The problem we face in this country is a lack of females at every level in the physical sciences. Where I teach – the maths faculty at the University of Cambridge – we see the problem acutely. From undergraduates (less than 20 per cent) to PhD students (25 per cent) and as for academic staff – they can be counted on one hand. The lack of females is a serious problem facing the UK, and a waste of valuable resources.
This new research proposes that the ‘Expectation of Brilliance’ could be one factor underlying this problem. The statistics are vast, and left me feeling rather bewildered, but the concept is interesting and may explain why our maths faculty has such difficulty attracting female applicants. Females are indeed as brilliant as males, but perhaps they themselves do not realise this, and society does not recognise it either.
Also, peer pressure is often strong during girls’ teenage years and it is often not perceived to be very ‘‘feminine’’ to study maths, physics and engineering. So, how did I manage to ‘‘slip through the net’’ and end up at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, by luck or good fortune? Maybe both.
I wasn’t a confident child, although I did seem to have a gift for maths and physics. I was not entered for Oxford of Cambridge, even though my A-level results turned out to be stellar. I went to London University and at degree level, I was firmly told that if I was a borderline First, I should not have an oral, because I did not come over well in an interview. I flew over the borderline, unaided. I was not confident, but I was lucky. My PhD supervisor was kind and supportive, and put his confidence in me. I always came out of his office feeling better than when I went in. How many students can claim that?
So what would I say to females who enjoy maths and physics? Go for it! Do what you are good at, don’t be put off by stereotypes, be confident and change the culture.
Dr Helen Mason, OBE, is a solar physicist at the University of CambridgeReuse content