Professor Averil Macdonald OBE – My Eureka Moment


Professor Averil Macdonald OBEWhy do so many girls tell us that, while they know that they are good at Physics and that they enjoy Physics, that they also think that ‘Physics is not for people like me?’

I have spent 35 years working to encourage girls to study physics or engineering so I was horrified to discover that the percentage of physics students that are female (in the UK) has remained stubbornly at 20% throughout that time. Despite all the time, money and effort we have put in to persuading girls to study physics or engineering, we have FAILED!

It’s not that girls can’t do science – girls outperform boys in all subjects at all levels up to degree level.

It’s not that women don’t want careers in physic and engineering – the UK has the lowest percentage of women in STEM careers across the whole of Europe.

It’s not that girls are avoiding ‘hard subjects’ – girls now make up 65% of medical students and 75% of veterinary science students in the UK.

What is clear is that the ‘wow’ events, the master classes, the hands-on activities and the role models, only appeal to a small percentage of girls – the ones that wanted to study physics anyway. We aren’t changing hearts and minds.

What is also shown by research is that mothers are a major player in influencing girls choices. It is rare that those who seek to persuade girls also speak to mums – and therein lies another problem.

My eureka moment came when I realised that language is key.

Typically men articulate their self-identity (describe themselves) using verbs – they talk about what they do for a job, or a hobby, or they talk about their achievements. Conversely most women will articulate their self-identity using adjectives – they describe their attributes e.g. friendly, neat, helpful.

As a physicist talking about the benefit of studying physics, I know that we tend to use verbs – we talk about what scientists do. “Scientists cure cancer, build bridges, track satellites, solve problems”.

While this is fine for those who think in terms of verbs – they can visualise themselves in this verb world – those who think of themselves in terms of adjectives can’t recognise themselves in the narrative. We just aren’t talking about adjective people in the sort of words they use about themselves.

My Eureka moment was to realise the power of language: if we are to appeal to everyone we need to make sure we are using both verbs to say what scientists do, and then use adjectives to describe the sort of people (their attributes and aptitudes) that can be successful in science or engineering.

I have turned this into a quiz. You can try it out to see how your own description of yourself can signpost you to careers in the STEM world where people like you are happy and successful. Try it out on any teenage girls you know who are trying to decide on a career path. Go to