7 Things I Learned When I Was The Only Girl In My Physics Class
Standing out can make it hard to get comfortable.
1. You are not an ambassador for all women when you answer a question in class.
I was the only girl in my physics class during sixth form, and I was scared the entire time.
I was scared I’d get the answer wrong, and I was scared that everyone would judge me for it. I was scared of asking a question that made everyone think I didn’t understand the class. But probably most of all, I was scared everyone would think that anything I did get wrong was because I was a girl, and that it would tarnish their good opinion of girls and our ability to do physics forever. That was a lot of responsibility for a 17-year-old to bear, hence the anxiety.
I’m not sure how much attention everyone else paid to the fact that I was female and there was only one of me, but it was something that niggled away at the back of my mind that entire year.
Ten years on, I actually have no memory of ever speaking in that class – though my teacher wasn’t terrible enough to let someone get away with not speaking for two years, so I figure that I must have spoken at least once. At this point I can only assume that my brain has taken it upon itself to block out the experience entirely, for my own good.
2. You shouldn’t confuse confidence and intelligence.
It wasn’t until years later, after I finished my physics A-level and then my physics degree, that I realised something very important about the world: Everyone is bullshitting all of the time.
I know that some people are very clever and can transform matrices and solve equations and switch in and out of Dirac notation with ease. But nobody knows the answer to everything, all of the time, with total certainty. And yet, from where I was sitting, everyone else in the class was able to answer questions with complete confidence. So for years, I believed that all those boys in my A-level physics class, and then my degree – by which time I was no longer the only girl, although we were still a minority – genuinely knew the answer to everything.
What amazed me most was when, on more than one occasion during class, someone (usually, if not always, a boy) actually corrected the teacher. I could have had a textbook open in front of me that confirmed a teacher was wrong, and I still wouldn’t have pointed it out. I wouldn’t even have raised it in an email, or written an anonymous note and slid it under their office door before running away.
Looking back, I think the boys were just less scared of failing than I was. I’d confused their confidence with how clever they were. They didn’t have the weight of half the world on their shoulders, they didn’t have to work harder than everyone else just to be thought of as half as good, and so they were less bothered about messing up in public.
The boys in my class could confidently get the answer wrong, and then just brush it off, safe in the knowledge that their reputation was still intact and they hadn’t brought anyone else down with them. Which is a nice way to live, but one that, years later, I’ve never quite been able to master.
3. You really do have to work harder to be appreciated just as much as the boys.
Here’s something that makes all of my anxiety around being misjudged in class worse and better at the same time: Research has shown men do often underestimate the women in their class.
One study published earlier this year found that when asked to name classmates they thought were “strong in their understanding of classroom material”, male students nominated other men over better-performing women. As The Atlantic put it:
“To the men in these classes, a woman would need to get an A to get the same prestige as a man getting a B.”
This particular study was in a university-level biology class, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the finding holds true in other sciences too. If it does, my fear of people (boys) thinking I was stupid because I was a girl wasn’t unfounded. They genuinely could have been sat there underestimating my abilities that whole time.
It sucks that this is reality, and it’s small comfort to anyone going through what I did right now. But I must admit it makes me feel slightly better to know I probably wasn’t just being paranoid.
4. You’re not in competition with all other women.
Because I made being a girl my defining feature in that class, I weirdly felt threatened by anyone who tried to steal my crown. Even when I started my physics degree, I was wary of other women in my year – about a fifth of my 250-odd classmates were female during my degree. I was constantly measuring myself against how well they did on exams, how many societies they were part of, how many languages they spoke – the list goes on.
It wasn’t until I started working and became friends with women who worked in the same field that I realised how powerful and important it is to have a support network of other people like you. Yes, you can learn a lot from all sorts of people when you’re getting started in a career (even men!). But at the end of the day, when you’re feeling disheartened or it’s all gone wrong, you need someone there who’s been through the same thing and can truly empathise. A lot of problems don’t seem half as bad when you realise other people have them too.
5. Imposter syndrome is SO REAL – but you’re not alone in feeling that way.
If you asked me right now, almost a decade after doing my A-levels, if I was good at physics, I would hesitate before answering. I’d say something like, “Well, I have a degree in it.” Or if I was feeling particularly fancy, I’d say “well, I have a master's degree in it” (but then I’d quickly add “it’s not a proper master’s degree, just one of those undergraduate ones” so you didn’t get your hopes up).
A few months into the job I do now, I was asked to be on a poster for a series my old workplace the Institute of Physics was putting together. They wanted to illustrate the different careers a physics degree could lead to, and they wanted me to illustrate journalism. Half-reluctantly, half-excitedly, I said yes, and after a photoshoot and writing a paragraph about what it is I actually do, I am now a literal poster girl for physics.
So I’ve got the degree, and I’ve got a poster with my own face on it. But I still can’t shake that nagging feeling that I somehow fooled everyone, and that I don’t really deserve it, and that one of these days someone else is going to realise.
The term “impostor phenomenon” (now better known as “imposter syndrome”) was coined in 1979 by a pair of clinical psychologists. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, writing in the journal Psychotherapy, described it as an “intellectual phoniness that appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high achieving women". It happens when people fail to internalise their achievements and, believing that they’ve got where they are by luck and not their own ability, are worried about being exposed as a fraud.
Subsequent research has revealed that it’s not just found in women, and that 70% of people might feel like an impostor at some point in their lives. In fact many prominent academics, including other female physicists, have spoken about their own impostor syndrome in recent years.
Knowing this doesn’t stop the train of thought entirely, but it helps.
6. You should always trust your gut.
I almost didn’t apply to study physics at uni. It wasn’t until a teacher kept mistakenly thinking that I was going in for physics that I realised I was way more into it than chemistry, which I was planning to apply for.
For some reason, even though I’d spent family holidays staring up at the light pollution free skies full of stars, doing that as part of a degree and possibly a career had never even occurred to me. As far as I was concerned, it just wasn’t something that people like me did.
Looking back now it seems obvious that I’d prefered physics all along. But it took a teacher who clearly couldn’t even remember who I was to make me realise it.
7. It gets better when you start caring less about what other people think.
I preferred to blend into the background as much as possible in school, so having the distinguishing feature of being the only girl in my physics class was like having an X drawn on my forehead in marker pen.
Standing out made it hard to get comfortable. I felt on edge. I wasn’t paying attention to what I was supposed to be learning, because I was busy trying to ignore my brain’s running commentary about everything I did and why it was stupid and what everyone else thought of me.
At some point in my life, I managed to quiet the running commentary and stop paying attention to what other people thought, and what I thought they thought. I still feel a lot of the same things I did in class today, but they’re less frequent, less intense, and I try my best to recognise them for what they are.
I wish I’d allowed myself to get things wrong in my A-level physics class, and in my degree, safe in the knowledge that it’s part of the learning process and it’s totally OK, but I understand why I didn’t.
I’d like to think nobody reading this is currently the only girl in their physics class, because I’d like to think things have moved on even just a little in the last 10 years. But I’ve seen the figures, and boys still far outnumber girls in A-level physics entries.
So if you are the only girl in your physics class, do me a favour and answer a question next time you’re in class. I promise you, it doesn’t matter if you get it wrong.