Girls need to learn how to fail, too

The Institute of Physics has been working hard for many years to increase the proportion of girls doing physics. As their most recent report on the subject – concerning the progression of girls from GCSE to A-level physics – showed, progress is stubbornly slow. Too many schools, almost half of all state maintained coeducational schools according to their statistics, send not a single girl on to take physics in the sixth form.

These are depressing figures unless you buy into the simplistic argument that ‘girls simply don’t want to do physics’. This is an idea I for one simply don’t accept, not least because the IOP’s statistics also show that a girl from a single sex school is two and a half times more likely to progress to A-level physics than one from a coed school. Something in the average school deters the girls: it might be the teachers, it might be peer group (boys or girls) or even parental pressure or any combination of these. The statistics alone cannot identify the origin of the problem.

For girls, entering a 6th form class in which they will be in a significant minority – currently only about 22% of physics A-level entrants are girls – taking physics may feel like entering a threatening environment, quite a risky thing to do. Parents may also feel like that about it and apply subtle, undermining pressure. But we do girls no favours when we discourage them from taking risks, be it studying physics, starting up their own company or going bungee jumping. Nothing in life comes easily and we should not reward timidity in girls but cheer boys on when they go out on a limb. Unfortunately, as a society, we still seem stuck in this time-warped gender division.

I was very struck by a quote I read late last year from a senior Unilever manager, Tracey Rogers, discussing unintended consequences for women’s progression at managerial level due to unconscious stereotyping. She said:

For example, a male manager looking to promote a man may say: ‘Chuck him in at the deep end and let’s see if he sinks or swims.’ The same manager may say of a female candidate: ‘Is she ready yet? We don’t want to set her up to fail.’ Words said with the best of intentions, without any malevolence – and, arguably, stated by a well-mannered man – but the impact on the progression of the two careers is clear.

It’s all part of the same picture. Both sexes need to be encouraged to take risks and learn how to cope with failure when things go wrong, as things tend to do. But, as a society, we probably do a better job of teaching boys that a go-getting spirit is appropriate than we do for girls. If we want girls to be more innovative and entrepreneurial – activities which certainly have the potential to contain a substantial element of risk such as a willingness to put one’s own money, possibly even one’s home, in jeopardy – then we mustn’t simply pat them on the head if they seem willing to keep those heads down rather than challenging the status quo. No, we should be setting out to teach them that life is full of hurdles designed to trip one up and falling over them should not necessarily be a source of embarrassment or an irretrievable catastrophe.

Unfortunately our school system seems not, by and large, to do a good job of this. A few girls’ schools recognise the problem, notably Wimbledon High School for Girls which has introduced a ‘Failure Week’, at which the pupils are instructed to think about what failure feels like and to look it squarely in the face. This is, I suspect, something it would be good for a greater number of schools to introduce. Then maybe we would see a larger number of women becoming entrepreneurs because their adventurous side had not been squeezed out of them. Maybe we would not continue to hear the oft-repeated statement that girls are more likely to get second class degrees because they play it safe, while the boys get the firsts and thirds (from what I have seen in my own university, at least, there is some statistical evidence to back up this remark).

The trouble is that in all these debates – as with the arguments about whether girls just don’t ‘like’ physics whereas boys do – one can go round and round the same old circle of nature versus nurture. We may not be able to do much about what hormones we have been exposed to in the womb, and recall there are theories that say that whether or not we become the kind of systematisers that favour an interest in subjects like physics relates to how much testosterone we were exposed to pre-natally. But we can do a lot more to ensure that we treat boys and girls in the same way, rather than make assumptions about what is appropriate.

I believe that treating girls as too fragile to cope with failure is only going to make them, well, too fragile to cope with failure. Whereas if we encouraged them through their early years to try out their wings in whatever way takes their fancy and then picked them up, if and when those wings didn’t support them, we might find that girls had the courage to try difficult things and succeed at them in later life. Maybe we would even find that our undergraduate classes began to approach parity in their gender split.


Athene Donald

Professor Dame Athene Donald is a Professor of Experimental Physics and Master of Churchill College. Her research is in the general field of soft matter and physics at the interface of biology; she has published over 250 papers in these fields. In recent years she has become heavily involved with policy issues, ranging from chairing the Royal Society’s Education Committee to chairing the Scientific Advisory Council of DCMS.She served on University Council (2009-14) and was the University’s Gender Equality Champion (2010-14). She is currently a member of the Scientific Council of the ERC and a former Trustee of the Science Museum. As well as various prizes from the IOP and Royal Society, she won the 2009 L'Oreal/Unesco Laureate for Europe award.

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