Opinion: We Need to do More about the Diversity Problem in Physics

Opinion: We Need to do More about the Diversity Problem in Physics

It is no secret that STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) has a diversity problem. Social barriers prevent many people from pursuing a stem-related career path and this is something that urgently needs to be corrected.

This is why I was pleased to see a new report from the Hamilton Commission on 13 July set out to improve the representation of blacks in motorsport in the UK. In partnership with the Royal Academy of Engineering, with the help of British Formula One driver Sir Lewis Hamilton, the report outlines key recommendations and the importance of support and empowerment in encouraging black students to pursue career goals in engineering. While the report may not necessarily tell us something we didn’t already know, it does an excellent job of combining many different threads into one clear action plan, and I appreciate the team’s work.

The report focuses specifically on the representation of blacks in motorsport but is an important part of a broader movement to increase diversity in the STEM world. We have a close relationship with the Institute of Physics, Engineering, a big focus for us working towards more diverse and inclusive staff within STEM. The report highlights chime with what we are doing. Although our work focuses on all presented groups, we have also found that young people from black Caribbean backgrounds are unequally affected by social barriers.

An important thing that keeps many young people, especially girls, from pursuing physics is the stereotypical image of a physicist being an old white man in a wild, hairy lab coat like Einstein. This reinforces the myth that physics is only for super-smart talents. Both misconceptions cannot be far from the truth. Young people cannot be expected to solve problems. We need these misconceptions to be challenged by the media, teachers, community leaders, and parents and caregivers, and it is up to us to demonstrate the value that comes from studying the stem issues of these people, especially those with low socioeconomic backgrounds. 

This support and encouragement needs to come early in the education of young people, and of course before they start deciding what to focus on as they get older.