Girls scared away from science by sexist banter at co-ed schools

05 November 2015

A new report by Britain’s Institute of Physics has found that co-educational schools need to do more to tackle sexist banter and attitudes that discourage girls from pursuing careers in science. While the Opening Doors report found that all schools had policies to counter racist, sexist and homophobic language, sexist language was often dismissed as “harmless banter” though “many of the students, particularly girls, did not see it as such” and that “in extreme cases, it verged on bullying”.

Some of the many important findings of the Opening Doors report include that:

  • Many of the schools were “inadvertently reinforcing the notion that certain subjects were harder than others” and that girls “lack ability” and “innate talent” in certain subjects, and this was “particularly true for girls contemplating mathematics and the physical sciences”.
  • Timetabling constraints in many schools reinforced gender stereotypes through offering subjects in blocks that send “a strong message about the types of courses that are taken by boys and girls”.
  • “Some schools, mindful of bad behaviour from boys, had policies of alternate boy-girl seating, effectively using the girls as buffers to keep the boys apart. In general the girls noticed and resented this policy.”
  • While girls had access to the full range of sporting activities at some schools, in other schools “girls resented being prevented from taking certain sports considered unsuitable for them”.

In 2012, the Institute of Physics published the It’s Different for Girls report which found that 49% of all government co-ed schools did not have a single female student taking A-level physics and that girls attending independent single-sex schools were four times more likely to take A-level physics than girls in government co-ed schools. In fact, 7.2% of girls in single-sex independent schools took A-level physics in 2011 compared with 4.9% of girls in co-ed independent schools, 4.3% of girls in single-sex government schools and 1.8% of girls in co-ed government schools.

In 2013 the Institute followed this report with its Closing Doors report examining existing gender imbalances in six A-level subjects which result in girls being more likely to take English, biology and psychology, and boys being more likely to take mathematics, physics and economics. The report found that 81% of government co-educational schools were either “maintaining or exacerbating the already poor gender bias of progression into these subjects”. One of the main findings of the report, however, was that “single-sex schools are significantly better than co-educational schools at countering gender imbalances in progression to these six subjects”.