Government adviser Katharine Birbalsingh says girls don't take physics as they dislike 'hard maths'

Katharine Birbalsingh has sparked controversy by making what have been described as 'patronising' comments about female students. Credit: Andrea Piacquadio

A government adviser has sparked controversy by saying female students don't choose to study physics at school because they dislike "hard maths".

Katharine Birbalsingh, chair of the Social Mobility Commission, which advises the government, said "physics isn’t something that girls tend to fancy. They don’t want to do it, they don’t like it".

The headteacher, asked at the Science and Technology Committee why so few girls progressed to physics A-level, she said: "I just think they don’t like it. There’s a lot of hard maths in there that I think they would rather not do."

Elaborating, she went on: "The research generally… just says that’s a natural thing."

Ms Birbalsingh complained on Twitter that her quote had been taken "out of context" and "it is OK if we don’t have an exact gender balance in all subjects".

She added: "My guess is that our girls who haven’t chosen to do physics and instead chose biology and chemistry is that they don’t want to do the hard maths in physics.

"Why should we force them to do physics when they don’t want to?"

But her comments sparked fury among senior women working in maths and science, with one leading physicist telling ITV News they are "infuriating, out-of-date and patronising".

Christina Pagel, professor of operational research at University College London's mathematics department, said she was "incredibly sad" to hear the comments.

Rachel Youngman, the deputy chief executive of the Institute of Physics , said her organisation is "very concerned at the continued use of outdated stereotypes as we firmly believe physics is for everyone regardless of their background or gender".

Dr Jess Wade, a physicist at Imperial College London, said: “Ms Birbalsingh’s comments are infuriating, out-of-date and patronising. Whilst girls and boys currently choose different subjects at A-level, there is absolutely no evidence to show intrinsic differences in their abilities or preferences."

She added: "Girls like physics – and ‘hard maths’ – just as much as boys, but it’s difficult to feel confident in your own abilities when society is consistently telling you otherwise."

Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Munira Wilson said Ms Birbalsingh should apologise for her comments.

The MP said: "Sadly, stories like this are all too common nowadays. The Conservatives have been dragging their feet and failed to challenge the culture of misogyny and unconscious biases in our education system for years.

"Every child deserves the chance to thrive and follow their passions during their time at school. However, without a dramatic culture shift, so many young women will be continually undervalued and demotivated.

"The government must finally step up to the plate and act. We need new measures to challenge these biases, backed up by legislation, and Katharine Birbalsingh should apologise for her remarks."