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spaceSpace and Physics

Opinion: We Need To Do More About The Diversity Problem In Physics

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Rachel Youngman

Guest Author

clockJul 26 2021, 11:00 UTC
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A lot more is necessary to close the diversity gap in Physics. Image Credit: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock.com

It’s no secret that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths) has a diversity problem. Societal barriers prevent many people from following a STEM-related career path, and that’s something that needs to be fixed urgently. That’s why I was very pleased to see a new report from The Hamilton Commission on July 13 that sets out to improve the representation of Black people within motorsport in the UK. Backed by British Formula One driver Sir Lewis Hamilton, in partnership with the Royal Academy of Engineering, the report sets out key recommendations and highlights the importance of support and empowerment in encouraging Black students to aim for a career in engineering. 

While the report doesn’t necessarily tell us anything we didn’t already know, it does an excellent job of pulling together lots of different threads into one clear action plan and I commend the team’s work. The report focuses exclusively on the representation of Black people in motorsport but is also an important part of a wider movement to boost diversity in the STEM world. 

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Working towards a more diverse and inclusive workforce in STEM is a big focus for us at the Institute of Physics too, with our close links to engineering. Much of what the report highlights chimes with what we’re doing. While our work focuses on all underrepresented groups, we too found that young people from Black Caribbean backgrounds are disproportionally affected by societal barriers. 

One of the key issues that puts off many young people, particularly girls, from pursuing physics is the stereotypical image of a physicist being an older white man in a lab coat with wild, Einstein-like hair. This also reinforces the myth that physics is only for super-smart geniuses. Both misconceptions couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Young people cannot be expected to solve the problem. We need these misconceptions challenged by the media, teachers, community leaders, and parents and carers, and it is up to us to demonstrate the value to be found in studying STEM subjects to these people and in particular those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, who often are not targeted in campaigns that promote science. This support and encouragement needs to come early on in young people’s education, and certainly well before they have to begin making decisions on what subjects to focus on as they get older.

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This is a societal challenge that we must all solve together. STEM, and particularly physics, thrives on creativity and imagination. Diversity of thought comes from diversity of background. To tackle worldwide problems like climate change we’re going to need to hear everyone’s voices. That's how we’re going to create a fair and sustainable future. 

Last autumn we launched a campaign called Limit Less aimed at smashing these stereotypes and supporting young people from all backgrounds to pursue a future in physics. As well as helping young people to see that the world of physics is for them, we also need to help them understand that physics can take you anywhere. You don’t have to be an academic researcher in a lab – there’s a vast range of practical roles and apprenticeships in physics-related businesses and industries to choose from, covering everything from healthcare to engineering. 

As well as encouraging more young people from historically excluded backgrounds to study physics or other science-based subjects, we also need to look closely at where we draw our talent from. In the UK, most physicists currently come from a disproportionately small pool of schools. If we don’t have enough young people studying physics soon, we’ll be hit with a potentially catastrophic skills gap in the future.  

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That’s why we need to act now on boosting diversity and inclusion, not only in physics but in the wider world of STEM. Let’s hope policymakers and business and community leaders alike take note of the Hamilton report and act on the recommendations.

Rachel Youngman is Deputy Chief Executive of the Institute of Physics (IoP)


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