What it’s like to be a girl studying Physics at Glasgow
“You don’t look like you study physics”
Picture this – you’re at a party, you’re having a great night, and you’ve just met the most gorgeous person you’ve ever seen – they’re perfect. They ask what you study. Your conversation is cut short and you sob into your cheesy chips about it later.
I’ve found that telling people I’m an Astrophysicist is usually met with one of two responses: “Gosh you MUST be smart” (What the hell do I say to that? I either agree and come across as ultra cocky or disagree and appear insecure and unintelligent) or: “You don’t look like a physicist” (Umm, thanks? What the heck does a physicist look like?) These exchanges can often be so awkward that I’ve known girls to lie about their degree.
The reality is that close to thirty per cent of Physics students at Glasgow Uni are female – one of the highest percentages in the UK. This is far more than Engineering and more than the percentage of boys in Psychology. And actually, everyone I asked in my course reckoned there was forty to fifty per cent of females. I don’t know what that says – maybe less boys show up to lectures or maybe people are really bad at estimations.
My point is, it’s all about perception. I was the only girl in my Advanced Higher Physics class in sixth year and so I perceived Physics to be a boys’ subject. I will admit, I almost didn’t come to university because I was afraid that the entire class would be boys and “nerdy” girls. I wish to extend my deepest apologies because I was wrong, completely. I had perceived the course to be full of people that are “no fun” and I have found that the opposite is true.
I’ve always enjoyed Physics but never considered studying it until one of my teachers dared me to – yes, really. I had decided upon Linguistics; I liked it, I was good at it but I didn’t actually want to do it. I’d always liked Physics but I’d never thought of it as an option, not because I felt I couldn’t do it but because I felt I shouldn’t.
It’s strange to grow up being told that you can be whatever you want but if you suggest something a little less mainstream you’re met with raised eyebrows and a lot of “Are you sure?” and “Oh, well that’s something..”. Why is it that people congratulate my sister on her decision to study Physiology but almost sympathetically wish me luck? They’re both sciences, both challenging, both well respected degrees, both at Glasgow University.
We study a great number of phenomena but the most interesting one I’ve encountered has been the “Accidental Role Model Phenomenon”. The “theory” states that if you are a female physicist then you are a role model for aspiring female physicists, whether or not it is your intention. This phenomenon can be seen across the board, from students looking up to their lecturers to masters students aspiring to be like PhD students to a girl whose science class I helped in telling me she wanted to do Physics because she saw that if I could, why couldn’t she?
It’s all part of being in the minority – you feel you need to prove yourself over and over. Whether it be in the classroom when the teacher addresses the room “Alright boys” or when a well-meaning boy in labs says “Don’t worry, I’ll do all the work”, you constantly feel like you need to stand up and be counted.
Although, saying this, girls also have a tendency to blend into the background. I hadn’t noticed this, not being one to ever shut up and blend. One of my lecturers pointed it out to me, saying that an older student had commented on how female physicists rarely wear bright colours and even less frequently wear skirts. I’d never put thought to it before but walk along University Avenue and you see lots of girls looking as though they’d just stepped out of an Asos advert. You don’t see that in the Kelvin Building – you see jeans and hoodies and polo necks and a lot of black. Maybe I’m grasping at straws and maybe it’s because nobody can be bothered at 9am.
I recently spoke with two of my female lecturers, Lyndsay Fletcher and Morag Casey, both of whom received their degrees at Glasgow University and things are changing. It’s reassuring to see the number of female Physics lecturers rise from three per cent to seventeen per cent in twenty years. It’s reassuring to see the number of female students rise too. Both Lyndsay and Morag recall only having one female lecturer throughout their entire studies and they both speak fondly of her. As per the “Accidental Role Model Phenomenon” this is unsurprising. But it can’t have been easy having only one person to look to, to see only one female surrounded by all those males and to convince yourself that you can do it too.
Interestingly, this bias can work both ways with girls sometimes receiving preferential treatment. I remember in school the teachers were very willing to help me with homework but would often be quite curt and rude if the boys asked for help. One teacher actually did my homework for me if I taught his S2 class. Our school uniform was a shirt and tie which all of the boys stuck by but I could come in wearing sports leggings and a green top and the teachers would laugh and joke about it. If a boy dared to wear navy instead of black, they’d get a lecture about respect. I’m not going to lie, being able to get away with more things had its perks but it was just a constant reminder that I was different.
It’s a tricky predicament to be in because you don’t want to complain and you certainly don’t want people calling you a crazy feminist but there is a problem. It’s deep rooted in the way we are brought up and the way our education system works. It’s in the media and across the internet. It’s what allows women like Morag to be talked over in meetings, despite her work towards the discovery of gravitational waves (huge deal, look it up). It’s what allows people to tell teenage Lyndsay that Physics is a “funny thing for a girl to do”. It’s what allows the boy in labs to reassure me that I won’t have to do any work. And it has to stop.
We’re not asking for an even split or for priority treatment, we’d just quite like to command the same level of respect as the boys. I mean, if girls can go to space, run a country, climb Everest and win Nobel prizes then we sure as hell can study Physics. The sky might be your limit, but it certainly isn’t mine.