How can we boost gender diversity in school physics?

23 Nov 2018

Image: Dr Sheila Gilheany

Dr Sheila Gilheany is on a mission to ensure that girls with an interest in physics get the opportunity to study it. She spoke to Dr Claire O’Connell.

Women are underrepresented in physics, from school through to university, research and industry. But is there a glimmer of positive change, with more young women studying physics?

The recent figures from Ireland show that things are nudging in the right direction, according to Dr Sheila Gilheany, policy adviser with the Institute of Physics (IOP) in Ireland.

“At secondary school, girls make up about one-quarter of the students taking Leaving Certificate physics, but that has moved up recently from 24pc to 27.5pc,” she said. “At third level, 21pc of undergraduate physics students are female, up from just 19pc in 2013, and women now make up around 30pc of the postgraduate researchers in physics in Ireland.”

The figures offer some hope to Gilheany, who has been working with the IOP to encourage more people to study physics, and to ensure that more girls get to the opportunity to do so.

Whole-school approach

One of the latest IOP initiatives to encourage greater gender diversity in physics is taking place in seven Irish schools. The Improving Gender Balance Ireland project is a partnership between CASTeL at Dublin City University (DCU), the IOP and Science Foundation Ireland, and they are running a pilot designed to address issues around gender and physics in schools.

The project is learning from similar IOP initiatives in England and Scotland that have seen positive impacts on the numbers of girls taking physics subjects, and the hope is to build on that success in Ireland.

“The project takes a whole-school approach to gender balance,” explained Gilheany, who works on the initiative with Dr Eilish McLoughlin, winner of the IOP Lisa Meitner medal, and Deirdre O’Neill at DCU.

Its main aims are to support teachers of physics, who may themselves not have a physics background, to tackle ‘unconscious bias’ in schools and to build resilience and confidence among girls about physics, explained Gilheany, who noted that the intended benefits are wider than in physics alone.

“The whole thing about improving gender balance is not just about getting more girls to do physics,” she said. “What is good for getting girls to do physics is also good for boys being comfortable doing home economics and languages. You are more likely to do something if you feel you belong in that environment.”

Gilheany is motivated to help ensure that girls who could thrive in physics don’t miss out. “If around a quarter of the Leaving Cert students are girls, perhaps there are a lot of girls out there for whom physics is a strength but they don’t get to explore it,” she said. “That is bad for the country; it’s wasted talent. But also, for those girls maybe physics was their great strength and they didn’t know it, and now they are doing something else where they may not get as much enjoyment from it.”

Physics opens doors

For the Omagh native, the lure of physics came through a desire to understand the universe. “I remember standing on the beach in Bundoran on my holidays. The waves were crashing in, the moon was there, and I got a sense of being in the universe and somehow being connected, having a feeling of wanting to understand that,” she recalled.

“My physics teacher in school was very good, very inspiring, and I had a sense there was a pathway through physics; that each bit you learned opened up another bit of physics, and I wanted to keep exploring.”

Gilheany went on to study the subject at Queen’s University Belfast, and she did a PhD in astronomy and astrophysics on the stellar winds that blow from hot stars. After that, she worked at Armagh Planetarium before becoming director of the Centre for Talented Youth in Ireland at DCU. There, she was involved in setting up the Pfizer Science Bus, which brought science demonstrations on the road.

Her own journey led her to IOP, where she is now an advocate for studying and working with physics.

“My advice for students is that studying physics gives you a set of skills that can open doors; you learn how to carry out analysis, how to solve a problem,” she said. “My goal is that people who want to study physics have the opportunity to do so.”

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication