Girls’ participation in physics is higher in single sex schools when compared to co-ed school settings, leading to a widening between stereotypical ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ subjects at A-Level in state schools

This troubling fact, highlighted by researchers at the Institute of Physics and covered on today’s BBC Radio 4 Today programme (1:43:09), is an important issue for the future of our economy. Physics is the gateway to a degree in engineering but, for half the population, that gateway is closed: our work show that physics is the fourth most popular A level subject for boys, yet the 19th choice for girls.

According to the Institute of Physics half of our state schools are simply not putting girls forward for Physics A-level. Today’s debate argued that the insidious pressure placed on girls to choose the subjects expected of them was subtle but damaging, reinforcing traditional gender norms that have no basis in our equal education system.

We need to do something about this now – and not only because it matters that we offer all our girls an equal opportunity to study the subjects of their choice. Our shrinking talent pool will have serious consequences for the UK economy. That’s why, as part of our Talent 2030 programme to boost the number of female engineers, we’ve set strict targets that we expect schools and universities to achieve. We agree with the Institute of Physics report’s recommendation that gender balance should be part of Ofsted assessment of schools.

We want to see women making up 30% of physics A-Level students and 30% of engineering and technology undergraduates by 2030. Today, women account for just 20.7% and 14% respectively. By 2030, we also expect to see women taking 25% of engineering postgraduate places, up by 4% from today’s figure.

To start opening that pipeline of talent earlier, we also want to switch girls on to the possibilities of a career in engineering earlier. The Talent 2030 Campaign aims to inspire the next generation of female engineers. It targets 11-14 year old girls – just as they are taking the decisions that will affect the course of their further education and their careers – and provides a source of information about engineering. It reminds them that this is a discipline where women can “earn big money” and “save the planet”, and it offers role models so they can make informed subject choices. Their hugely popular National Engineering Competition for Girls is still open for entries until 21st December and gives girls the opportunity to win £1000 by answering “How can engineers solve the challenges of the 21st century?”

We want to see all schools backing our Talent 2030 campaign, and put an end to these outdated, damaging ideas about young women’s aspirations.

Image from Talent 2030.