Thursday, October 22, 2015

Brighton Cafe Scientifique

I spoke at Brighton Cafe Sci last night. Making this post mostly to keep a record of the link to the page about my talk, which has some feedback (as below).

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Opening Doors - Gender in Education

Yesterday I attended the Opening Doors Conference, run by the Institute of Physics. Here are some of my notes on the conference.  One headline - the plan is that this will be the first of an annual series of conferences, and I would certainly encourage people to attend in the future as it was a very interesting day.

The main theme of the conference was opening up gender non-conforming opportunities to post-16 children (e.g. girls doing traditionally "male" subjects as well as boys doing traditionally "female" subjects). The Institute of Physics have just published a report "Opening Doors" (download here) which follows a series of reports on the status of physics education at post-16 in the UK.

 Peter Main from the Institute of Physics kicked off the programming presenting the new report and the background research which led to it. He motivated this by pointing out the different trends seen in Maths and Physics A-level participation since 1985. Maths A-level has had a monotonic increase from 30% of the cohort being female in 1985 to 40% today, while Physics A-level has remained at around the 20% female mark across 30 years of tracking (actually 22% of Physics students were female in 1985 and 21% in 2015).

This trend promoted IoP to recognise that doing the "usual stuff" clearly wasn't working and do a survey in 2012 of girls attitudes to Physics ("It's Different for Girls"). This revealed that school culture seemed to play a big part in participation choices - in fact girls out perform boys at both GCSE and A-level physics (on average), so it's not anything to do with ability to do the subjects. But there are big differences in participation of girls in physics between schools (with single sex and independent schools tending to have a lot more girls continuing from GCSE to A-level than state schools).

This lead the IoP to work on a broader study of A-level Choices across a range of subjects demonstrating different gender balance ("Closing Doors", published in December 2013). The subjects they chose to investigate were Physics (roughly 20% girls), Economics (30% girls), Maths (40% girls), Biology (55% girls), English (70% girls) and Psychology (70% girls). The study looked at the progression from GCSE to A-level across a wide range of schools in the UK, and demonstrated that 81% of schools either maintain or worsen gender stereotypes at this transition point.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, schools which do better at balancing gender in all subjects, also do better at balancing gender in Physics (this seems obvious once you recognize there's a fixed pool of students, so relatively more girls in physics mean relatively fewer girls elsewhere in more "female" subjects - evening out the gender balance more broadly than just in physics).

The new "Opening Doors" report is the follow on from this, based on site visits to 10 schools. Interestingly, 3 of the schools are in the Portsmouth area (Bay House in Gosport, Cams Hill in Fareham and Oaklands in Waterlooville). The report lists best practice and suggestions for how schools can improve progression from GCSE to A-levels in gender non-conforming subjects (ie. girls doing physics, boys doing English) including zero tolerance on sexist language (no matter how "harmless"), senior leadership being committed to gender equality, using the school environment to promote gender equality, and making sure that physics and maths are not presented as more difficult than other subjects.

 There was a discussion of the poor state of careers advice in schools, that parents, teachers and students need support to understand what a Physics A-level can lead to. This also led to comments that the gendered views of parents should be challenged.

 There was a comment that one-off visits from role models don't work - only sustained programmes can make a difference. 

 Finally the IoP is considering initiating an Athena SWAN like programme for schools to recognise those with good gender equality practices.

 We then had a series of three lectures from specialists in gender differences and the links to education. These were from Prof. Louise Archer (Kings College, London) with a sociological perspective, Dr Stephanie Burnett Heyes (Birmingham) talking about what's known about gender differences and the brain, and Dr. Gijsbert Stoet (Glasgow) on the psychology of choices and how this related to gender imbalance in education.

 I was very impressed with the first two of these talks, less so with the third (see below).

 Prof. Archer talked about the social construction of physics as a masculine subject, and how that fits into peoples individual perceptions of who they are. She showed ASPIRES research demonstrating there's no lack of interest in science subject, or any sense that they are not important, just that few girls aspire to be scientists.

 Prof. Archer also addressed the typical profile of British girls who do choose physics (they tend on average to be "proud to be different", competitive, academically competent, encouraged by their family, and come from supportive schools), and the challenges they face to deal with the social pressure against their subject choice (e.g. the often constant need to defend it to friends and family and strangers). Dr Archer suggested we need to put less emphasis on changing girls to fit into physics, and think more about changing the culture of physics to be more welcoming to girls.

 Dr.  Burnett Heyes (Birmingham Neuroscientist) demonstrated fairly conclusively that there almost no evidence of significant differences in the brains of men and women (particularly pointing out that the range of results within each gender is much larger than any difference between average properties of gender in almost every study), and also that even if differences are seen that is hard to interpret. This was a really fascinating talk about neuroscience, although it was hard to draw any general conclusions from it.

 Dr. Stoet I thought spent too much time presenting his own views in the subject, and not enough on an overview of the state of his field. He initiated some significant discussion, partly because as a lot of what he presented contradicted the previous two talks, what many in the room had previously experience of (and even at times his own slides from earlier in the talk). He appeared to want to argue that differences in the gender make-up of different subjects are innate, based mostly on biologically pre-programmed interest in certain topics (this contradicted the research Prof. Archer had shown demonstrating it's not a lack of interest in science which is turning off girls) and therefore was not worth challenging. In fact he was quoted in the Telegraph saying as much in July 2014.

 The panel discussion following these three talks was quite lively as you might imagine. Specific conclusions seemed to be:

* we need to work with families of primary school age children to help both parents and children understand that science is for everyone, that studying science is important even if you don't want to be a scientist.
* children in the UK are pushed to narrow subject choices too early (when they perhaps are not mature enough to understand the significance). There were quite a lot of calls to scrap triple science/double science choice at GCSE, broaden/change A-levels to be less focused.
* We should worry about the future choices of boys in a changing world. Part of this re-balancing needs to consider how we can make traditionally female roles be more attractive to boys (e.g more male nursery and primary school teachers, more male carers etc).

 I'm not quite sure what the take home should be for work to improve the gender balance of students studying Physics at undergraduate level, except that I was rather struck by Prof. Archers comments on the resources girls who study physics have to expend to defend their choice to be female physicists. I was also stuck by her finding that girls who choose physics tend to be academically very strong. I'm now curious look into the gender make up of A-level students with different results in Physics, and wonder about the impact that has on the make up of those continuing to study physics beyond A-level.

Ada Lovelace Day 2015 - More Passion for Science

This year for Ada Lovelace Day I'm delighted to announce that my essay on Mary Somerville, now titled "Mary Somerville and the Mechanism of the Heaven's" has finally been published, as part of a new eBook, "More Passion for Science: Journeys into the Unknown", edited by Suw Charman-Anderson. It's available for £1.99 (in support of the work of Finding Ada) from Amazon.

I also wrote an accompanying blog post for the Digital Science Blog talking about why I picked Mary Somerville to write about.

I was delighted to attend Ada Lovelace Day Live in London and enjoy the science cabaret. I'm completely biased, but I thought Jen Gupta's set on astronomical spectroscopy and Margaret Huggins was the best. For more on that see this ICG News Item: ICG Celebrates Ada Lovelace Day 2015.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Women and Scientific Innovation

On Friday 2nd October, I was a guest panelist for an event hosted by the Mulberry School for Girls. More than 100 secondary school girls participated in a day of discussion on the theme of women in science, technology and finance. I participated in the third and final panel discussion of the day on the topic of innovation. The panel was Chaired by Kirsten Bodley, CEO of STEMNET UK, and the other panelists were Dr Dominique Allwood, a medical Doctor and Expert in Public Health and Miranda Lowe, Senior Curator at the Natural History Museum.

 We were given the questions to think about in advance and here are my notes made in preparation.

What is innovation? 

I think of innovation as new solutions to old problems. It's looking at the world in a different way. It's something where having a diverse group of people is really important - we need a diversity of perceptions and life experience to develop the best innovative solutions.  

Is it true that women working in science face more obstacles to success than men - and if so, what are these obstacles, how did they come to exist, and what can we do to tackle them? 

I think this can be true, but actually a lot of the obstacles may be internal. Or at least internalised messages of who scientists are and what makes a good scientist which are ubiquitous in our culture and which children (girls and boys) pick up before they're even in secondary school.

Once women have made a choice to be scientists or study science there's little evidence any more of the kind of deliberate obstacles that were common even 50 years ago. But it really has only been a short time that that is true. In fact women on average slightly out perform men in some metrics - the hypothesis is that that is because as a group they have already self selected to be only the best, most committed scientists. While men with relatively weak ability in science might still decide to try, that's not as true of women.

Do female scientists work differently to male scientists? 

I'm not a fan of that kind of generalisation. People are different from each other - some are more collaborative, some prefer to work alone. Some have bigger egos than others. We need a diversity of people to get the full benefit of scientific progress.

There may be a slight trend for men and women to prefer different ways of working, but I'm not aware of a study which looked specifically at women scientists compared to male scientists, instead of men and women in general. Women who currently decide to be scientists, against societal expectations may be different to women in general….

What should the priorities be for scientific research in today's world?

We see a lot of emphasis these days coming from the government and funding agency to encourage scientists to do research which has immediate and obvious economic impact. This sounds like a great idea, and I can also see the viewpoint that we should be researching the big problems facing the modern world - clean energy, global warming, the cure for cancer etc. The problem that I see though is that research in it's nature isn't linear. You don't know where you're going before you get there.
Take my field of astronomy and the impact it's had on smart phones. Without astronomers and astronomical research, which at the time it was happening seemed very obscure, even "pie in the sky", your smart phone  would be very different. Astronomers improved CCD technology to take better images of the night sky - now those improvements help a CCD chip fit in your phone so you can take selfless. Astronomers developed algorithms to disentangle multiple radio signals - now in your phone heaping to make your wifi work. Astronomers noticed that the theory of gravity which works so well on Earth is subtly wrong in some places (e.g. the obit of Mercury) - leading to the development of general relativity. You might not know this, but your phone uses general relatively to work out where it (and you) are from the GPS satellite signals. Without those corrections it'd quickly be metres off and you couldn't use your phone to find your way.

None of that was targeted research aimed at finding those solutions, which is why I think it's so important to fund research which might seem useless today.

How can we encourage more girls to take science-related degree subjects, and pursue careers in scientific innovation?

I'm often asked this, and as a former girl who did choose to study science I wonder if I'm the right person to come up with an answer. Shouldn't this be asked of those who didn't chose it? I chose physics because I found it fascinating, and I wanted to study the stars. I also have always enjoyed surprising people and going against societal expectations.

My colleague Prof. Averil MacDonald, the lead of Diversity for the South East Physics Network (which Portsmouth is part of), points out it's actually not STEM in general which has a problem. Overall more girls choose to study STEM subjects, and they out perform boys in those subjects. It's only physics that fails to attract girls at post-16. In her report for the WISE campaign "Not for People Like Me", Prof. MacDonald argues that effective interventions are helping parents (particularly mothers) understand that their daughters could be happy in a physics or engineering career, and helping young women to understand that STEM subjects (including physics) offer interesting careers for people like them. We can do this by talking more about the diverse range of roles that physicists have, from explorers, to communicators, educators, engineers and entrepreneurs.

In Portsmouth one thing we're trying is a physics degree with more of an emphasis on applications. The idea is that girls may be more attracted to this as they can learn how to use physics to make a difference. We also recently launched Physics with Astrophysics which is traditionally more popular with girls. And both of these have relatively low entrance requirements - this is a recognition that you don't have to be a genius to study physics, if you a willing to work hard and persevere anyone can do it.

It was a really interesting event to be part of and I very much enjoyed being a part of it.