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Challenging stereotypes

International Women’s Day (March 8) is the perfect prompt for thinking about how we can encourage more girls to take physics further.

Published: 27 February 2024

If you are planning to talk about International Women’s Day at your school, why not introduce your class to some of the world’s inspirational female scientists?  You can help to challenge stereotypes, breakdown barriers and encourage more girls to take physics further.

Many women and girls continue to feel excluded from participating fully in STEM subjects; long-standing biases and gender stereotypes still steer them away from science-related fields. But there are a growing number of stories being told to inspire and enthuse our young learners, and an array of online resources to support lessons and learning.

The numbers of girls choosing to study physics when it is no longer compulsory remains a concern and although numbers are increasing, the rate of increase is slow.* In 2022, 23 per cent of entrants in A-level physics were girls, even though girls frequently outperform boys in STEM subjects at GCSE.**

An IOP report*** in 2023 highlights an increasing need for physics skills and knowledge in the workplace, so encouraging more girls to pursue the subject is an important component in addressing this requirement. The Aspires research project, studying young people’s science and career aspirations, continues to provide insight into the factors that influence young people’s decisions. ****

“Motivating and engaging our young female scientists feels more important than ever,” says Amanda Poole, Teaching and Learning Coach for The Ogden Trust. “There is a set of women in physics research cards which can be found in the resources section of our website and we have curated a collection of other useful links and resources which you will find below. Sharing achievements and stories can help all young people to find inspiring role models that they can relate to – it is so important that all children see that physics can be for them.”

Research cards: female physicists
These research cards introduce the achievements of nine female physicists – past and present

So what can you do to make a difference?

Challenge stereotypes

Challenging stereotypes, including gender stereotypes, is at the centre of the Institute of Physics Limitless campaign which is working to support young people to change the world and fulfil their potential by doing physics. You can visit their website to find out more and to get involved. The Institute of Physics has also produced their Opening Doors guide to good practice in countering gender stereotyping in schools with includes great advice for primary and secondary schools. Another useful resource for the classroom is the Ground Rules Comic and supporting task cards.

Create a positive physics environment

Using positive language when talking about physics can help to breakdown stereotypes and encourage more young people to believe that physics can be for them; girls often feel that physics is more suited to boys and the language used when talking about physics can reinforce this misapprehension. Avoid comments like “you have to be really clever to do physics” or “I can’t understand physics”. Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know something when children ask tricky questions – be enthusiastic about how you can find out the answer together and learn something new.

two girls - one looking through a magnifying eye piece

School STEAM club

Encourage physics-based career aspirations

When learning about physics topics highlight the range of careers that this knowledge is useful for – NUSTEM has a careers tool database of over 100 STEM careers sorted by national curriculum topic in science. You can also find inspiration on the Primary Science Teaching Trust website A Scientist just like me which introduces children to a range of scientists and people who work in science-related jobs; STEM Learning also has a wide range of resources to support STEM careers education in secondary schools.

Feeling inspired but need time to plan?
Ada Lovelace Day (ALD) is an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) which takes place in October. You can find ideas, inspiration and resources on their website.

Learn about women physicists

When learning about scientific ideas and how they have changed over time, be sure to include notable female physicists and provide opportunities for your pupils to learn about their achievements. The Royal Society has created a series of resources to help develop pupils’ understanding and awareness of the diversity of scientists. They have produced videos and activities about a number of female physicists, including Maggie Aderin-Pocock, Jo Shien Hg, Jassel Majevadia and Charlotte Armah.

Adapt your lessons ideas

Why not get your pupils thinking about women in physics in art lessons by creating portraits of famous female physicists from history? The Perimeter Institute has a wonderful collection of stylised posters called the Forces of Nature featuring famous physicists Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Chien-Shiung Wu and Claudia Alexander. The posters can be downloaded for free and used as inspiration in the classroom. The Beyond Curie website has created a collection of March for Science posters to celebrate women and science and NASA has a collection of inspiring women in space posters.

The topic of women in physics can support the development of pupils’ skills in research and communicating findings. There are a number of online resources for supporting these research enquiries such as The Royal Society’s collection of biographies and videos about the most influential women in British science history.

Bring inspirational role models into the classroom

What better way to inspire the next generation than providing them with the opportunity to speak to women physicists about their work? Perhaps there are female physicists in your school community who would talk to pupils; ask parents/carers and school governors if they know anyone who might be interested. You could get in touch with local schools and universities to see if they have any positive physics role models who would run online physics workshops with your pupils or talk about what excites them about physics. Visits can be virtual, which means distance is no object and you may find you can make contact with even more fabulous role models.

Stemettes is an award-winning social enterprise working across the UK & Ireland (and beyond) to inspire and support young women into science, technology, engineering and maths careers. Teachers can get in touch to find out how to organise industry visits, visitors in schools and Stemillions clubs. ScienceGrrl is a grassroots network passionate about celebrating women and non-binary people in science and passing on their love of science to the next generation.

Dr Heather Williams MBE Consultant medical physicist

Dr Heather Williams MBE Consultant medical physicist and director of Science Grrl.

Set up and promote a science library

Books and stories can provide a great context for science learning, expanding understanding and changing views on what it might mean to be a scientist. Books can engage and inspire young learners who may not see themselves as scientists and can develop learning beyond the curriculum, expanding interest and generating discussion. There are many diverse books available that you can share with your students – we have included just a small selection below that introduce some more fabulous female role models.

Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom by Teresa Robeson
Women in Physics by Mary Wissinger
Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed
Look Up! Henrietta Leavitt, Pioneering Woman
Astronomer by Emily Arnold McCully
A Galaxy of her Own: Amazing Stories of Women in Space by Libby Jackson
Ada Twist, Scientist and Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty
Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker
Hedy Lamarr’s Double Life: Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor by Laurie Wallmark
Blue Broccoli and Nanobots and Qubits and Quiver Trees by Briony Mathew

I Ada  by Julia Gray
The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day by Christopher Edge
Women in science: 50 fearless Pioneers who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky
Headstrong: 52 Women Who changed Science and the World by Rachel Swaby
Hidden Figures by Margot Shetterly
101 Black women in science technology, engineering and mathematics by L.A. Amber
Fantastically Great Women Scientists and their stories by Kate Pankhurst
Girls think of everything by Catherine Thimmesh
Storm in a Teacup – the physics of everyday life by Helen Czerski

Dr Yolanda Ohene at a scanner

Dr Yolanda Ohene

Further reading




**** Aspires

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