Female Physics and Astrophysics Students UNI-2243

Female physics students – 45% of first-year class at University of Hull

The University of Hull is closing the gender gap when it comes to studying physics – thanks to an inspirational campaign to attract more female students.

While the national percentage of women studying physics is just 22% at degree level – and even less in areas of high deprivation such as the Humber region – at the University of Hull female students account for 45% of the first-year physics class (2021-22).

physics-student-grant-2020-4

At the University of Hull, female students account for 45% of the first-year physics class

The University’s Physics degree course is ranked number 7 in the UK (out of 51 providers).*

As leading scientists react to the government’s social mobility commissioner’s claims that girls do not choose physics A-level because they dislike ‘hard maths’, the University’s Changing Face of Physics campaign continues to attract female students to the supportive and welcoming physics community in Hull.

University of Hull postgraduate student Kate Womack, who came to Hull to study for a BSc Physics and Astrophysics and MSc (Research) Physics, said: “Campaigns like Changing Face of Physics and Breaking Barriers are incredibly important.

“I think when you're young it can be very discouraging when you don't see yourself represented in the field or career you aspire to go in to. It can make you question if you belong or would be welcomed in the field. By showing young people that diversity in all its forms exists in physics, we can provide role models and let them know that their dreams are achievable.” Kate Womack

You can read more about Kate’s story at the end of this article.

Professor Brad Gibson is the inspiration behind the campaign, Head of the University’s Department of Physics & Mathematics, Director of the E.A. Milne Centre for Astrophysics and dedicated to raising aspirations for pupils and students in the region. He said: “We believe 45% to be the highest fraction of women in first year physics classes within universities in the UK.

“There has been a lot of coverage in the media recently about Katharine Birbalsingh’s comments to MPs and the under-representation of women in physics. Her generalised statements that women do not like ‘hard maths’ do not align with Maths GCSE or A-level results (where girls have outperformed boys of late, and never lagged behind boys regardless), and they do not align with our experiences at Hull.

“Our work to reduce the gender gap commenced in earnest in 2016, and it was readily apparent that girls across the region’s schools and colleges were as passionate about the subject as the boys. The scope of the Changing Face of Physics campaign has allowed us to reach those students who might not otherwise have considered a physical sciences career path, and the provision of inspiring peer role models drawn from similar backgrounds has really provided the impetus for these young women to enter physics, astronomy, and mathematics.” Professor Brad Gibson

Ten years ago, female students accounted for 12% of physics student at the University of Hull. Five years ago this rose to 25%, as a result of the impact of the Changing Face of Physics campaign, a recruitment campaign that encouraged female students to think again about a career-path in physics and not to be deterred by any preconceptions.

At present, the figure is 28% for female students across all five years of the degree course. Prior to 2016, uptake was between 10-14% in the Hull region.

George Grey Centre Physics lab

Thanks to the Changing Face of Physics campaign, the figure for female physics students has increased

The context of female under-representation when it comes to studying physics has been well documented: In 2018, New Scientist reported that in 2016 no girls studied A-level physics in almost half of the schools in England that admit girls. In the same year (2016), just one-third of schools had two or more girls taking the subject. Back in 2012, an article in The Observer examining ‘Why don’t more girls study physics’ stated that around 17% of girls apply to do physics at undergraduate level, followed by a more substantial decline in the numbers moving into permanent academic jobs – reporting that only 7.9% of these undergraduates were staying on to become senior lecturers and 4% professors. 

Writing on the issue in New Scientist (May 2022), Maria Rossini, head of education at the British Science Association, concluded:If ingrained attitudes about science and misplaced cultural gender stereotypes lead to systemic barriers that dissuade girls from engaging, then, as a community, we need to examine our own attitudes and failings.

“It is time to call out opinions like Birbalsingh’s, and create a learning environment that actively breaks down stereotypes, in order to support girls and other under-represented groups to thrive in STEM subjects.”

University of Hull Physics postgraduate student Kiri Newson, who came to Hull to study BSc Physics and is now a recipient of the Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship, said: “I think often throughout school, women grow up being told that subjects such as physics are for men and that they'd be better off doing subjects such as biology or English.

University of Hull postgraduate student Kiri Newson

University of Hull Physics postgraduate student Kiri Newson

“So I think if you are told this throughout your entire life you start to believe it which in turn leads to women not taking the subject from early on. When you don't have someone representing you, you're less likely to want to do the subject.”

Kiri is now in her second year of her PhD in which she is using artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms to develop safe and efficient radiographic analyses tools to help in the fight against cancer.**

Professor Gibson has his own theories on the under-representation: “There is an enormous literature exploring the underpinning reasons behind the lack of uptake of Physics, Maths, Computer Science, and Engineering by women at university.

professor brad gibson

Professor Brad Gibson

“What is valid in one region or one school, may not be the case at another; one’s support network at home can be critical, particularly for First Generation university attendees. Similarly, one’s teaching guidance can be as critical, given the sheer number of students being taught A-level and GCSE Physics by teachers without a Physics background. And in some sense, there is a ‘chicken and egg’ scenario at play, with many of our regional students not having inspirational peer role models who have come from similar backgrounds, whether they be socio-economic, gender, race, or any other protected characteristic.

“One of the real strengths of our Changing Face of Physics campaign has been the involvement of dozens of such inspiring role models who have accompanied me into schools and been given the opportunity to share their story." Professor Brad Gibson

“The power that an individual peer’s voice can have has never been so clear to me as when I have had the chance to sit back and watch Kate Womack or Kiri Newson or Daniel Whitt (three of our students) holding court with pupils. Ultimately, it is their passion and their stories and their experiences which have had such a positive impact on changing the demographics of our department!”

Kiri, who is from a small village near York, said “Having gone throughout my entire school life being undiagnosed with a learning difficulty and not receiving extra help up until I joined the University of Hull and was diagnosed within the first year, I feel passionate about helping students reach their full potential and showing them it is possible to succeed regardless of what barriers they may face along the way.

“I know personally I would have been more inspired to continue the subject if I had people come into my school that told their story and explained what it was like going to university to study the subject.” Kiri Newson

The success of the Changing Face of Physics campaign was highlighted specifically as Good Practice in the Country by the UK Equality Challenge Unit, and underpinned the Department’s successful Athena SWAN Bronze award in 2018.

University of Hull postgraduate student Kiri Newson

University of Hull Physics postgraduate student Kiri Newson

My experience of studying Physics: Kate Womack

"I am a first year PhD student working in the field of galactic chemical evolution. I studied for my BSc and MSc at Hull. I am from the Bricknell area of Hull. I went to Kelvin Hall for high school and Wyke College for sixth form. Neither of my parents went to university so for me to make it to PhD level feels like a massive achievement."

University of Hull postgraduate student Kate Womack

University of Hull Physics postgraduate student Kate Womack

“There are so many things I love about studying physics. I love gaining a deeper understanding of how things work and studying physics gives you the opportunity to do that.

“Working my way through a problem in a logical way has always been satisfying for me, so being able to use that skill all the way through undergrad was great. It was also challenging at times but that's when I really found a passion not just for studying physics but researching too, which is what I do now with my PhD.

“My PhD is in galactic chemical evolution this is the study of how the chemical composition of the gas in the galaxy has evolved. We know that stars make the elements and when stars die, the elements are added into the gas in the galaxy. I make models that study this and try to understand how the galaxy has evolved based on the chemical composition.

University of Hull postgraduate student Kate Womack

University of Hull Physics postgraduate student Kate Womack

“I think female students are under-represented in physics for many reasons. As a society, we need to think about the way we talk to girls about physics and all STEM subjects. We have definitely become more mindful of things like not gendering toys and recognising that boys can play with dolls and girls can play with trucks but it goes further than that.

“We have to be aware of the language we're using too. When I was younger and said I liked maths and science so many grown up women would say things like 'Oh that must be so hard', 'You must be so clever', 'I've never been able to do maths'.

“This sort of language gives girls the perception that they shouldn't be able to do the things that they enjoy doing or that eventually they will find it too difficult, and it puts them in a negative mindset.

“This negative perception of maths and science is what makes girls less interested in taking a subject like physics after GCSE level. Women are then even further under-represented at degree level and one can understand why when influential scientists make comments about women not liking 'hard maths', it doesn't make a career in physics look very favourable.

student in physics lab

The University’s Changing Face of Physics campaign continues to attract female students to the supportive and welcoming physics community in Hull

University highlights

“I have been at uni a long time now: I've done my undergrad, my masters and now I'm coming to the end of my first year as a PhD student and I've had so many highlights. Meeting Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell was a huge honour. I really couldn't believe I was going to meet on of my heroes! Dame Bell Burnell is an astrophysicist who was instrumental in the discovery of pulsars. The discovery went on to win a Nobel Prize but she wasn't one of the recipients. She has since gained a lot of recognition and uses her position to help under-represented groups in physics.

“I met Helen Sharman too which was incredible, my mum loves all things space travel and astronauts so I think she was pretty jealous of that one. I also made so many friends, a lot of them female, through undergrad and we supported each other so much.

“I guess it wasn't always a highlight but there were a lot of Sundays in the library through undergrad working on our assignments together!

“A highlight from my PhD would be that I just got back from a trip to Budapest to visit collaborators out there. I never thought I would get those kinds of opportunities.”

** Like Kate, Kiri Newson, is also first generation to go to University and is from a small village near York. You can read more about her experiences of studying physics in this article announcing the news of her Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship in 2020.

Astrophysics

Physics and Astrophysics at the University of Hull

Studying Physics and Astrophysics at the University of Hull offers:

  • A research portfolio that ranked in the top quartile in the country, in terms of its Internationally Excellent and World-Leading research, as per the recent Research Excellence Framework 2021 results.
  • Excellent employment prospects after graduation: including data scientist, laser systems engineering, telecommunications, IT and computing, medical physics, teaching and lecturing, and nuclear engineer.
  • 91% Graduate Employability, as per the 2022 Guardian League Table, ranking 15th out of 51 Physics providers in the UK.
  • Opportunities to get involved in research that tackles unanswered questions. Our undergraduates conduct real investigative research, with some of them publishing research papers before they've even graduated.
  • Courses that are accredited by the Institute of Physics.
  • Access to Viper – one of the most powerful supercomputers in the country – giving students opportunities to address current and cutting-edge research problems.
  • A friendly, supportive subject area. The tutorial system and regular individual feedback ensures students get the help they need throughout your studies.

Outreach: E.A. Milne Centre for Astrophysics

Since 2015, the Milne Centre has run more than 700 education and public outreach events, creating long-term relationships across and beyond Northern England. This activity contributes to the UK’s Industrial Strategy by inspiring, engaging and, for some, training a STEM – and digitally-literate workforce. The Centre’s science communication has reached nearly 3 million people, including 50,000 students at more than 70 schools, with influence designed to stretch long into the future.

Nationally, the Milne Centre has delivered outreach at venues such as the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the British Science Festival, the Cheltenham Science Festival, Pint of Science, TEDx, the National Media Museum, and the Museum of Science and Industry. Milne members have presented award lectures including the IOP’s John Porter Memorial Lecture, Hampshire’s Ray Bootland Memorial Lecture, Glasgow’s Leon Davies Lecture, and Manchester’s Bexwyke Lecture.

The Milne Centre provides Career Professional Development (CPD) training to both regional (100+) and international (20+) school teachers, via the RCUK Teachers scheme, Institute of Physics Regional Days, and a strong relationship with East Riding of Yorkshire Council’s Education Team. The mobile planetarium supplements these CPD events, having reached 5,000 students since 2015, and demonstrates how the University’s research can be used to enhance curriculum provision.

The Centre has provided 30+ work experience opportunities to under-represented groups from the region: they engage with data-mining simulation suites – providing a powerful added value to their career development.

In a region where girls can be diverted from STEM subjects, the Milne Centre is working with schools to change preconceived images of Physics and to redress the gender balance in the discipline. The Centre has linked with regional colleges to recruit girls from the lower IMD quintiles into intensive work experience opportunities; over 30 girls from across the region have benefitted from this opportunity.

The Changing Face of Physics campaign was highlighted in the recent REF2021 for its international excellence and world leading impact.

A follow-up campaign – Breaking Barriers – aims to widen participation with a focus on LGBTQ+, racial, religious and socio-economic diversity.

The University of Hull is committed to social justice and building an inclusive society. Driven by its vision to create a fairer, brighter, carbon neutral future, the University is working to provide solutions to global challenges associated with climate change as well as widening social inclusion – shaping a society that is built on equity, integrity and respect, tackling inequalities and ensuring that every member of its community feels, valued, respected and supported.

* Guardian University rankings 2022.

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