“Girls don’t like hard maths” according to Social Mobility Commissioner

My ears pricked up when government’s Social Mobility Commissioner, Katharine Birbalsingh, was asked why so few girls take A level Physics. Her response was: “I just think they don’t like it. There’s a lot of hard maths in there that I think they would rather not do.”

You see, I took A Levels in Double Maths and Physics back in the 60s and then went on to take Maths as part of my degree. The majority of the students taking Maths in my year at University were women. So Katharine Birbalsingh’s comments seem, well, odd. She also added that she thought this was “natural”, and was not concerned that only 16% of the A Level Physics students in the school that she leads were girls, compared with the national average of 23%.

It is very difficult to know where to begin when someone in her position comes out with that kind of lazy and insulting generalisation. And indeed she is sternly taken to task by a number of academics and politicians. For example:

Dame Athene Donald, a professor of experimental physics and master of Churchill College, Cambridge, said the comments were “terrifying” and “quite damaging” and questioned to which research Birbalsingh was referring in suggesting that girls had an intrinsic lack of appetite for maths and physics.

And …

Dr Jess Wade, a physicist at Imperial College London who campaigns for equality in science, said: “I honestly can’t believe we’re still having this conversation. It’s patronising, it’s infuriating, and it’s closing doors to exciting careers in physics and engineering for generations of young women. Whilst girls and boys currently choose A-level subjects differently, there is absolutely no evidence to show intrinsic differences in their abilities or preference.”

Munira Wilson (who is our Education spokesperson) challenged Katharine Birbalsingh to apologise.

Wilson said ministers had “failed to challenge the culture of misogyny and unconscious biases in our education system for years”, and that every child should get the chance to “thrive and follow their passions during their time at school”. She added: “The government must finally step up to the plate and act. We need new measures to challenge these biases, backed up by legislation, and Katharine Birbalsingh should apologise for her remarks.”

Incidentally, I credited a friend of my parents with my love of Maths. She was a Primary school teacher but before I started school she let me play with some of her ‘toys’ that helped me to understand shapes and numbers bonds. My parents introduced me to Meccano – this was long before children’s toys were genderised and sold in pink or blue boxes. I was then fortunate to be taught by three inspiring female Maths teachers in secondary school, so it never occurred to me that it was not an appropriate subject for a girl to take, and, crucially, my headteacher did not think that girls would find Maths too hard. And that was 60 years ago.

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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10 Comments

  • Ruth Bright 29th Apr '22 - 9:56am

    Mary, your example is an inspiring antidote to the Commissioner’s silly comments. A wonderful contrast also is the example of the Lib Dem PPC Lucy Care. She once came up to my young daughter in a queue at party conference beaming and saying “Would YOU like to be an engineer?”

    Fabulous.

  • Nonconformistradical 29th Apr '22 - 10:34am

    It would be interesting to know what Dame Stephanie Shirley has to say about this.
    https://www.data.org.uk/news/international-womens-day-iwd-2022-breakthebias/

  • Laurence Cox 29th Apr '22 - 11:25am

    We should be concentrating on hard facts, not on opinions and anecdotes. The London Mathematical Society’s benchmarking data:

    https://www.lms.ac.uk/sites/default/files/Benchmarking%20Data%20Updated%20for%202011-2015%20April%202016_0.pdf

    shows around a 40:60% split between women and men taking Maths ‘A’ level, with a 30:70% split for Further Maths ‘A’ level and this gets worse as you get to higher levels with less than 10% of mathematics Professors being women. Instead of shooting the messenger, we should be asking why programmes like Athena SWAN have had such little effect on gender balance in University Maths departments.

  • nigel hunter 29th Apr '22 - 11:27am

    Hannah FRY,regular on radio science programmes also comments on this on twitter.

  • Let’s hear it for Meccano! Apparently old-fashioned but infinitely more creative than Lego, and still very much available (though you have to know where to look for ‘all-purpose’ sets). My daughter was introduced to Meccano by her father when, aged about six, she couldn’t make the Lego car she had constructed steer properly. She sometimes used it rather differently to the average boy (model sandwiches, anyone?), but went on to read engineering at university and now, forty years later, is chief engineer for a railway. And is a huge advocate for women in engineering.

  • @Laurence Cox. Thanks for the link. But we most certainly should shoot the messenger in this case. She is not simply reporting the facts, but actually suggesting that it is “natural” for girls to dislike Maths.
    As the Social Mobility Tsar she should looking into the cultural pressures that discourage girls from doing STEM subjects, not compounding the problem. Unless, of course, you really do think that girls aren’t capable of doing them?

  • >My parents introduced me to Meccano – this was long before children’s toys were genderised and sold in pink or blue boxes.

    Looking back and at the covers of the books and magazines, Meccano was very much presented as being of interest to boys. I suspect many, such as your father simply ignored the signposts. However, I agree, the genderisation of Lego for example presents problems: do I buy my niece ‘real’ Lego or the genderised version?
    My children had both and sets like Harry Potter that seem to straddle the divide. The best surprise and laugh we had was when both my children were given the same Harry Potter Lego set and independently built it; result? Both had followed the instructions however my daughter had transposed them, so her version was an exact mirror image of the version described in the instructions.

    Interestingly, sales of Meccano went up during lockdown. My friend’s spare room web business was kept busy fulfilling orders.

  • Ronald Murray 30th Apr '22 - 10:11pm

    Girls don’t like hard maths what utter nonsense. I am an Engineering Council Registrant and Member of the Institution of Engineering & Technology. I have never heard such nonsense in my life. The STEM Programme has been running for years now with enormous success getting girls into Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. I myself as a male struggled all the way with the hard maths but got there. My wife has a Maths degree my ex wife has a science degree both taken with the OU. Half of our local IET Committee are women engineers. Nonsense like this has no place these days.

  • Laurence Cox 1st May '22 - 1:26pm

    @Mary Reid
    The benchmarking data I referenced is an update on a LMS report covering the period from 2000/01 to 2010/2011: https://www.lms.ac.uk/sites/default/files/LMS-BTL-17Report_0.pdf

    Once you have decided that Katharine Birbalsingh is wrong and that there is no intrinsic difference between men and women in mathematics, you have to account for the difference in outcomes which the data clearly shows. It may be that Athena SWAN is ineffective; it may be that there are other factors that Athena SWAN does not address that are important, but unless you can identify what it is that causes the difference in outcomes you cannot change them.

    This is what I mean by ‘shooting the messenger’. Katharine Birbalsingh may well be wrong, but you don’t convince anyone by telling them that they should apologise for what are, probably, sincerely-held views. You need to find the real reasons for the discrepancy in outcome and show that when these are addressed the outcome changes. That is what evidence-based policy is all about.

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