Getting the girls

15 October 2012

Autumn is upon us, the morning rush hour is once again full of SUVs on the school run and summer researchers are beginning to report back their ¬findings. The most outstanding of which is the revelation that nearly half of England’s state schools do not send any girls on to study physics at a higher level.

The Institute of Physics analysed data from the national pupil database and found that 49 per cent of state co-educational schools in England did not send any girls to study physics at A-level in 2011.

The problem of attracting girls into sciences was recognised by the European Union this summer and the response was 'Science: It's a girl thing' - a flirty promotional campaign where lab equipment is mixed with makeup and fronted by catwalk style models to promote the sciences to young women. It was quickly criticised as being offensive and is more likely to lure boys into the sciences than girls.

The shortage of girls studying physics is apparent when you look around the tunnelling industry; this 'fraternity' is heavily male dominated. But there are changes afoot.

The chair and immediate past chair of the British Tunnelling Society Young Members (BTSYM) groups are both women. The BTSYM was recognised last year in the Tunnels awards for its work promoting the industry to young engineers and in schools. The group, with far more dignity than the EU's efforts, aims to help raise the profile of tunnel engineering as a rewarding career option for students by visiting schools and universities (six a year) to introduce the underground world.

Out of the US has come the Women in Tunnelling group, which is a social networking group set up by employees of TBM manufacturer Robbins and has a growing online presence. It held its inaugural event (wine tasting) in Indianapolis during the summer.

The UK government has given the Institute of Physics some GBP 6M (USD 9.5M) to tackle the issue. The industry could further efforts by getting involved with local schools, offering work experience placements, competitions, apprenticeships and scholarships.