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.

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