Speaker Says Female Students Avoid Physics Classes Due to 'Hard Maths' During Inclusion Panel

A panelist who appeared before the UK’s House of Commons Science and Technology Committee to discuss the link between diversity in STEM and social mobility on April 27 said girls may avoid taking physics because they would rather not do “hard maths.”

Speaker Katharine Birbalsingh CBE, the headmistress of Michaela Community School – which serves 11- to-18-year-olds in Wembley – and Chair of the Social Mobility Commission, said it was “mainly girls” at her school who take science, technology, engineering, and mathematics subjects, but said in physics classes, less than 20 percent of the students were female.

“You know children better than probably anyone here around this table,” said Greg Clark, chair of the committee. “Your insight, even a guess as to what it is in a good school, an outstanding school, with excellent teachers, girls are not choosing at least physics in the same proportion that boys might.”

“I just think they don’t like it,” replies Birbalsingh. “There’s a lot of hard maths in there I think they’d rather not do.”

“Why would girls not want to do hardened maths any more than boys?” asks Clark.

“Research generally, people, you know, they just say it’s a general thing,” Birbalsingh responds. “I mean, I don’t know. I can’t say, I’m not an expert at that sort of thing.”

Birbalsingh says they weren’t campaigning for more girls to do physics at her school.

“I don’t mind there’s only 16 percent of [girls] taking [physics], I want them to do what they want to do,” Birbalsingh says. “There’s far too many young people wanting to do STEM subjects, and not enough wanting to do things like philosophy, theology, history, and so on.”

Tweeting after the panel, Birbalsingh said she wasn’t going to force girls to do A-level physics if they didn’t want to.

“It is okay if we don’t have an exact gender balance in all subjects,” Birbalsingh wrote.

Storyful has reached out to Birbalsingh for comment. Credit: Parliamentlive.tv via Storyful

Video transcript

- It's interesting. Knowing I was coming on here, I was asking my head of sixth form to break down-- I'd never done this before, so I didn't know. And I was asking them to break it down. It was interesting. Because even with us-- in physics, for instance, a very small number of-- 16% of girls, for instance, whereas it's 84% boys.

But when it comes to our chemistry and biology and maths, all of them are 69%, 60%, 65%, 59% girls. So it's mainly girls who are doing the STEM subjects here apart from physics.

- Why do you think physics is different?

- Well, just from my own knowledge of these things, physics isn't something that girls tend to fancy. They don't want to do it. They just don't like it. It wouldn't be something here that they don't choose because they feel it's not for them. That would certainly not be the case.

And it wouldn't be the case here that they wouldn't choose it because they didn't have a good physics teacher. My teachers are excellent, and they are doing all the things that I believe are the right things, leading from the front. There's excellent behavior. The children perform well at their GCSEs before going into a-level.

So my explanation for the children we have here is that they just don't want it. They would prefer to do biology and chemistry.

- You know children better than probably anyone here around this table. So you your insights, even if it's a guess, as to what it is that, in a good school, an outstanding school with excellent teachers, girls are not choosing, at least, physics in the same proportion as boys-- what might be the reasons for that?

- Well, I just think they don't like it. There's a lot of hard maths in there that I think that they would rather not do. And that's not to say that there isn't hard stuff to do in biology and chemistry. There is. But it's not--

- Why would girls not want to do hard maths any more than boys?

- The research-- generally, people they say that's just a natural thing. I don't know. I can't say. I'm not an expert at that sort of thing. But that's what people-- that's what they say. I don't think that there's anything external. When it comes to our kids, I don't think they're-- they're being taught very well. They are doing well at GCSE. And they choose the subjects that they want to do.

We're certainly not out there campaigning for more girls to do physics. We wouldn't do that, and I wouldn't want to do that. Because I don't mind that there's only 16% of them taking-- I mean, I want them to do what they want to do. To be honest, it's really interesting because, obviously, you all are concerned about the numbers of children who are-- for instance, like mine at school-- taking STEM subjects.

But I find it's quite the opposite problem, actually. There's far too many young people wanting to do STEM subjects and not enough wanting to do things like philosophy and theology and history and so on.

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