Women, girls, maths and OR


Five years ago, 21 percent of students taking Physics A-Level in England were female. In 2021, it was 23 percent [1], so any progress is glacial.

At the end of April 2022, while giving evidence to the parliamentary Science and Technology committee [2], Katharine Birbalsingh, a head teacher and Chair of the government’s Social Mobility Commission, was asked why this was, particularly in reference to her own school where only 14 percent of Physics A-level students were female. She replied that they just didn’t like it and were put off by the hard maths [3].

First, in 2021 girls did (a bit) better than boys in maths at both GCSE and A-Level[4]. Secondly, the maths in Physics A-Level cannot be harder than the maths in Maths A-Level – and 39 percent of Maths A-level students nationally are girls (and 59 percent in Birbalsingh’s school). So, given girls do very well at maths when they take it and are much more likely to study maths at A-Level than they are physics, it doesn’t follow that it’s the maths that is putting them off.

The next day, Birbalsingh added another reason (without citing evidence): that girls were more empathetic and boys more systematic [5]. Leaving aside that research into sex-based personality differences is highly controversial, even if true, it does not follow that first one can’t be both empathetic and systematic, nor that both are not needed to be a good scientist. And while more girls study maths than physics at A-Level, many still do not choose to go on to study mathematical subjects at university.

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An Institute of Fiscal Studies report [6] found that, while girls see science and technology careers as well-paid and secure, they are put off by their (accurate) perception of the careers being maledominated, particularly the physical sciences, engineering and computer science. In sciences where women are at least equal in career representation, there is high female representation at university, for instance: medicine (60 percent female); biology (60 percent female); and veterinary science (almost 80 percent female). This results in a negative feedback loop where girls are drawn towards fields with more women and are pushed away from fields with fewer women. It is also likely that many girls take maths at A-Level as a requirement for these courses rather than thoughts of pursing mathematical subjects at a higher level.

Physics, maths, engineering and computer science are fascinating subjects dealing with topics from the very nature of existence to inventing new technology – both software and hardware – that can transform our lives and address society’s biggest problems. They offer entry into well-paid, interesting and diverse careers. Operational research covers the gamut from cutting edge applied mathematics, to broad knowledge across many techniques, to solving real life problems every day.

While most jobs in science require some level of being able to work well with people, operational research requires not just being able to work with others, but to understand others’ challenges and needs. While technical methods (such as optimisation) or category of problem (for instance, scheduling) may be common across projects, each new project nonetheless requires a different mix of creativity, curiosity and care to tease out how each problem is unique to its context. Without empathy and the ability to listen, we risk solving the wrong problem or developing a solution that is unimplementable.

The Institute of Physics discusses the problem [7] of little knowledge among students of the variety of careers that a physics qualification can lead to and that many physics teachers feeling unconfident in including discussion of science careers in the classroom. This is likely to be the same for careers in mathematics – including OR. How many school teachers are aware of what a career in OR involves and its broad set of skills? How many students? The OR Society has done immense amounts of work in developing outreach materials for schools and universities, running career days and encouraging members to take their passion and experience to the next generation. I’ve personally done many talks to schools and universities about OR generally and my projects more specifically.

But as Birbalsingh’s comments demonstrate, ignorance about mathematics and outdated attitudes towards mathematical careers remain widespread – even among educators. Operational research offers a different narrative – a more relevant and up-to-date one. When OR hits the sweet spot, it literally makes the world a little bit better. More women pursuing careers in OR is good for women, good for OR and good for society. So I’d like to end my first Leader by calling on all of us to redouble our efforts to reach out to school and university students, particularly women. The OR Society has bags of materials – let’s use them. 

To find out more about OR in Education (ORiE), visit www.theorsociety.com/ORiE