New Scientist asks why, when girls do better than boys at maths and science in earlier years of high school, so few girls go on with the subjects and so exclude themselves from well-paid careers in engineering.
It’s not because they are not capable.
It’s certainly not a matter of ability: girls tend to outperform boys in science GCSEs. This year, 16 per cent of girls taking GCSE biology earned an A* grade, versus 11 per cent of boys. Either an A or A* was achieved by 46 per cent of girls taking GCSE chemistry, versus 39 per cent of the boys. Girls also outperformed boys in physics and – wait for it – engineering GCSEs.
But when it comes to A-levels, girls tend to drop physics and maths. This year, 54,400 boys sat A-level maths, but only 34,400 girls did; 26,600 boys opted for A-level physics, compared with a mere 7000 girls.
The gap is even worse at university level, where males are twice as likely to study science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM) and only 13% of those enrolled on engineering degrees are female.
The answer might be stereotyping according to a new report by Engineering UK.
“The new report suggests that engineering is seen as a subject for brainy boys,” says Angela Strank, chief scientist at energy giant BP, which supported the study. It cites research in 2013, which found that girls who considered themselves feminine were more likely to think that STEM subjects were not for them. Other research has identified preconceptions among school teachers, who tend to think of boys as naturally better at science than girls.
Another study found that students at all-girl schools were more likely to take sciences and maths than girls at co-ed schools.
“It seems that at single-sex schools, there is less pressure to perform in a gender-stereotyped way,” Alice Sullivan at the Institute of Education in London told the magazine.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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