Katharine Birbalsingh recently commented that girls are not interested in physics. However, this statement does not address the most vital issue, which is why girls are discouraged from STEM subjects such as science, technology, engineering, and maths. Social and educational factors play an instrumental role in dissuading girls from pursuing such fields, and it is crucial to address these factors.
Studies reveal that girls use both social and cognitive skills more frequently than boys. As a result, they have more options to choose from, opting for subjects or professions that emphasize one or both types of skills. However, if STEM environments are misogynistic and reflect antiquated gender roles, girls and women will be hesitant to join and participate. Therefore, enabling individual choice is not enough, and we must create inclusive STEM learning spaces to ensure that everyone feels welcome and empowered to choose.
Katharine Birbalsingh’s assertions regarding girls’ aptitude for physics are baseless. As a female student, I completed physics, maths, chemistry, and biology at the A-levels in 1975. Over one-third of the students in my cohort were girls. Both our physics and chemistry teachers were female, and my daughter, a doctor, also chose sciences, including physics, for her A-level subjects. Our comprehensive school encouraged students to pursue subjects they were interested in and did not dissuade us from studying hard subjects due to our gender.
Birbalsingh’s statement is comparable to saying that girls’ brains might melt if they read too much. Such baseless and sexist comments contribute to the gender disparity women face in STEM education. Furthermore, 16% of girls in Birbalsingh’s physics classes are not indicative of their ability or interest in studying science, as girls make up 39% of A-level maths students where there is significantly more challenging mathematics involved.
In summary, an inclusive environment is necessary to encourage girls to pursue STEM subjects and careers. We must eliminate sexism from STEM fields to empower girls and women to pursue their aspirations and talents without constraints.