February 1, 2023

The Face of Physics – Part 1

This is part 1 of a series of articles in which Genevieve Bent explores the experiences of some BME and/or female Physicists (and Physics students) in the UK and #ChatPhysics.

For as long as I can remember, Physics has always been the ‘masculine one’ of the Sciences. As a young black girl who studied at a comprehensive all-girls school in London, there wasn’t single girl in the ‘Triple Science’ cohort who went on to study Physics after GCSE.

I believe it’s fair to say that while things are changing (albeit slowly), Physics continues to be dominated by a homogenous group.

Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking, Brian Cox, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, just some of the names that one might think of as a non-physicist or everyday person. And in popular culture, we can’t forget the very real (but fictitious) physicists Sheldon, Leonard, Howard and Raj. If you don’t know who they are, I suggest you search for them EXPEDITIOUSLY. But in this list, with the exception of two, there is a clear pattern… of being white and male.

There are of course, many more wonderful physicists, who do not fit into the aforementioned group, Maggie Aderin-Pocock, Marie Curie (more notorious to many for her contributions to Chemistry), Donna Strickland, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, to name a few. But if you type into Google ‘Famous Physicists’, a number of pictures of white men will be produced as the top result… in the year 2020.

What message does this send to young people, particularly those from minority groups or who are female?

In 2006, the Institute of Physics (IOP) and Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) produced a report of findings which looked at the representation of different ethnic groups in both Chemistry and Physics. The report highlights the differences between ethnic groups and shows that ‘white students are three times as likely to achieve an A-level in chemistry as black Caribbean students; only Indian and Chinese students are more likely to achieve an A-level than white students in Physics’; and that some of the main factors for the above are ‘family pressure’, socio-economic status and the ‘effect of peer groups’ [i].  

Every four years, the IOP collects anonymous data in order to get an idea of the diversity in the Physics landscape across the UK. In 2016, they published the 2015 survey results in the report ‘What does a physicist look like?’, which detailed the percentage of BME respondents, spanning from Post-16 students through to Fellows of the IOP. This stood at just 9.8% [ii]. Now whilst this doesn’t necessarily give the most accurate picture of the Physicists across the UK, it does show a great disparity between the engagement of white people and other ethnicities in Physics.

Fast forward to current day and there are still many efforts to boost the representation in Physics, for both Black and Female, key groups.

Just last year, the IOP launched a bursary scheme [iii], funded by Prof. Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell with an aim at increasing the number of female and minority groups in Physics research in the UK to over 30% in the next ten years [ii]. This is just one of the many initiatives the IOP has launched in its 2020-2024 strategy.

It’s clear that Physics still doesn’t have the diversity seen in the Biological sciences, or even Chemical sciences and has a long way to go if its true ethnic and gender diversity is to be achieved in UK Physics. Over a short series, I intend to explore the experiences of some BME and/or female Physicists (and Physics students) in the UK and #ChatPhysics to find out a little more.

[i] Representation of Ethnic Groups in Chemistry and Physics. The Royal Society of Chemistry and the Institute of Physics. May 2006.

[ii] What does a physicist look like? Institute of Physics. 2016.

[iii] Ghosh, Pallab. ‘Fund to boost female and black physicist numbers’. BBC. 19 March 2019

Featured photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

Head of Science at a South London secondary school with a Chemistry specialism, but also an enthusiasm for teaching Physics. Founder of Young Gifted and STEM, an initiative aimed at increasing engagement of young BME students with STEM study. Genevieve's website is http://www.younggiftedandstem.co.uk and tweets @vievewright and @ygastem

1 Comment

  • Gavin Rayner April 30, 2020

    I googled “famous biologists”. Also all white, one woman. I googled “famous physicists”. All white, one woman. I googled “famous chemist”. All white, one woman (and whatever Avogadro is!). This does not explain the discrepancy in my departments numbers for next year. Physics is 2:1 boys, chem is 0.8:1 and biology is 3.6:1. The least diverse subject, in terms of gender, is biology as it’s mostly girls!

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