Gender stereotypes are still pervasive in our culture | Letters

Girls’ subject choices in school are one clear symptom of their unequal experiences, says Julia Higgins of the Institute of Physics

It is astonishing that, in 2018, girls still grow up being treated very differently from boys through entrenched stereotyping and unconscious biases. Girls’ subject choices in school are one clear symptom of their unequal experiences. One example is that four times as many boys as girls take physics, a subject seen as having value by universities and employers alike. As a society we have become inured to such disparities in choices and also to the deeper malaise it reveals.

Gendered stereotypes are pervasive in our culture – ingrained by long-standing biases (both conscious and unconscious). They affect all of our expectations and, at an early age, those of our youngsters. Many of the stereotypes relate to different expectations of boys and girls. Why does this matter? First, we are losing talent. We need many more good engineers, scientists and programmers. Second, there is a personal cost for young women as we limit their expectations.

There is no evidence to suggest any inherent differences between genders in either aptitude or interest in the sciences. On the contrary, our recent #iamaphysicist hashtag highlighted the variety, skill and joy of many young women physicists in rewarding careers.

We know it is possible to effect change. The Institute of Physics has run a pilot in schools in which staff identified and addressed any bias or stereotyping. The pilot schools showed a threefold increase in girls choosing physics A-level, as well as broader positive change for all.

We all have a role to play – government, educators, industry, parents and citizens – in tackling the barriers that girls face. On International Women’s Day on 8 March, let’s each consider what change we can make.
Professor Julia Higgins
President of the Institute of Physics

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