The Lives and Times of Pioneering Women in Physics

History’s lessons: Opportunities and Challenges for Women in Physics Today

By Dr Heather Williams


Senior Medical Physics for Nuclear Medicine, Central Manchester University Hospitals

Chair, IoP Women in Physics Group

Co-Director, ScienceGrrl @alrightPET

Defining the problem

There has been progress

Women have access to higher education, further training and the senior ranks of the professions

There is widespread acceptance of women working outside of the home – 60% of lone mothers and 72% of women in relationships are in paid work (2013 UK statistics)

Women have had control over reproductive capacity since the early 1960s

Workers’ rights have been extended to include the right not to be sexually harassed or discriminated against on the basis of gender or marital status, and the right to request flexible/part-time working and this be granted unless genuinely unfeasible (since 1975, revised 2010)

Equal pay for equal work (since 1970)

So what is the problem?

It appears to be a cultural specific problem. Statistics from data collected for the IUPAP ICWIP 2011 conference in Stellenbosch, South Africa and the 2014 conference in Waterloo, Canada show that some countries are better at getting women into physics degrees and higher level positions (although the percentages don’t seem to reach 50% in all the categories).

In the United Kingdom all students have to study physics for their GCSEs (and Scottish equivalent), either within a science qualification or a pure physics GCSE. However only about 20% of girls continue to A level (this statistic is not reflected in chemistry or biology or some other subjects).

Closing doors: exploring gender and subject choice in schools December 2013

National ratios of male and female entries to the six selected A-level subjects averaged over the years 2010 to 2012 in England (JCQ)



From the above graph you can see the trend continues at degree level. Less than 20% of females applied for a physics degree in 2011 (the number actually starting the degree may be less owing to girls not getting the required grades).


The above graph shows how the percentage of females changes during the academic path for physics. Compare this with a similar graph for clinical medicine


In both case there is a drop from lecturer to professor but physics had a smaller pool to start with and it could be argued that there are less female professors of medicine because they are practising doctors.

What the graphs also show is that as there are less women passing through each stage of the career path there must be proportionately more men, i.e. if only 9% of women are physics professors it stands to reason that 91% are men.


Issues affecting female professionals (not just physics)

Persistent gender expectations with regard to child-rearing and housework

Lack of affordable childcare and flexible working arrangements

Progression based on “unbroken track record”

Job insecurity

“Two body” problem

The two-body problem is a dilemma for spouses (or any other couple) working in typically academia (or sometimes other fields) that describes the difficulty of both spouses obtaining jobs at the same university or within a reasonable commuting distance from each other. The central dilemma is thus a no-win situation in which if the couple wishes to stay together one of them may be forced to abandon an academic career, or if both wish to pursue academic careers the relationship may falter due to the spouses being constantly separated. The term “two body problem” has been used in the context of working couples since at least the mid-1990s.

Unconscious bias

Unconscious bias refers to a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences

(ECU: 2013 Unconscious bias in higher education)


What children tend to draw (including girls) when asked to draw a physicist


“Because of unconscious bias, men often appropriate the ideas of female counterparts and get all the credit”.


“Scientists presented with application materials from a student applying for a lab manager position and who intended going on to graduate school. Half the scientists were given an application with a male name attached, and half were given the exact same application with a female name attached”


As mentioned previously the problem of girls not doing physics starts early. The graph below is a frequency chart for girls sending 0-6 girls or boys on to A level physics. There were 3510 schools with girls and 3316 schools with boys.

1603 (46%) of all schools with girls sent no girls on to complete A-level physics in 2011

The equivalent percentage is only 14% for all schools with boys.

A similar graph for maintained schools shows that 49% of co-ed schools sent no girls on to take A-level physics.

The distribution for girls drops off very quickly.

Almost 70% of schools sent zero or one girl and 80% sent zero, one or two girls on to take physics A-level.



The above graph shows the percentages of girls and boys who went on to take physics A-level out of those girls and boys that went on to take A-levels in 2011 from independent schools and maintained schools, sub-divided into single-sex and co-ed schools.

It is already known that independent schools get a higher percentage of their students to take A-level physics. However, the effect is more marked for girls in both single-sex and co-ed schools.

Independent girls’ schools sent four times more girls on to do A-level physics than maintained co-ed schools, compared with only twice (1.9 times) the percentage for boys.

In the maintained sector, single-sex schools send on 2.4 times more girls and 1.5 times more boys to study A-level physics than co-ed schools do. In independent schools, the percentage of boys is almost the same whether they are in the single-sex or co-ed setting.

(Interesting note: in all the biographies I have written on the pioneering women in physics I don’t think I have come across any who went to a mixed state school. Some of the women from an earlier age did have rather unconventional educations but the later ones seemed to have gone to state single sexed grammar schools or single sexed independent schools – Helen Hare)

In 2012 Mathematics was the 5th choice (34301) A level subject, Physics was 18th (7361) and Further mathematics was 26th (7361) for girls. For boys Mathematics came in 1st (51413), physics came 3rd (27148) and Further mathematics came 16th (9251 students).


(Interesting point – As a teacher who once taught in an all girls’ comprehensive I know that often girls will pick maths over physics as they feel they have to do maths to go with physics and consider it a waste of two AS levels so they just opt for maths. My niece, a vet needed 2 sciences and maths or 3 sciences for her vet course so she opted for biology, chemistry and maths. Some prospective medical students are expected to study none science subjects so I have had students opt for biology, chemistry, English and AS maths, which then gets dropped in the A2 year. The above graph shows that in 2012 about twice the number of girls opted for mathematics than physics)…/physical…/Peter%20Main.ppt

The table below shows that despite the low take up of A level physics by girls the percentages of boys and girls starting physics degrees in 2011 were not that different


Unfortunately women are less likely to complete their degrees


The above graph show the % Female registration for MPhys/MSci and BSc physics


Salaries one year after graduation – unfortunately females tend to earn less than men from early on

There are still wide-spread gender stereotypes that reinforce societal norms


No they don’t. Men do have slightly larger brains but that has nothing to do with how they learn.

It is true that many boys pick up less social cues than their female counterparts. That girls make more serotonin and oxytocin, so they are calmer and more interested in emotional connection. Boys mature more slowly than girls and girls have more of their cerebral cortex defined for verbal function. The hippocampus, where memory and language live, does develop more rapidly and is larger in girls than in boys. This impacts vocabulary, reading and writing skills. Boys, on the other hand, have more of their cerebral cortex defined for spatial relationships. As a result, they learn easily through movement and visual experience. Also, because girls have more serotonin and oxytocin, they can sit for longer periods of time, easier than boys who may need movement to feel comfortable.

However, there is very little gap between what girls and boys can learn, and herein lies the rub. In fact, the differences are most pronounced in young children, and as children grow older, their home environment, their interests and their peers have the greatest influence over their behaviour. By the time children are in the 12th grade (US education system), the differences between boys and girls are very subtle. Understanding these subtle differences can help educators guide their students in a positive way, meeting them and their needs where they are.

Boys and girls do have slightly different learning styles but there is absolutely no reason why boys go into certain fields and girls another.

Societal norms appear trivial but provide a highly-gendered backdrop to development


Professor Rippon is sitting in a photogrammetry system which is part of an EEG dense array set up. This is a camera system which identifies the location of EEG sensors on the scalp. The resulting images are then superimposed on a structural MRI scan to allow source localisation of cortical activity.

“The brain is much more plastic than the early neuroscientists ever dreamed; it is highly permeable to society’s influences. Life experiences can (literally) be brain changing – and any talk of hard wiring is to misunderstand neural development. Until social factors are controlled for, it is impossible to say any differences are solely due to gender. Our brains reflect the society we live in.”

Gina Rippon, Professor of Cognitive imaging, Aston University


“Girls who choose physics have lower confidence in their conceptual ability than boys even though there was no actual difference in such ability” UPMAP study, Institute of Education, University of London

Influencing aspirations



Much of the handwringing – ‘but why aren’t more girls taking STEM?’ unfairly, although perhaps subconsciously, places the responsibility on girls. It is argued that the education system and cultural environment are deeply flawed, putting up barriers for girls that are so familiar they have become invisible.

The evidence reviewed finds that perceived ability in STEM subjects is underpinned by both attainment and self-confidence, both in absolute terms and compared to other subjects. Furthermore there is a belief that it is necessary to be ‘really brainy’ to study science. The Aspires report (2013) finds that many young people with average or good levels of attainment feel unable to continue studying science because they see post-16 science qualifications and careers as being only for the ‘brainy’ few. Coupled with this is the desire to maximise the number of ‘tariff points’ accrued from level 3 study to improve level 4 progression opportunities particularly to higher education programmes. Thus students compare themselves to other students, then compare their actual or anticipated performance in STEM subjects with other subjects, and conclude that science is not for them.

At home –jobs for the boys?


Response to the question ‘What type of job would you most like your child to pursue when they finish their education?’ (Engineers Week polling data 2013)

The best comment that I had all day was from a parent of a girl who was about to go to secondary school. She said

“I always thought of science as being a ‘boy’ thing, but now we’ve come here and spoken to all of you today, we know that’s not the case”

Rosie Davies, ScienceGrrl Birmingham chapter, on ‘I’m a Scientist, Talk to Me at the British Science Festival 2014

These expectations are too often mirrored at the school and in the workplace


30% of women and 18% of men believe that science and engineering companies conciously or unconciously favour men

What can we do?

Counter unnecessarily gendered marketing and broadcasting

Promote real role models

Educate, advise and recruit with awareness of the highly-gendered environment we all live in

Improve the classromm experience

Challenge gendered assumptions across all departments in a school

Insist schools promote gender quality and this is reflected in classroom management (IoP ar working with OFSTED on this)

Ensure curriculum includes applications to wide range of contexts

Creative, real-world practical and group work

Engagement with real-life role models given priority over enrichments

Support teachers in providing engaging physics education

Inform and train careers advisers, improve access to high-quality advice


Thanks to

Peter Main, Director of Education IoP

Ellie Csograve, Co-Director, ScienceGrrl

Further information:

Question and answer session at the end of the day




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