Voices: How true is it that girls just ‘don’t like’ hard maths?

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I genuinely believe maths and physics belong to us all, women and men both (Getty Images)
I genuinely believe maths and physics belong to us all, women and men both (Getty Images)

The chair of the Department for Education’s Social Mobility Commission thinks girls are rejecting physics at school because they dislike “hard maths”.

Speaking at the parliamentary Science and Technology Committee on Wednesday, Katharine Birbalsingh, headteacher at Michaela Community School, reported that only 16 per cent of the pupils undertaking physics A-level at her school were female. When she was asked by the committee chair, Greg Clark, why she thought this was, she replied: “Physics isn’t something girls tend to fancy. They don’t want to do it. They don’t like it... There’s a lot of hard maths in there that they would rather not do.”

This is a strong statement to make. You would hope that one of the key people charged with improving social mobility in the UK would be keen on evidence-based policymaking – trying to argue for policies that the evidence suggests will genuinely improve social mobility. When asked to back up her assertion about the difference between girls and boys in their uptake of physics she cited “research generally”.

To me, Birbalsingh’s supposition about girls not liking hard maths is nothing more than a gender stereotype. It can’t be that girls don’t like hard maths. They do. Girls outperformed boys at both GCSE and A-level mathematics last year.

But there are genuine discrepancies nationally in the proportions of pupils taking both maths and physics at A-level. Only 39 per cent of pupils taking maths at A-level are female. This drops to 29 per cent for further maths. For physics, it is only 23 per cent.

So where do these discrepancies come from? According to Birbalsingh on Good Morning Britain, part of the reason is that: “Boys on average … are more systematic. They like things. And the girls are more empathetic and they like people.”

These ideas, commonly referred to as “gender personality types”, are extremely controversial and poorly evidenced. Many psychologists and neuroscientists are sceptical of the idea that variation in attainment or subject preference can be explained away by sex-based brain differences.

The reasons behind the disparities are more complicated than Birbalsingh’s reductive and poorly supported claim. Societal expectations around gender play a significant role. Often subconsciously we absorb these expectations and behave differently as a result.

More explicitly, the underrepresentation of women in physics, portrayed in the media and in real life, can lead to the assumption that women are unsuited to working in the subject. These disparities persist despite several attempted interventions. So, physics may represent a “risky” – and therefore less popular – career option for young women independent of ability or enjoyment of the subject.

The Institute of Physics warns headteachers against the attitudes that Birbalsingh so openly displayed at the science committee. “Gender stereotyping by both teachers and pupils needs to be actively challenged both in and out of lessons and across all subjects. In science, the attitude that ‘physics is for boys’ should be discouraged among students and teachers,” their 2012 It’s Different for Girls report states.

The report also makes the recommendation to headteachers that “gender equity and access to all subjects is an issue that should be actively considered in all schools,” adding that they “should meet targets for the numbers and gender balance recruited to physics A-level”.

These recommendations were apparently rejected by headteacher Birbalsingh in her select committee evidence. “We’re not out there campaigning for more girls to do physics,” she said. “We wouldn’t do that and I wouldn’t want to do that because I don’t mind that there’s only 16 per cent of them taking [physics].”

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How can we expect to address broader societal inequity when the government’s social mobility tsar has such an attitude to equity in her own job?

I genuinely believe maths and physics belong to us all, women and men alike. Maths is the language in which physics is written. Together, the two subjects represent the best hope we have of answering the most fundamental questions about the enigmas of the cosmos. I don’t see why anyone of a certain background or gender should be discouraged from or denied the opportunity to study these amazing subjects.

It seems pertinent to point out that the reason a gender imbalance exists in physics and mathematics could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Bluntly, the fewer women visible in maths and physics, the more stereotypes are perpetuated and the less likely girls are to take up these subjects. We desperately need to address the issues of attitudes to these subjects in order to break these harmful positive feedback loops.

The sooner we stop telling girls they won’t like “hard maths”, the sooner we can begin addressing the imbalance.

Kit Yates is director of the Centre for Mathematical Biology at the University of Bath and author of ‘The Maths of Life and Death’

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