Professor says diversity efforts failing, offers no evidence


Read this, and ended up really perplexed:

Schools have been getting it “horribly wrong” for three decades, according to Averil Macdonald, a professor at the University of Southampton who leads on diversity for the South East Physics Network. Teachers needed to do more to dispel stereotypes about scientists and explain to pupils and parents about the different opportunities available, she said.

Campaigns based on inspiring female role models, national competitions and “spectacular” experiments had done more harm than good, the former secondary physics teacher argued.

Prof Macdonald offers precisely no evidence at all for her assertions. Obviously this bit is particularly concerning for me, given ALD: 

Citing examples of successful female scientists could also have negative consequences, Professor Macdonald warned. “Be very careful about daunting high-powered female role models,” she said. More important for girls than enjoying the subject was feeling that physics was for “people like me”, she added.

I’d really love to know what her evidence is, given that Penelope Lockwood’s research says that women and girls need female role models more than men need male ones. It may be this is an area that needs more research, but you can’t just make a claim like this without backing it up. 

As for this bit, really?

Teachers needed to stress that studying physics could also open doors in careers such as marketing, journalism and translation, she said.

We need to get more girls into physics by telling them that they can then leave again? How does that make sense?!



That was an interesting article, with some bits I agree with and others I don’t. I wonder if the bits about not relying on spectacular stuff/really impressive people is related to this? I think there is definitely a place for spectacular stuff but it needs to be in conjuction with more relatable stuff. I went to a couple of events as a teenager run by the Institute of Physics which were brilliant. Yes, they had liquid nitrogen, but they also had computers linked to this thing called the ‘internet’, and we got to present our own talks and listen to ones by proper scientists (we had stuff on GM tomatoes, volcanoes, and loads of other stuff that sounded so interesting). They showed what science could be and was really inspiring because these people weren’t famous names, they were just people but they were doing extraordinary things.

One thing the article said was that,

"it’s better to get someone in who is from the local area, from a similar
background to the students, who can come back again and again and
develop a sustained relationship.”

It reminded me that while doing my GCSEs we had a Chemistry PhD student come in for a term and join our chemistry lessons. I don’t remember exactly why she was there but it was definitely a benefit as, again, it was just someone normal studying amazing things and by having her there for a term we got to know her and start to think that we were able to do what she did (which is pretty amazing considering how bad I was at chemistry!).

Without wanting to extrapolate too far from my own experiences, I’d say that maybe what they’re trying to say (though not fantastically well) is that famous people doing amazing things isn’t necessarily the best way to inspire, getting it’s ‘normal’ people who do amazing things. So, instead of getting Helen Sharman in to talk about going up on Mir, get someone from the local university who has worked on an ESA project or something. From what I’ve seen of ALD, that’s a lot of what you do so I don’t think there’s anything to be concerned about.

The part where I’m in complete disagreement with them and complete agreement with you is about the ‘opening doors’. One of the major reasons I left physics was that the only two career paths that seemed in front of me was 1) being stuck at the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere using a telescope (that I would spend a lot of time in a university hadn’t been made clear to me) or 2) going and working in the City, and I’d have rather died than live that scenario. If more career options within physics had been made explicit during my student days I might have stuck it out rather than quitting after the first year.

I thought this line was rather telling,
“Until the mums are comfortable that their daughters will be happy and
successful in a Stem career, they will not be supportive and the
daughter, at the end of the day, will think again."

I think this is a very good point. Parents (usually) want their kids to be happy and if they predict that a career choice will not bring that happiness they may well try and guide them away from it. I also think that peer groups are important here - studying science still seems to be considered a ‘male’ thing and girls are often steered away from studying it through peer-group influence.

I’ve waffled on far too much, but I just want to end by saying I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all solution and there isn’t an easy fix. Inspiring people to study physics is pointless if you can’t show that there’s interesting careers that will use that degree. Inspiring women to study physics is pointless if you can’t show that they won’t be miserable and feel socially ostracised. But fixing a lot of this can’t be fixed by focusing on physics, or engineering, or whatever institute is complaining that there aren’t enough women in their field. It’s societal, and from everything I’ve seen it starts really young. Babies are treated differently according to their sex, toddlers are guided away from playing with certain toys depending on whether they’re a boy or a girl. Toys, TV shows, books, films, all say that boys and girls are different and like different things and are good at different things. A single event is never going to undo all of that social conditioning, but it can be the final straw that breaks the conditioning for a few people and as long as that’s an acceptable outcome for the organisers then it’s totally worthwhile. (Also, getting people into science shouldn’t be the only goal, getting people interested in science as laypeople should be an equally valid outcome and these events totally do that).


I think the thing that bugs me more than whether she’s right or not is that firstly, she offers no evidence, and secondly she talks in such broad terms as to make it meaningless. I see this with social media. People say “Oh, we tried social media, and it didn’t work”, and I immediately want to know exactly what they tried and how, because the execution is everything

If you have someone in to talk to your students about science or whatever, then how do you know if it’s had an impact other than by looking at the numbers (which may be affected by confounding factors)? And how do you know if a lack of impact was down to having the wrong speaker, someone who maybe isn’t all that inspiring, rather than the concept of having a speaker in being flawed? Maybe having speakers in inspires girls with different personalities to different extent - appealing more to joiners and less to girls who feel alienated, perhaps? Maybe some girls need something more intimate, someone they can talk to quietly. Maybe some girls were inspired by societal factors outweighed their inspiration. Maybe their teacher is shit and ground all the inspiration out of them… It would be easy to go on. 

Basically, this is all just one massive reckon from someone who’s using an appeal to authority (her professor status) to get us to believe her. Well, there’s no way to judge if she’s right or wrong, because we have no evidence to weigh up. All we can say is whether or not what she says jibes with our experience or opinions. 

I totally agree with you that there isn’t a single solution, there isn’t an easy fix, and what makes me cross is that this piece doesn’t examine that at all. Instead, it’s just “You’re doing it all wrong, because I say so.” Feh. 


OK, I’ve read the Atlantic piece on The Problem With Praising Famous Scientists, and again have a massive problem with it. I hate to sound like a broken record, but where’s their evidence? On what are they basing their conclusion? Now it might be preferable (and I believe it is, on moral and ethical grounds) to have more diversity in role models, and to show more role-teams, as it were, but is there evidence that one sort of role model is more inspiring than another? Surely it depends on the person being inspired as to the kind of role model who speaks to them? 

I mean, when you think about romanticised superhuman role models, you see plenty of them in sports or music or movies. But does the fact that we can’t all be Jessica Ennis/David Beckham, Lady Gaga/Robbie Williams or Angeline Jolie/Johnny Depp stop people playing sports, writing music or acting? We don’t see any calls for role models in other walks of life to be less famous. Now maybe that’s because there’s an oversupply problem in these fields, and undersupply in science, but maybe there’s oversupply because there are lots of very, very famous names in those fields who are alive, whereas in science most of the really famous ones are dead. And it is hard to related to dead people who may have lived one or two or three centuries ago. (Plus, also, money. Lottery thinking is a major driver in the music industry with regard to musicians, which is something I have some experience of.)

So again, total lack of nuance and evidence, resulting in a take-away message that is needlessly negative and which comes across as the authors being over-sensitive and unambitious. 


I see your point and completely agree. They’re painting things with a very broad, very biased brush and you’re right it’s an argument from authority (in the true sense that because they’re ‘dr’ we should listen to their pronouncements even though they seem to be speaking on things that are outside their fields of expertise.

I used to think that social science and especially things like women’s studies were stupid areas of study, but the more I get interested in this area the more I realise that these fields are really important and need a lot more respect than they currently get. People think that they can be experts without any understanding because it’s all ‘obvious’ but it isn’t, they aren’t and by talking rubbish they push things back, not forward. It’s so frustrating.



Fishnut, I totally agree! And I’ve started a thread to see if we can between us do a literature search for the evidence on role models, with the aim of either answering our questions or defining new research to be done.



There’s a lot going on in this agenda that I’ve had some involvement in, but I’d like to address this issue specifically:

needed to stress that studying physics could also open doors in careers
such as marketing, journalism and translation, she said.

We need to get more girls into physics by telling them that they can then leave again? How does that make sense?!"

Yes, absolutely we do. We need to get more people into physics by doing this because it is necessary to reassure prospective students that by studying a specific subject, this does not mean they are then forced to remain in that career for ever. That’s not how the UK graduate labour market works. So, we tell prospective physics students that they should study physics because it will allow them a career in science if they want one and that other professions will value it should they not.

The other unspoken reason is that the labour market for physics degrees in the UK is not actually that strong, and it’s necessary for students to be aware that they have other options because the data shows many of them will need them. (Try this, page 20:



That’s a very fair point, Ken, yes. 



This is an interesting one. In HE it has, generally I think, been a difficult process making the transition from a very niche, often radical, but basically cloistered profession, that recruited students who wanted to be part of it from the off…to the current business model where we train the majority of the population to have the motivation and metacognition to take on any new stuff and make it happen, efficiently and creatively. Many academics, who have always been academics, find it quite hard to step into the shoes of students who don’t want that. They find it hard, I think, to value the students’ choices, and feel slighted, maybe, that their protégés don’t “want to be like them”.
So, away from my horrible longwinded sentences, Ken is absolutely right - there is no way that we are training physicists to be physicists, nor biologists to do biology and so on. Being all things to all students, is increasingly challenging.



Here’s another take on the girls and physics problem.
The very interesting point it makes is that perhaps it’s not a girl problem at all, but an unconscious bias about innate ability that affects both genders - it’s also a boys and psychology problem.

This struck a chord because my eldest, currently in age 16-18 education, has exactly this experience: a majority of boys in his maths class, but there is only him and one other boy in both his history and his psychology classes.
So challenging unconscious bias at all levels is essential, so that adults don’t send subconscious messages to schoolchildren.



I think it’s definitely a problem with gender stereotyping and subconscious bias rather than just a girl issue. But ultimately, all of this is cultural, and that makes it a bit of a wicked problem, and very difficult to solve. As they say: 

Culture change is going to be key throughout the career pipeline if we are to achieve not just gender diversity, but the diversity of ideas and approaches, as well as the number of STEM literate people that we need, to address the scientific and engineering challenges of the 21st Century.



[note to self - logged]