in what environments are these choices made?
At a population level, more girls and women than boys and men tend to combine quantitative skills with social cognitive skills, and therefore have broad leeway to choose subjects and occupations that emphasise one or the other or both. If Stem classrooms and workplaces are allowed to be “boys’ clubs” whose atmospheres are not fully reflective or supportive of girls and women, then girls and women will continue to take their skills elsewhere. Even as we facilitate individual choice, therefore, we must work to make Stem classrooms welcoming places for all, so that these choices are unconstrained.
Reader in psychology, Nottingham Trent University
• I was incensed by Katharine Birbalsingh’s comments. In 1975, I chose physics, maths, chemistry and biology for A-levels. The groups were about a third female. Both our physics and chemistry teachers were female. My daughter, now a doctor, chose sciences, including physics, for all her A-level subjects.
I went to a comprehensive school and we were encouraged to do subjects we enjoyed. I am glad we did not have teachers telling us that, because we were female, we would not choose physics or maths because they were too hard. Presumably Birbalsingh also discourages girls from doing too much reading as this might cause their brains to melt and dribble out through their ears.
Thornton Watlass, North Yorkshire
• So Katharine Birbalsingh thinks that the low proportion of girls in her A-level physics classes (16%) is because girls don’t like doing “hard maths”. Strange then that girls make up 39% of A-level maths students, where there is considerably more hard maths.
Head of maths, St Francis Xavier college, London
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