• Emily Rose Seeber

Is Chemistry more 'girly' than Physics?


Over the last decade, the proportion of girls studying Chemistry at A-level has been steadily increasing, as it has in Maths. Chemistry is now 'sickeningly' (according to Jessica Rowson, the Gender Balance Manager at the Institute of Physics) at 50% female. Physics, on the other hand, has remained at approximately 15% female throughout that time. Does this mean that, despite their many similarities and overlapping domains, there is an intrinsic difference between Chemistry and Physics that makes Chemistry more 'girly'? Or are there other factors to consider? And how can we create environments in which neither subject is really seen in a gendered fashion?

Last night, a colleague from the Physics department and myself travelled to hear Jessica speak on 'Physics - it's just not a girly thing', and after extensive discussion over pizza, I have a few reflections I think are worth sharing.

The result of a Google Image search for 'chemist'.

Firstly, as I have said before (see The Gender Neutral Laboratory), just because 50% of A-level candidates are female, does not mean that we don't have a gender problem in Chemistry. Firstly, the EiC reported that girls tend to take Chemistry for a specific purpose, i.e. to apply for Medicine, whereas boys were more likely to pick the subject 'because they enjoy it'. Secondly, girls tend to enjoy the organic side of the course more, and pair Chemistry with Biology, boys tend to prefer the Physical side and pair it with Physics and Maths. How do these issues relate to the gender crisis in Physics?

Potentially Physics lacks female candidates because Physics is not a required subject for a vocational degree like Medicine. Although the overwhelming majority of shortage jobs in the UK have elements of Physics in them, they are not the kinds of jobs which are advertised through schools careers advice. And many of them involve very masculine work environments. Beliefs about what is masculine and what is feminine are deeply entrenched in our students, and we cannot easily undo this through haphazard careers advice.

When discussing the preferences of boys and girls for the different sides of the Chemistry course, I asked whether or not we teach those sides in gendered ways, and by doing so, encourage girls to feel more confident on one side, because 'it's the one girls are good at', and allow them to feel less confident or resilient on the other, because 'it more boyish/masculine'. Physics is seen as a subject for boys by female students up and down the country, and maybe it can be taught in a more gender neutral way by not using rockets/missiles/snooker as examples, and opting for everyday experiences to visualise as often as possible.

The research carried out through the Institute of Physics suggested the following as key aspects of getting girls to take A-level (which also raised the numbers of boys):

  • Girls need to build confidence so they need to believe they are making good progress in Physics: this means really high quality Physics teaching is key

  • Girls need to not be labelled as girls in Physics lessons - this tends to remind them that Physics is traditionally seen as 'not a girly thing' and lowers their performance (this means avoiding overly feminine examples aimed at the girls)

  • Girls tend to choose tasks which reward hard work over intelligence (tackling this is important, but needs to happen before high school), so setting these kinds of tasks is critical

  • Girls need to understand why the Google Image search for the term 'physicist' looks like this (without feeling patronised):

The result of a Google Image search for 'physicist'.

Interestingly, interventions which are commonly used were dismissed as not particularly helpful, including hosting guest lectures from female scientists, and having female physics teachers. Discussions about the reasons behind the lack of prominent female physicists was much more effective. We have discussed doing this as part of PHSE sessions on the issue of gender in general, rather than as part of the science curriculum which might be helpful.

For the start of the year, I have been setting essays to my Sixth Form students as part of working out the depth of their knowledge and getting to know them. This is a really interesting exercise; I get at least as much information back about their current understanding as completing past paper questions, and also it is a task where more effort reaps greater rewards. The girls handed in much better and more independently researched essays, and appeared to enjoy the process significantly more than the boys. So we also discussed setting a few 'effort-driven' tasks, like an essay on wave-particle duality, or full laboratory write-ups, as part of the Physics course too.

Is Chemistry any more 'girly' than Physics? I don't think so; not in terms of the kinds of thinking that are required to succeed. But Chemistry does have more opportunities for hard work to trump intelligence: there are lots of facts and reagents to learn off by heart. This might be a factor. However, I do believe that the functional explanation is the main one: girls need Chemistry to become Doctors (a scientific profession where women are beginning to outnumber men), and they don't need Physics.

Despite that, we have a responsibility to ensure that girls don't shy away from Physics for the wrong reasons - because they see it as 'just not a girly thing' - and hopefully some of the interventions above will make a difference. It's critical, not least because Physics A-level is a highly desirable stepping stone to becoming a great chemist!

#equality #gender #science #chemistry #physics

© 2017 by Emily Rose Seeber.