Physicist Dr Jess Wade made headlines this summer for her campaign to get a copy of Angela Saini’s book Inferior into every UK school. The campaign aims to help schools break down gender stereotypes, challenging and supporting all young people to develop their abilities in all fields and to choose from a full breadth of career options. In this blog post for the NACE community, Dr Wade explains what motivated her to launch the campaign, and suggests six steps all schools can take to reduce gender bias.

This is a big year: 2018 marks 100 years since (some) women got the vote and 70 years since women could graduate from the University of Cambridge. For completeness: it is almost 200 years since the majority of men could vote and 809 years since they could graduate from Cambridge.
In many ways, we have come a long way since Charles Darwin wrote “the average of mental power in a man must be above that of a woman” in The Descent of Man (1881). But gender bias and stereotypes still impact young people’s self-confidence and subject choices, which is limiting their career opportunities and damaging the UK economy.
Despite boys and girls doing equally well at physics GCSE, girls only make up 22% of the physics A-level cohort (and this is the highest it has been for almost 10 years). The Institute of Physics (IOP) has been researching this for decades. In 2012 it found that more half of state-maintained secondary schools had no girls in their physics A-level classes and in 2013 that schools which had the fewest girls in physics A-level also had the fewest boys in psychology.
The Opening Doors report, published in 2015 by the IOP and the Government Equalities Office, offers teachers guidance and support in their efforts toward gender equality. In 2016, the Improving Gender Balance project recommended whole-school interventions to stop gender inequities in A-level choice, recognising that a school-wide approach is needed to make a difference.

The Inferior campaign

 Last year Angela Saini published Inferior: The True Power of Women and the Science that Shows It. The book is a powerful collection of evidence that challenges the notion of differences between men and women. From parallel parking to an innate ability in maths, the science behind stereotypes is often dodgy and experiments are rarely reproducible.
Reading Inferior changed my life. It armed me with the facts to take on even the fiercest of naysayers and inspired me to speak up and fight harder. I’ve been taking it with me ever since – to every conference and every new research lab – and when I see someone impressive speak I give them a copy. Inferior has been so well received by the scientific community that last year Saini did a tour of UK universities, filling lecture theatres with passionate students and academics.
In mid-July I realised we should get Inferior into schools, so I set up a crowdfunding campaign with my friend Dr Claire Murray, hoping to get it into every all-girls state school in the country. We reached that goal in less than 24 hours, so raised the bar even higher: every state school in Britain.
Thanks to Saini’s epic publishers (4th Estate), who agreed to match any funds we raised and manage distribution, it took less than 12 days for 800 people to donate enough money. At some stage over the next academic year, Inferior will be finding its way to your school library. Instead of just telling young people about stereotypes, we want them to read about the science, history, individuals and societies behind such stereotypes for themselves. I want them to get as excited as I am about challenging bias, and as motivated as I am for a fairer future.

6 changes all schools can make now

 When you receive your copy of Inferior, I hope you use it as the stimulus for discussion with young people, and to plan activities within and beyond the classroom. A bunch of people who donated to the campaign didn’t want to just stop there; together we are creating a set of resources to help teachers make effective use of Inferior (sign up to help out here).

In the meantime, here are six changes you can make straight away:

1. Stop using sexist and gendered language

Whether it is “we need a couple of strong boys” or “you girls will be good at this creative part”, such sentences stick around in young people’s consciousness and affect their perception of themselves and others.

2. Collect data

Compare your school to national averages and identify areas for concern – then act on them.

3. Build careers guidance into lessons

​Make sure it is up-to-date and gender neutral. If you’re keen on using “role models”, plan this carefully; try to make their relationship with the school more long-term and invite parents along. A lot of early-career scientists and engineers hang out on Twitter – find us there!

4. Stop saying subjects are “hard”

Some people find art impossible and some can’t add up the tab at a bar – and that’s ok. Teachers are incredibly influential and their biases can have a profound impact on young people’s perceptions. Instead of characterising certain fields as inherently difficult or referring to natural talent, talk about each individual working to the best of his/her ability.

5. Acknowledge unconscious bias

Teachers need to be aware of how they might inadvertently send gendered views to their students. Schools can support this through formal training, by signposting resources such as online tests designed to highlight unconscious bias, and by establishing a norm of acknowledging and discussing these issues.

6. Don’t try and do it all by yourselves

Get students and parents involved too. Discuss gendered aspirations at parents’ evenings. Get students to read Inferior and discuss ways to change school culture so that it is more equal for everyone.

For a more comprehensive list, read the IOP’s Opening Doors report.
Finally, remember you are NOT alone. 800 people raised £22,000 in less than two weeks to get Inferior into your classrooms. Read, share, discuss, and make a difference!
Dr Jess Wade is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Physics and Centre for Plastic Electronics at Imperial College London. She is a member of the WISE Young Women’s Board and the WES Council, founder of Women in Physics at Imperial, and has worked with teachers across the country through the Stimulating Physics Network. Her significant work in public engagement and school outreach has been widely recognised, recently through the Daphne Jackson Medal and Prize. She tweets @jesswade.
We’re excited to announce that Dr Wade will join us to lead a workshop at the NACE National Conference on 20 June 2019. For all upcoming NACE events, click here.
Wednesday, September 5, 2018