Addressing Wales’ broken symmetry in the sciences

David Cunnah examines the gender divide in the Sciences.

If you work in the sciences you would need to have had your head buried in sand not to have heard the clamour to get more women into the STEM subjects over the last 20 years or so. Many a government minister has sought to address the gender imbalance which is nowhere more evident than in physics. Great effort and expense has been committed to try to improve the statistics, yet over the past 20 years the participation of girls in physics has actually fallen rather than risen across the UK. Why is this? The approach until now has frequently been simplistic, essentially seeking to persuade girls that they should be more interested in science, as though it were some deficiency in them that has led to this situation.

The Institute of Physics has published two reports in the last two years looking at this problem. The reports use statistics from England, as pupil level progression tracking available through the NPD in England was not available for any of the devolved nations, but it is reasonable based on other indicators (such as those in figure 1) to assume that the situation is no better (if not worse) in Wales. The first report showed that the kind of school which a girl attends profoundly affects her likelihood of choosing physics as one of her A-levels, implying that school culture plays a role. The second report looked at 6 subjects which suffer from a large gender bias (including three where uptake is low among boys). This report found that a dismal 81% of state-funded mixed schools were doing nothing to challenge the strong biases in these subjects, and that those schools which did manage to improve slightly the already dreadful gender imbalance in physics were typically those which also addressed it across the other subjects covered by the study. This further reinforces the stance that school culture is driving choices and that for progress to be made a whole school (and perhaps an even wider) approach is needed – we can no longer limit these campaigns to the science department.









Figure 1 – Uptake of physics A-Level as % of all A-level entrants 2002-2013 for Wales and the UK. Credit Wendy Sadler

So what about Wales? We can see in figure 1 that the relative uptake of physics A-level in Wales has shown little divergence from the rest of the UK in recent years, and that the extent of gender bias in the uptake is practically the same year on year. As an economy which is heavily reliant on physics based industry (Wales’ income as a % of GDP from physics based industry is the highest of any of the nations) one could make the case that the need to access as many students with a physics A-level as possible is even more pressing in Wales than elsewhere in the UK. Indeed, almost all students who obtain a physics A-level go on to do a STEM degree. The current Education Minister has acknowledged the importance of addressing the issue, and the 2012 Science for Wales policy document highlights the need to reach girls through STEM engagement.

One proven way of increasing the number of girls taking physics is to improve their everyday classroom experience. Generally, Wales is not currently matching England in addressing these issues, especially around teacher recruitment and development. At the Institute of Physics, we are glad that physics PGCE bursaries are now equivalent in Wales to those across the border, but we have identified a worrying trend in physics teacher numbers. Take a look at figure 2. These data come from the General Teachers Council of Wales. Physicists in the 35-40 age group seem to be leaving the profession in droves. We do not see this trend in the other sciences.










Figure 2 – Age distribution of teachers with a physics degree registered with the GTCW in Wales.

The Institute is currently trying to try to identify the cause of this dip. One thing is clear: Wales is heading towards a crisis in science teaching if teacher retention is not addressed soon. A crude but conservative estimate from these data indicates that Wales has lost around 200 years of teaching experience in physics in the last four years. An abundance of research exists to show links between progression and performance in science and the specialism of the teacher. The Institute of Physics has received funding in England to run the Stimulating Physics Network which provides non specialists who are teaching Physics with tailored training to increase their confidence in delivering the Physics curriculum, especially at GCSE. This programme has seen remarkable results, especially in the progression of girls to A-level in participating schools.

Wales is a small country and we should be able to make a big difference with relatively small steps. One recommendation of the Institute of Physics reports is that gender balance be included as a criterion in school inspection reports. This may sound extreme, but bear in mind that under equality legislation schools have a legal duty to challenge these gender biases. Whatever is done, it must address the whole school culture. Wales has a rare opportunity on this issue to lead, rather than follow, the rest of the UK and it is our hope that the opportunity is not missed.

David Cunnah is the National Officer for Wales for the Institute of Physics.

9 thoughts on “Addressing Wales’ broken symmetry in the sciences

  1. Following both David’s comments on Secondary education, and Wendy’s on pre-school, I’d like to chip in and say that tertiary education in Wales suffers from a similar lack of strategic and holistic perspective. How can it be right that in North Wales, university provision for STEM subjects is patchy and underfunded, while just over the border Chester University is filling the gap with a massive expansion in STEM provision, with very well funded infrastructure.

    David mentions the IOP’s “It’s different for Girls” report. In another IOP report on the impact of physics based industry on the Welsh economy, it is revealed that around 5% of the workforce working in physics based industry represent around 10% of the Welsh GDP. There is a similar pattern across other STEM disciplines, and the message is clear: to improve wealth and quality of life in Wales, we need to be planning to increase STEM industry in Wales, and that can only come through appropriately educated youngsters, the majority of whom need to be educated within Wales.


  2. It is interesting that where the sexes mix within an establishment (co-ed), the sexes separate in class (a greater tendency for subject choice to split along gender lines). You suggest that in order to interest girls in subjects where take-up is low (and for boys in a different range of subjects), there’s a need “to improve their everyday classroom experience”. Belinda Parmar of the Lady Geek terms it as a need to de-masculinise technology. A couple of thoughts on this in blogpost written to coincide with International Women’s Day and the Uk Hour of Code:

  3. Biology related subjects have always faired a lot better than other sciences, with chemistry sitting somewhere in the middle. As the purest of the sciences, perhaps Physics needs to be exemplified better and made more relevant (maybe we should include maths in this as well, since they are inextricably tied together). For the purposes of exemplification and illustration of the context, could physics be aligned more with the sciences that do fair quite well, such as the biological sciences . Does physics suffer more from the teaching context – since Physics is a fundamental science then it could be exemplified in almost any way imaginable – everything that is taught in physics could be linked to contexts that appeal to both genders quite easily.

    Also chosing physics as a subject to study, inevitably requires strong maths skills, which may mean that selecting physics means picking two subjects instead of one. That’s got to be a deterrent, since it limits options and choices for other subjects – could these things be merged into one subject a bit better at schol level?

  4. Thanks Alison and Sylvia for your comments.

    Alison makes a good point about the need for students graduating with STEM degrees in order to support and cultivate industry in Wales. This is especially important if Wales is going to be an appealing destination for technology start ups and high tech industry. In this respect, it is all the more important that we do not alienate women from STEM subjects and further reduce the pool of available employees.

    Regarding Sylvia’s comments, computing does seem to have been on the agenda in Wales recently, with Tom Crick, Janet Hayward and Stuart Arthur’s report on ICT in Wales ( contributing strongly to the recent curriculum review. The Technocamps scheme has also been very visible in parts of Wales.

  5. It doesn’t matter what gender a physicist happens to be – or in any other subject for that matter – so why not find something useful to do instead of trying to social engineer the universe?

  6. In response to John R Walker, I don’t think there is a social engineering agenda here – in fact quite the opposite. The engineered situation is one in which women are discouraged from pursuing careers in the sciences, especially physics, and is the result of long standing cultural influences. An abundance of research (see for a good summary) shows that diversity in science has a very positive effect, and I think it is therefore worthwhile to spend time considering how we might remove barriers to diverse participation.

  7. If we had a proper baccalaureate style secondary school qualification, all the kids would do maths and at least one science as a core subject. The IWA did some good research on that, as I recall. What happened in practice? We seem still to have A-levels where pupils can drop core subjects and specialize too soon but they tacked some sort of “Welsh bacc” on as an ad-on, widely regarded as pointless, giving us the worst of all worlds. It may be Welsh but a bacc it ain’t. Good job the trades descriptions act does not apply to educational qualifications. That was a big opportunity for devolved government to make a worthwhile reform and we bottled it.

  8. David, thanks, I should certainly have referenced the ICT report in the blogpost. It was a most comprehensive report that did include recommendations on gender.

    The blogpost exemplified some of the report’s recommendations, and considered what further education (post-16) colleges might be able to do to de-masculinise the subject. The report, as you will be aware, focuses on pre-16, although many of the messages are relevant to post-16.

    Particularly on the issue of gender, I suspect that some of the issues and range of solutions would be similar not only across pre and post-16 ICT but also have parallels for physics.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy