Thinking about how girls think about themselves

Traditionally, girls don’t see themselves as fitting in in physics.

Self-perception colours our choices, limits or drives our ambitions, and affects how we come across to others. So role models and cultural icons matter when it comes to the messages we give our children. If we tell boys not to cry, they can grow up feeling they are wimps if they let their emotions overspill. If we give girls the message that their primary role is to nurture talent in others not themselves, there is the likelihood they will not aspire to be leaders. And, if we praise the actions of WAGS for having snagged a Premier League player, girls may assume that they only exist in relation to others.

This is equally true if we give young girls role models in the form of impossibly proportioned Barbie dolls dressed to kill instead of more realistic toys with ‘ambitions’ to make something of themselves. This is the logic behind the crowd-sourced doll Lammily (not the most resonant of names) that has recently hit the market. With vital statistics corresponding to those of an average 19-year-old, i.e. 32-31-33, and with accessories including stick-on acne, freckles and scars, the idea is that children will see this doll as ‘just like them’ (or at least their big sister) and so their imagination will be sparked in different ways from that which Barbie encourages.

On a very limited study, with no statistical significance, it would appear to be working. As reported in the Daily Mail (apologies!) a class of nine-year-olds reacted very differently when asked what sort of job Lammily would be likely to do compared with Barbie. The latter was seen as likely to be a model or ‘fashion star’ whereas Lamilly was lined up for a ‘computer job’. Children see the dolls differently. Maybe there is an obvious lesson in there for those of us who are frustrated by the continuing low levels of girls progressing to physics A level, despite their successes at GCSE.

Another lesson for us to bear in mind in similar vein can be found in a recent report spearheaded by physicist Averil MacDonald. Although she was looking at minorities’ attitudes towards STEM in general, her report throws up some interesting issues for possible ways to facilitate girls sticking with physics. Again, the issue about self-perception sits at the heart of her report. It isn’t such a crude issue as that girls simply don’t like physics nor that they are bad it. Crucially, they don’t see themselves as fitting in. This feeling of difference ties in with the cultural norms they are exposed to. Looking around their world – through representations in films, at science festivals or on TV – overwhelmingly they see male physicists. They don’t see women they can relate to and, the evidence from this report suggests, they also don’t necessarily value the words associated with physics-based careers.

Asked to describe themselves, girls apparently are more likely to use adjectives than nouns. Males may say something about their jobs, or about the outcomes of their jobs, whereas girls tend to describe their qualities (helpful or shy, for instance, in the case of teenage girls). Read Averil’s report for all the evidence. This ties in with the stories Cambridge University found more generally when it interviewed women from different spheres within the university as part of its project culminating in the book The Meaning of Success. The women wanted to stress the success of their teams, for instance, rather than the Nature papers that were the outcome of this success. Cambridge needs to work out how to make sure that the qualities valued by the women – which don’t necessarily map easily onto promotion criteria or other measures of progression – are better reflected in evaluating our workers. It is perhaps something for other HEIs to consider too. But these messages are also something organisations aiming to support girls into physics should bear in mind. We have a long way to go if we are to reach anything close to parity in our physics A-level courses and finding new types of interventions may be a sensible route to take to ensure we don’t unnecessarily lose female talent before the girls even enter university.


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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