Girls need to learn how to fail, too

On April 5, 2013

Girls in physics

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.

Image: Girls in a physics class. Credit: Institute of Physics

About Athene Donald

Athene Donald is a professor of physics at the University of Cambridge working on soft matter and biological physics; she is also Master of Churchill College. She was founding chair of the Institute of Physics’ Biological Physics Group (2006-10) and is Project Director of the IOP’s Teaching Biological Physics project. She is a Trustee of the Science Museum Group and a member of the Scientific Council of the European Research Council. She blogs at Occam’s Typewriter and at the Guardian.

3 Responses to Girls need to learn how to fail, too

  1. as a physics teacher (11 – 16 yrs) i have found that certain boys tend more than many girls to ‘give it a go’ without being afraid of making a mistake.
    however i strongly believe that physics teaching is hampered by certain math lessons that simply teach method only.
    these pupils are not only generally poor at using math skills but fail to accept that
    they need to find solutions problems in physics that they have not seen previously – hence leading to not ‘giving it a go’ instead to ‘show me what i have to memorise’.
    this suits many girls at gcse but when they try a-level they (or probably their older sisters who give feedback on a-level expiences) perform poorly as they wern’t persuaded in lower school to be more adventurous .

    this problem seems to affect girls but many boys also fall into the catagory


  2. Do you know, Athene, how much of the difference in female A level physics participation between co-ed and single sex schools is a function of the type of school and how much is a function of the presence of boys? Given the comment above from Huw, one could speculate that single-sex schools are more likely to be (though not exclusively) fee-paying, and this carries with it a whole panoply of reasons why girls (and boys) may have the confidence and necessary mathematical understanding to ‘give it a go’?

    On the wider point about risk taking, I completely agree. The process of school is so focused on maximising an individual’s capacity to get higher grades at GCSE/A-Level. This may lead to conservative subject selections i.e. I’ll stick to what I am sure I can get a good grade in, rather than what interests me most.

    Taking risks and being resilient to failure of course requires confidence and self-esteem, and this is I believe where so much of the ‘problem’ lies. I never fail to be surprised at the lack of confidence and self-esteem I see amongst women in at Cambridge, who are almost certainly some of the most talented and academically successful members of their generations. The lack of insight into the abilities and intrinsic self-worth of some women leads them to fight shy of taking risks, be it speaking about their work in public, applying from promotions or making other making bold and potentially risky changes in their professional and personal lives. From what you have written today about Physics in schools, it appears this problem starts young.. and must therefore be addressed in the way we nurture and educate girls from a very young age. As a mother with a young daughter I become more aware of the urgency of this with every passing day of her life.

  3. Just to possibly connect some bridges I teach Physics at the third largest all girls high school in California and spend most of my time working on failure and process thinking. It is a struggle to begin a year, especially for students who haven’t been in chemistry with me.

    I wrote My M.S. thesis on the effect single gender education has on the success of women in Math and Physics. What we found is a high correlation between success and conceptual understand for girls in single gender classrooms verses mixed gender classes. Not only that, but an ancillary portion of my study also indicated there is no effect on the achievement of boys in single gender vs mixed gender classrooms.

    Later there was a study, and forgive me as I can’t remember the name, But I believe it was done at UCLA where groups of parents were given a toy and observed introducing that toy to children 4 to 5 years old. Here is what they observed, 90 percent of the parents when giving a boy a toy made no indication as to how to work the toy or what it was used for, allowing them to explore on their own. Conversely when the same toy was given to girls the parents almost always told the child what the toy was and showed them how to work it. Essentially removing the child’s need to explore, or reinforcing the idea that exploration and creativity are not important. I think how we socialize and raise girls plays a major portion of how willing they are to take a chances later in life.

    If we look at how schools are run, and even our corporations, where failure is stigmatized, used as a stick to beat down the student into a submissive regurgitator of textbook rules, solutions, and facts as the only route to academic success, what do we expect?

    What we are seeing is girls are becoming very good at school, at giving the textbook answer, which in high stakes testing that occurs in the United States, is represent by girls scoring higher in math in science these days. But we still see few enter Physics and engineering, and it is because they are answer driven (as socialized by parents) and process thinking, explorations, and risks are not valued by many schools nor taught to them as children by parents.

    It is a complicated process, with a great many factors, but I have seen that creating environments for girls that promote failure as the means to find success in a safe way, girls will flourish.