Why do so many boys study physics?

Yesterday the Guardian posted the predictable story “Why don’t more girls study physics?”   This story cycles around every few years and it always annoys me. No-one ever asks why anyone should be studying physics; the assumption seems to be that there should be an automatic equality in all subjects. Well, fine. But there are many more unequal subjects.

For a start, at A-Levels boys only account for 12% of Perfoming Arts entrants. That’s nearly half of the proportion of girls who do physics (they account for 21% of entrants). And if gender equality is so important when was the last time you heard people bemoaning the fact that boys only account for 2% of childcare students? Or 20% of travel and tourism students? Or less than a third of all English A-Level students?

And then there’s the bleating about how science teachers spend all their time with the ‘outgoing’ boys. What I never understand with this is why science teachers in particular are any more likely to spend their attention on a lively year 10 male than is an English teacher – but, if they do, how can we account for girls doing English at such a high rate? We can’t, at least not via the tired assumption that the complexities of subject choice are about teacher favourtism.

Finally, the bit that always really really gets me is the ‘peer pressure’ argument. It just makes the women involved sound feeble and as if they can’t hack science because their friends aren’t there to hold their hands. And it’s not because I don’t think part of the ‘peer’ argument is true – I do. It’s just that I think a lot of kids make a lot of their decisions about education based on what their friends are doing, which is not entirely the same thing as ‘peer pressure’, and I also think that boys suffer it just as much as girls.  In fact, that only 2% mustered up the courage to do childcare may even suggest boys feel it more. So making out like it explains physics, when it’s a phenomenon that I expect affects both genders across most subjects is ludicrous.

What would be wonderful is if someone did an article looking at the subjects where gender isn’t an issue. History, Geography, German, Chemistry, Media, Business Studies all have roughly equal genders taking their courses. Why is this? Did students feel peer pressure to pick a class where genders are equal? How did that pressure manifest itself? Because maybe, if we think that gender equality in subjects is naturally important, then we could spread around a little more of what those subjects have been doing and quit it with the pointless physics hand-wringing.

2 thoughts on “Why do so many boys study physics?

  1. I agree that just focusing on subjects that one or other gender prefers is somewhat limiting, though it can give interesting insights into general reasons behind subject preferences and choices. This is why I am keen on engaging with the Institute of Physics’ agenda especially looking behind parental motivations for pushing their children down one or the other route, particularly if they are girls. Afraid stereotypes still abound despite huge progress on gender equity at undergraduate level – the problem is even bigger in the developing world. You seem to have had a unique educational experience which is fascinating to read about and shows that ultimately you are the master or mistress of your own destiny. This is why I prefer the personal resilience approach rather than the Gradgrindian force feeding of selective facts, as we are are now seeing apparently from the proposed new History curriculum. In deed I would love to know what girls and boys think, and whether this is different, about studying Winston Churchill as opposed to say Emily Pankhurst.

Comments are closed.