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Page last edited: 29/08/2013

 Gender and Subject Choice: Explanations [You may also click here for a basic summary of this document]

Click here for the DCSF Research paper" Gender and Education: The Evidence on Pupils in England:"  Published 18th July 2007This paper provides very detailed statistical information on all aspects of the relationships between gender and educational achievement. [ Please note that the link to this paper has remained broken for sometime, for which I apologise, but it has now been reactivated.] 

Click here for recent Guardian article on Gender and Computer Science NEW link added December 2012

Click here for Guardian coverage of recent Select Committee report NEW link added June 2013

Click here and here for two recent BBC items New Links added July 2013

 

Important New Links added August 2013

GCE Advanced Level results for 2013 are now available and can be found by clicking here for the JCQ website. Also click here and here and here and here and here and here for Guardian coverage and here for BBC coverage and here and here  and here and here for Independent coverage. I have updated the remainder of this document to include the 2013 data

Click here for full GCSE results from the Joint Council for Qualifications and here and here [especially useful] and  here and  here and here and here and here for Guardian  and here and here and here for BBC coverage  of the 2013 GCSE Results.

I have updated this  document to incorporate the 2013 data

 

 

Gender and Subject Choice: Some Data

There are two main sources of data on gender. subject choice and examination results at GCSE and GCE Advanced Levels. These are the data from the Joint Council on Qualifications which provide information on all students of all ages in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and data from the DFE which provide data on 15-16 year old and 16-18 year old  students respectively studying in English schools and colleges. Given these differences in coverage of the JCQ and DFE data there are some differences in the data of these two sources on gender differences in entry rates and pass rates but such differences are fairly small. I shall use data from the JCQ  here but interested students may also refer to my more detailed document where information is provided also on data from the DFE on the 2011/12 examinations and this document will be updated when the DFE data for 2012/13 become available. 

  1. Gender and GCSE Subject Choice  2009/10 -2012/13.

  

 

 

Gender and GCSE Subject Choice  2011/12. {Readers my now choose to disregard this item and to proceed to the following item on the 2012/13 GCSE examinations which does contain the main comparisons with the 2011/12 data]

Click here for full GCSE results from the Joint Council for Qualifications  and here for Guardian and here for BBC coverage  of the 2012 GCSE Results. The Joint Qualifications Council provides complete coverage of all examination entries in all subjects classified by gender. Note, however, that these data include information on adult entrants as well as 15-16 year-olds and so differ slightly from the DFE data used above.

  • There were 2,562,885 male entries and 2662403 female entries.
  • The percentage of students attaining Grades A*-C has declined for the first time since the introduction of the GCSE courses in 1986 . The first GCSE examinations took place in 1988.
  • The percentages of both male and female students gaining A* and A grades have also declined.
  • Female students outperformed male students in terms of percentages of entries awarded A*-C grades and in terms of percentages of entries awarded A* and A Grades
  • A*:  Female entries =8.7% Male entries 6.0%  A:  Female entries =16.9% Male entries= 12.9%  A*-C Female entries= 73.3% Male entries=65.4% .
  • The % of Female A*-C entries exceeded the % of Male A*-C entries in all subjects except Mathematics {M +0.3%}, Physics {M+0.2%], Economics [M+ 0.2%], Other Sciences [M+6.8%] and other Technology [M+3.8%] subjects.
  • Whereas females had narrowly outperformed males in Mathematics in 2008 prior to the abolition of course work, it has been suggested that the ending of GCSE Mathematics coursework for the 20009 and 2010 cohorts helped to explain why males narrowly outperformed females in GCSE Mathematics in 2009 and 2010   However this conclusion has attracted some criticism. In 2011/12: In Mathematics Male and Female pass rates were identical [71% on the DFE figures] But on the JCQ figures males narrowly outperformed female students [[M=58.8% A*-C and Females= 57.9% A*-C] although on the DFE data Male and Female A*-C pass rates in Mathematics were identical at 71%.
  •  Gender differences in attainment varied considerably as between different subjects.
  • For example whereas the % of male  A*-C entries exceeded the % of female  A*-C entries in Physics, Mathematics and Economics, the % of female A*-C entries exceeded that of males by, 0.8% in Biology, 1.5% in Chemistry, 5% in Other Sciences, 9.5% in French, 9.6%  in German,  12.3% in Religious Studies and 14.6% in English. However once again there are claims that the abolition of course work in several GCSE subjects may reduce the gender gap significantly in future years although again  such claims are controversial and we shall have to wait and see!.
  • The figures in the brackets below indicate which of these subjects contained % majorities of male and female entrants respectively. Notice that in several of these subjects the male or female majority percentages  were relatively small.
  • In 2012 the most popular subjects were Mathematics [F=50.2%], English[ M=51%] , Science, English Literature[ F=53%], Additional Science[ F=51%] , Design and Technology [M=56%], Religious Studies [F=54%] , History [M=51%], Geography [M=55%] and Art and Design Subjects [F=66%].
  • In individual Science GCSEs a majority of entrants were Males and in French German and Spanish a majority of entrants were Females. Biology [M=52%], Chemistry [M=53%], Physics [M=53%] , French [ F=58%], German [F=53%], Spanish [F =58%] . Again the male or female majority percentages were relatively small.
  • In the following subjects the male and female majorities were much larger and might be said to reflect substantial gender differences in perceptions of appropriate employment.
  •  Subjects with the highest percentages of female entrants were Health and Social Care [F= 94%] Home Economics [F= 86%], Performing Arts  [F=83%], Social Sciences F=67%] and Art and Design Subjects [F=66%] . A majority of subject entrants were also female in Drama and Media/Film and TV studies.
  • Subjects with the highest percentages of male  entrants were Construction [M=97%], Engineering [M=93%], Technology [excluding Design  and Technology [M=92%] and Economics   [ M=67%]. Notice also that total entries for Construction [671], Engineering[2128] and Technology other than Design and Technology [1447] and Economics [3857] were relatively small. A majority of subject entrants  were also male in Business  Studies, ICT and PE.

 

 

 

 

Gender and  GCSE Subject Choice  2011/12 and 2012/13

 Click here for full GCSE results from the Joint Council for Qualifications and here and here [especially useful] and  here and  here and here and here and here for Guardian  and here and here and here for BBC coverage  of the 2013 GCSE Results. The Joint Qualifications Council provides complete coverage of all examination entries in all subjects classified by gender. Note, however, that these data include information on adult entrants as well as 15-16 year-olds and so differ slightly from the DFE data . Also increasing numbers of school students are taking some GCSE examinations in Year 10 and the youngest of  them are 14 years of age when they take their examinations and the data also include the results of particularly young entrants .  I  shall include the 2012/13 DFE data here when they become available..

The JCQ 2012/13 are in red and the JCQ 2011/12 data are in black.

Overall Gender Differences in GCSE Examination Entries and GCSE Results 2011/12 and 2012/2013 

  • There were  2,662,2285 male entries in 2012/13 and 2,562,885  male entries in 2011/12 and 2,78,3039 female entries in 2012/13 and 2662403 female entries in 2011/12.
  • The percentage of students attaining Grades A*-C has declined for the second time since the introduction of the GCSE courses in 1986 . The first GCSE examinations took place in 1988. It has been argued that this year's decline can be explained to a considerable extent by the increase in early  entries of 15year old candidates who on average achieve lower grades than 16 year-olds and also because in some subjects examination questions may have been more difficult and examination marking more rigorous. This may have been the case especially in GCSE Science where the A*-C pass rate fell from 60.7% to 53.1%, the largest fall across all subjects. 
  • The percentages of both male and female students gaining A* and A grades have also declined.
  • Female students outperformed male students in terms of percentages of entries awarded A*-C grades and in terms of percentages of entries awarded A* and A Grades
  • A*-C Female Entries= 72.3%   [  73.3%  ] Male entries = 63.7% [  65.4% ]. This is apparently the largest gender gap in attainment at GCSE level since 2003
  • A*:  Female entries =8.3 % [8.7%]  Male entries 5.3% [6.0%]  A:  Female entries =16.5% [16.9%] Male entries= 12.3 %[ 12.9%] 

Gender Differences In Subject Choice 2011/12 and 2012/13

  • The figures in the brackets below indicate which of these subjects contained % majorities of male and female entrants respectively. Notice that in several of the most popular subjects  the male or female majority percentages  were relatively small.
  • In 2012 the most popular subjects were Mathematics [F=50.2%], English[ M=51%] , Science, English Literature[ F=53%], Additional Science[ F=51%] , Design and Technology [M=56%], Religious Studies [F=54%] , History [M=51%], Geography [M=55%] and Art and Design Subjects [F=66%].
  • The same 10 subjects were again the most popular in 2013 but  there were some changes in the rankings as English Literature overtook Science and Design and Technology fell from 6th to ninth in the rankings. Changes in the relative popularity of these subjects among males and females were small . Mathematics [F=50.2%], English {M=50.7%], English Literature [F=55.1%] ,Science [F=50.1%], Additional Science [F=51.7%], Religious Studies [F=54.1%], History [F=50.5%],, Geography [M=62.7%] , Design and Technology [M=58.4%], Art and Design [F= 67.0%]
  • In both 2013 and 2012 in individual Science GCSEs a majority of entrants were Males and in French German and Spanish a majority of entrants were Females.[ The 2013 percentages are in red and the 2012 percentages in Black Biology [M= 50.5% ; 52%], Chemistry [M=51.3% 53%], Physics [M=51.4%; 53%] , French [ F= 57.6% ; 58%], German [F=52.0%; 53%], Spanish [F =57.3% ;58%] . Again the male or female majority percentages were relatively small but notice that between 2011/12 and 2012/13 the male  majority percentages in Biology, Chemistry and Physics declined as did the female majority percentages in French, German and Spanish. 
  • In both 2011/12 and 2012/13 a majority of subject entrants were also female in Drama [F=61.7%] and Media/Film and TV studies.[ [F=50.3%] 2012/13 data
  • In 2011/12 and 2012/13 a majority of subject entrants  were also male in PE [M= 65.7%]Business  Studies[ M=59.6%]  and  ICT.[58.0%]. 2012/13 data
  • In both 2012 and 2013 in the following subjects the male and female majorities were much larger and might be said to reflect substantial gender differences in perceptions of appropriate employment. The 2013 percentages are in red and the 2012 rounded percentages in black
  •  Subjects with the highest percentages of female entrants were Health and Social Care [F= 94.8% ;94%] Home Economics [F= 87.3%; 86%], Performing Arts  [F=83.7%; 83%], Social Sciences F=68.2%; 67%] and Art and Design Subjects [F=67.0% ; 66%] .
  • Subjects with the highest percentages of male  entrants were Construction [M=96.6% ;97%], Technology [excluding Design  and Technology [M=93.3%; 92%] , and Engineering [M=92.7%; 93%]and Economics   [ M=69.6%; 67%]. Notice also that in both 2011/12 and 2012/13 total entries for Construction [ 755; 671], Engineering[2887; 2128] and Technology other than Design and Technology [1485; 1447] and Economics [4779; 3857] were relatively small.
  • Finally it should be noted that in 2012/13 there were significant increases in both male and female entries for History, Geography, French,  German and Spanish which almost certainly reflected the increased significance attached to these subjects as a result of the introduction in Autumn 2010 of the EBacc criterion for league table placements.

 

 

Suggested Assignment

There are so many statistics in the above section that it may be difficult to visualise the broad patterns of gender differences in subject choice. Students might like to construct EXCEL charts and diagrams to illustrate these patterns more clearly! You can then discuss more carefully the results which you have illustrated.

If you scroll down to the section on Gender and Subject Choice at Advanced Level you can click on some Excel diagrams which may help you to decide how to present the GCSE data in similar fashion...if you wish!

Gender differences in attainment varied considerably as between different subjects. 2011/12 and 2012/13 

  • In 2012 the % of Female A*-C entries exceeded the % of Male A*-C entries in all subjects except Mathematics {M +0.3%}, Physics {M+0.2%], Economics [M+ 0.2%], Other Sciences [M+6.8%] and other Technology subjects  [M+3.8%] .
  • In 2013  the % of Female A*-C entries exceeded the % of Male A*-C entries in all subjects except Mathematics {M +0.7%}, , Other Sciences [M+8.4%] and other Technology subjects [M+12.4%] . However in 2013 Females outperformed Males in both Physics [F=+ 0.6%] and Economics [F=+1.1%] on this criterion 
  • Whereas females had narrowly outperformed males in Mathematics in 2008 prior to the abolition of course work, it has been suggested that the ending of GCSE Mathematics coursework for the 20009 and 2010 cohorts helped to explain why males narrowly outperformed females in GCSE Mathematics in 2009 and 2010   However this conclusion has attracted some criticism. In 2011/12 in  Mathematics  on the JCQ figures males narrowly outperformed female students in Mathematics  [[M=58.8% A*-C and Females= 57.9% A*-C] although on the DFE data Male and Female A*-C pass rates in Mathematics were identical at 71%. In 2012/13 Males again outperformed Females [M=+0.7%] on the JCQ figures. The 2012/13 DFE figures are not yet available.  
  • Females outperformed Males by 1.6% in Biology ,by  3.0% in Chemistry, 9.1% in German, 10.9% in French, 9.6%  in German,  12.8% in Religious Studies and 14.9% in English. However once again there are claims that the abolition of course work in several GCSE subjects may reduce the gender gap significantly in future years although again  such claims are controversial and we shall have to wait and see!. A new system of GCSE examinations is currently due to be introduced in September 2015 with first examinations in the Summer of 2017. These new courses will contain no coursework.

 

 

 

 

2.   Gender and  GCE Advanced Level Subject Choice  

Females 07/08 Females 09/10 Females 11/12 Females 12/13 Males07/08 Males09/10 Males 11/12 Males 12/13
English English English English Mathematics Mathematics Mathematics Mathematics
Psychology Psychology Psychology Psychology General Studies English Biology Physics
General Studies Art and Design Biology Biology English Biology Physics Biology
Biology Biology Art and Design Mathematics History Physics Chemistry Chemistry
Art and Design General Studies Mathematics Art and Design Biology History English English
Mathematics Mathematics History History Physics Chemistry History History
History History Sociology Chemistry Chemistry General Studies Geography Economics
Sociology Sociology Chemistry Sociology Business Studies Business Studies Business Studies Geography
Chemistry Chemistry General Studies General Studies Geography Geography General Studies Business Studies
Media/Film/TV Studies Media/Film/TV Studies Media/Film/TV studies Media/Film/TV studies P.E. Economics Economics Psychology

 Notice that there are a large number of statistics in the following section. However Click here and here for EDEXCEL Charts illustrating the the main Gender Differences in Subject Choice at Advanced Level in 2012/13 Much easier on the eye perhaps!

Gender and  GCE Advanced Level Subject Choice  2012/13

Top 10 Subjects [All Students] 

 

Top 10 Subjects [Female  ]

 

 Top 10 Female  Subject Entries as % of Total Female  Subject Entries  

 

Top 10 Subjects  by percentage of female subject  entrants  %

 Top 10 Subjects [ Male]

Top 10 Male  Subject Entries as % of Total Male  Subject Entries

Top 10 Subjects by percentage of male subject entrants 

English 89,442 English 15.1% Welsh 88.2% Mathematics 14.9% Computing 93.5%
Maths 88,060 Psychology 9.8% Perform/ExpressiveArts87.7% Physics 7.9% Physics 79.2%
Biology 63,939 Biology 8.7% Sociology 75.3% Biology 7.5% Other Sciences 76.9%
Psychology 56,088 Mathematics 8.1% Art and Design 75.2% Chemistry 7.5% Further Maths  71.4%
History 52,149 Art and Design 7.8% Psychology 74.3% English 7.0% Economics 66.8%
Chemistry  51,818 History 6.3% Communication Studies 73.0% History 7.0% P.E.  64.7%
Art and Design 44,069 Chemistry 5.9% English 71.8% Economics 4.9% I. C. T. 62.3%
Physics 35,569 Sociology 5.5% French 68.8% Geography 4.7% Mathematics 60.7%
Geography 32,872 General Studies 4.1% Drama 68.7% Business Studies 4.5% Music 60%
General Studies 31, 562 Media/Film/TV Studies 3.8% Religious Studies 68.5% Psychology 4.0% Business Studies 58.8%

We can analyse gender differences in subject choice by focussing on two distinct questions.

Notice, therefore that if we ask which two subjects are most likely to be chosen by females the answers are English and Psychology but if we ask which two subjects contain the largest proportions of female relative to male students the answers are Welsh and Performance/Expressive Arts . 

Notice also that English is the 5th most popular choice among males despite the fact that only 38.2% of English students are male and that Mathematics is the 4th most popular choice among females despite the fact that only 39.3% of Mathematics students are female.   

 

Gender and  GCE Advanced Level Subject Choice  "011/12  and 2012/13: Some Comparisons

  • In 2012/13 the  most popular female subject choices  with their respective  subject entry percentages for females and males were English [F=71.8% M=28,2% ], Psychology [F=74.3% M=25.7% ], Biology [ F= 57.8% M=42.2%].Mathematics [F=39.3% M=60.7%]. Art and Design [F=75.2% M=24.5%]. History [F=51.7% M=48.3%], Chemistry [ F=47.9% M=52.1%], General Studies {F=54.9% M=45.1%] and Media / Film/and TV Studies [F= 55.4% M=44.6%]

  • In 2012/13 the 10 most popular male subject choices with their respective subject entry percentages for females and males were Mathematics [M=60.7% F=39.3%], Physics [M=79.2% F=20.8%], Biology [M=42.2% F= 57.8%]], Chemistry [ M=52.1% F= 47.9%], English [M=28.2% F=71.8%], History {M=48,3% F=51.7%], Economics [ M=66.8% F=33.2%], Geography [ M=53.1% F= 46.9%], Business Studies [M= 58.8% F=41.2% ]and Psychology [ M=25.7% F= 74.3%]

  • In 2012/13 the 10 subjects with the largest percentages of entries from female students were Welsh 88.2% [81.1% ]Performing and Expressive arts  87.7% [87.7% ],  Sociology  75.3% [75.0% ], Art and Design 75.2% [74.3 % ], Psychology 74.3% [73.1% ]Communication Studies 73.0% [73.2%  ],  English  71.8% [71.2% ], French 68.8% [68.9% ], Drama 68.7% [68.5%  ] and Religious studies 68.5%  [68.3%]. There were some slight changes in rank ordering since 2011/12 and the 2011/12 figures are shown in brackets

  • In 2012/13 and 2011-2012 the 10 subjects with the largest percentages of entries from male students were Computing 93.5% [92.2% ], Physics79.2% [78.9% ], Other Sciences76.9% [ 77.4%], Further Mathematics,71.4% [ 70%], Economics  66.8% [67% ], PE  64.7% [65.3% ], ICT 62.3% [61.4% ], Mathematics 60.7% [60% ],Music, 60.1 % ] [60.1% ], , and Business Studies58.8% [ 58.4%] .There were some slight changes in rank ordering since 2011/12 and the 2011/12 figures are shown in brackets

  • It is noticeable that whereas Physics is significantly more likely to be chosen by male students than female students in 2012/3 and 2011/12 the gender differences in choice of  Chemistry[ M  52.1%  52.8%  F 47.9%  47.2% ] are smaller and as expected Females are more likely than males to opt for Biology [ F 57.8%  56.5%  M 42.2%  43.5%].

 

 

Biological Sciences, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics and Further Mathematics

      Males 2008/09 Females 2008/09 Males 2011/12 Females 2011/12 Males 2012/13 Females 2012/13
Biological Sciences     20,.510 27,468 24,302 31,515 26,988 36,951
Chemistry     19,160 17,981 23,643 21,095 26,988 24,830
Physics     19,994 5,626 24,298 6,452 28,190 7,379
Mathematics     38,410 26,109 46,872 31,206 53,435 34,625
Further Mathematics     6,493 2,950 8,633 3,747 9,870 3,951

On the basis of this table we see that the numbers of both Males and Females opting for Biological Sciences, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics and Further Mathematics have increased but that whereas the increase in numbers opting for Biological Sciences and Chemistry has been fairly similar for Males and Females, the increase in numbers opting for Physics, Mathematics and Further Mathematics has been greater for males . If these trends continue we shall not see equal numbers of males and females opting for Physics, Mathematics and Further Mathematics any time soon!  Click here for The Independent's coverage of gender differences in entries  in Mathematics and the Natural Sciences in 2012/13

 

 

 

 

GCE Advanced Level results for 2011/12 :key data sources

  • Click here and here for Guardian articles on 2012 GCE Advanced Level results including numerical data and graphics on Gender and Educational Achievement at Advanced Level.

  • lClick here and follow the appropriate links for full JCQ Information on GCE Advanced level entries and results [The Joint Council for Qualifications].

With regard to these  2012 GCE Advanced level results the key points are:

  • There were 395,914 Male entries [=45.9  %] and 465, 905 Female entries [ =  54.1%]. 

  • The overall percentage of entries awarded Grades A-E rose  for the 30th consecutive year although the percentage of entries awarded A* or A has fallen for the first time in 21 years..

  • For the first time since the introduction of the A* Grade there was a slightly larger percentage of Male A*entries[ 8.0%] then Female A*entries. [7.9%] This was primarily because on this criterion males outperformed females in a relatively small number of high entry subjects while females outperformed males in a larger number of relatively low entry subjects. [See Guardian first link.]

  • However female students outperformed males in terms of percentages of entries attaining Grade A [F 19.3% : M 17.8%] and in terms of the percentages of entries gaining A*-E. [F  98.4  M 97.5]

GCE Advanced Level results for 2012/13 :key data sources

Click here for the JCQ website.

Click here and here and here and here and here and here for Guardian coverage

Click here for BBC coverage

Click here and here  and here and here for Independent coverage.

In the following statistics the 2012/13 Advanced Level results are shown in red and the 2011/12 results are shown in black

With regard to these  2012/13 GCE Advanced level results the key points are:

  • There were 850,752 entries of which Female entries were 461,202 and Male entries were 389,550. [In 2011/12 there were 3395,914 Male entries {=45.9  %} and 465, 905 Female entries {=  54.1%}]. 

  • The overall percentage of entries awarded Grades A-E rose  for the 31st  consecutive year . In 2012/3 the overall A-E pass rate was 98.1% [98.0% in 2011/12] ; the female pass rate was 98.5% [98.4% in 2011/12]  and the male A-E pass rate was 97.6 %[ 97.5% in 2011/12]  . Notice that the gender differences in A*-E pass rates at GCE Advanced Level are much smaller than the gender differences in A*-C GCSE pass rates

  • The overall  percentage of entries awarded A* or A has fallen for the second consecutive year

  • Grade A*:   Female entries =7.4 % [7.9%] :  Male entries 7.9 [8.0%] 

  • Grade  A:  Female entries =19.3% [19.3%]: Male entries= 18.0 %[ 17.8%] 

  •  Grade A* and Grade A combined Female entries 26.7% [27.2%] : Male entries ; 25.9% [25.8%] 

  • Thus females continued to outperform males in terms of the percentages of students gaining A*-E grades and the percentages of students gaining A* or A grades but it would be fair to say that between 2011/12 and 2012/13  at Grades A* and A male examination results improved lightly relative to female results.

  • As noted above males secured a larger percentage of A* entries than females in  2012/13. This was because they  outscored  females in subjects with large entries [Mathematics and English] and also in Chemistry , German, French, Spanish, Welsh and Critical Thinking. Females outscored males in all other subjects but this was insufficient to offset the fact that they had been outscored in English and Mathematics and by quite a large margin in Mathematics [18.1% M and 14.8% F]. This same broad pattern had occurred in 2011/12.

  • It is very important to note that gender differences in examination results are far smaller at GCE Advanced Level than at GCSE Level.

 

 

Gender, Subject Choice and Further and Higher Education

Click here for information. The gendered patterns of subject choice which are established at Advanced Level occur also in Further Education and are, if anything even more marked in Higher Education.

 
  1. Biologically based Arguments

It has been argued in the past that females' relatively limited educational achievements could be explained in terms of their relatively low innate intelligence which is an argument which was widely believed despite the fact that it never contained a shred of scientific credibility. As females came to outperform males in all areas of the education system it was noted that they did so especially in Arts and Humanities whereas gender differences in examination results were much smaller in Mathematics and Sciences and this led to claims that the gendered variations in examination results in different subjects might be explicable in terms of gender differences in the structures and operations of the brain which enabled females to develop superior linguistic skills. I am not qualified to evaluate such biologically based theories  but can state, from a sociological point of view, that if  girls do , on average, have superior linguistic skills , this may be explained at least partly  by the fact that females are more likely to have been socialised by their mothers and/or first school teachers to see reading as a "feminine activity" and socialised also to recognise that it was mainly men who were likely to secure employment in scientifically based subjects. Meanwhile it could be suggested that many traditionally minded fathers may allegedly wish to  socialise their sons to play football and undertake other stereotypically masculine leisure pursuits rather than to indulge in the detailed study of English Literature which is seen as a stereotypically feminine activity. I shall be concentrating here on the sociological explanations for gender differences in subject choice.

  2. Sociologically based Arguments

By the 1970s there was an increasing trend for married women to return to employment especially once their children reached school age  but there were still powerful   gender differences in socialisation which operated in the home, the school, the peer group, the mass media and in society generally to encourage  both boys and girls  to accept traditional images of femininity and masculinity in general and in particular to define many occupations as primarily male or primarily female occupations all of which affected male and female  affected career choices and therefore subject choices. Thus writing in 1976 Sue Sharpe argued on the basis of a study of 15-16 year old girls that they were not especially interested in long term careers in any case but also that they had rejected many potential careers  because they regarded them as traditional male careers and therefore inconsistent with their image of femininity and/or because they believed that employers would in any case be unlikely to employ females in such positions. [However by the time that  Sue Sharpe repeated her study in 1994 female employment opportunities had improved, traditional gender differences in socialisation were weakening and she found that girls expressed more interest in careers in general and in a wider variety of careers and these conclusions are confirmed by the subsequent findings of Becky Francis' [2000]   study mentioned below.]

At this time many girls would have expected to take up employment in shops or as routine clerical workers or as light assembly workers and to return to this type of employment after marriage [although an increasing minority of females took up professional work in occupations such as teaching, nursing and social work] Consequently many girls  may have recognised that competence in literacy and numeracy could improve their employment prospects and their expected futures as housewives and mothers would have encouraged them to opt for Domestic Science and Biology but they were very unlikely to  choose to study subjects such as woodwork, metalwork and technical drawing nor to opt for sciences other than Biology , nor , in most cases to consider the possibility of a professional career. Meanwhile career options were much wider for male students [especially for middle class male students] and they were more likely to opt for scientific and technical subjects and for the handicraft subjects which would prepare them for entry into traditional male skilled manual work.

It is likely that traditional gender differences in socialisation have been [and remain] especially powerful in traditionally organised families  but in any case it was argued by Teresa Grafton and co. [1987] on the basis of a study of one co-educational comprehensive school in the South West of England that the schools themselves in the 1980s were encouraging traditional gender differences in subject choices which reflected the gender division of labour in society generally. There were limited places for boys and girls in non-traditional craft options and subject advice given by teachers reflected traditional views as to the "appropriate" gender division of labour. However, as would be expected, the researchers found that subject choices were affected also by the gender division of labour in the home and in the labour market.

Initiatives such as GIST [Girls into Science and Technology] and WISE [Women into Science and Engineering] were begun in the late 1970s and early 1980s in an attempt to encourage female students to study Science and Engineering subjects although the effectiveness of these initiatives should not be overstated. In the GIST programme[1979-1983] researchers worked  in 10 co-educational comprehensive schools to try to raise teacher awareness of equal opportunities issues and to encourage more girls to opt for Sciences at GCE and CSE levels. The final report concluded that the initiative had improved girls' attitudes to Science and Technology ; that it had had little impact on subject choice; and that the teachers, although sympathetic to the programme, said that they had not modified their teaching practices substantially as a result. However the GIST initiative could be regarded as an early pilot programme which has encouraged many subsequent equal opportunities initiatives.  The WISE programme was set up as a national initiative by the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Engineering Council and was designed to raise awareness of the need for more female scientists and technologists and to emphasise the attractiveness for girls, young women and older women seeking to retrain of  careers in Science and Technology. WISE is still in operation and its website points out that whereas about 20 years ago only 4% of Engineering undergraduates were women the figure for 2009 was 13%. Obviously WISE itself may well have contributed to this increase at least to some extent.     

Alison Kelly [1987] attempted to analyse why female students were less likely to opt for sciences other than Biology. She argued that girls often felt at a disadvantage in Science lessons because textbooks and teaching examples tended to reflect male rather than female interests; because science teachers tended to be male and to relate more easily to boys; and because boys tended to monopolise equipment and class discussion. These factors could combine to cause an ongoing decline in girls' enrolments in Sciences other than Biology but they did not apply to Biology which was seen  by girls as more relevant to their preferred career options, for example as nurses, and to their likely future as housewives and mothers.

Following the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1988 English  Maths and Science all became compulsory subjects at GCSE level and male and female entries for these subjects have subsequently been very similar.  However pupils in some schools may be given the options to study Single Science GCSEs and subjects such as Information Technology and Economics. Anne Colley [1998] argued that despite the introduction of the National Curriculum girls were still being dissuaded from opting for Science and Technology subjects. Thus she claimed that the images of the instrumental male and the expressive female [suggested, as you will doubtless recall, by Talcott Parsons in the 1950s] still exercise a considerable hold over male and female attitudes ; that Computing [or Information Technology] especially continues to be taught in ways more appealing to boys than girls  and that girls are more successful in Maths and Science when they are taught in all-girls schools or in single sex classes in coeducational schools. If so this clearly points to a need for further improvements in girls' opportunities when they are taught in mixed classes. {More recent data, for 2010,  show that boys are still far more likely than girls to opt for Economics, Information Technology and the Single Science GCSE subjects; Biology, Chemistry and Physics.]

In her study[2000] of 50 girls and 50 boys in years 10 and 11 at 3 London comprehensive schools Becky Francis provides evidence of both  potential change and continuity in relation to subject choice. Thus  the girls in Becky Francis' sample express interest in a relatively wide variety of careers; are relatively unlikely to favour stereotypical female careers such as nurse, clerical worker or air hostess ; are quite likely to express interest in careers usually associated with men and very likely to express interest in careers for which further education, higher education and a degree will be necessary. However broadly traditional patterns of career choice do remain in that the girls are more likely to choose careers associated with the Humanities or the caring professions than with Science, Mathematics or Engineering.

Click here for  a summary of  a recent [2009] report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission which suggests that  Becky Francis' research may perhaps understate the extent of ongoing significant gender differences in perceived career prospects  and calls for better advice on subject choice and career choice. 

Click here for an article from the Independent [August 2012] which reports recent research suggesting that gender differences in employment intention are still based to a considerable extent of stereotypical views of male and female employment patterns.

Click herehere and here  and here for BBC items on women in scientific careers  NEW links added October 2012

Girls therefore were traditionally dissuaded from Science, Engineering and Metalwork/Woodwork/ Technical Drawing and it may well be the case that as Anne Colley suggests  such discrimination continues in relation to Single Science GCSEs and Information Technology. However girls have also traditionally shown especial interest in Arts and Humanities subjects. It has been argued in this respect that they have been socialised at an early age  [by their mothers and mainly female First and Middle School teachers] to perceive reading as a relatively feminine pastime and also because they saw good language skills as especially relevant to office and clerical work which was the preferred occupation for many girls leaving school at 15-16. It may be also that female relative success in English may be linked to the conventional perception of willingness to discuss personal issues as a feminine trait and female relative success in English may also help to explain why females are more likely than males to opt for subjects such as Modern Foreign Languages, Religious studies and Sociology where discursive skills are especially important.

Similarly the perception of Maths, Sciences and technical subjects as "masculine" subjects may help to explain why the male-female performance gap is smaller in Maths and the  Sciences than in Arts and Humanities subjects  and also why males are more likely than females to opt for Computer studies, Information Technology or Economics  while the popularity among males of PE also links with traditional  perceptions of gender roles.[ Notice that in 2010 males narrowly outperformed females in GCSE Mathematics, Biology and Physics Examinations.]

Nevertheless we must note also that traditional gender differences in socialisation may now be smaller, especially perhaps in the case of academically successful [and mainly but not entirely middle class students] , that some attempts are being in schools to undermine traditional patterns of subject choice , that it has always been well known that good qualifications in Arts and Humanities as well as the sciences can open up good career opportunities for boys as well as girls and that an increasing number of females are now employed in occupations such as Medicine, Law and Business administration which were once dominated by men. These factors would help to explain any decline in traditional gender differences in subject choice at GCSE level. We may note in this respect that gender differences in entries for Single Science GCSEs in Biology , Chemistry and Physics are significant but not as great as in Technology subjects and Economics.

It is well known that working class male and female students are more likely to be unsuccessful at GCSE level. These students are perhaps also more likely to have been socialised into traditional gender roles and to believe [correctly] that their employment prospects ,although limited, are best in traditional male and female  occupations. Many relatively unsuccessful female students may therefore opt for subjects such as Domestic Science or Health Care partly because they do not infringe traditional views of femininity, partly because of better employment prospects in these areas and partly because the skills gained are seen as being useful for their future roles as housewives/mothers. Relatively unsuccessful boys are likely to opt for Computing and Technology options for much the same reasons.

Gender differences in choice of Apprenticeship schemes are very marked and can surely be explained in terms of the ongoing strength of traditional socialisation processes and continuing gender differences in employment opportunities. It could indeed be argued that choices of such schemes have much more  power than do A level and Degree level subject choices to confirm or undermine traditional perceptions of femininity and masculinity. For example  opting for a bricklaying apprenticeship is more likely than opting for a Physics degree to undermine a girl's traditional sense of here femininity ...if she has one.

The Equal Opportunities Site provides information on Modern Apprenticeships in 2002/3 which indicates the very high proportions of females opting for apprenticeships in the following sectors: early years and education, Hairdressing, Travel Services and Health and Social Care and the similarly large proportions of males opting for apprenticeships in the following sectors: It and Electronic Services, Engineering, Construction, Motor Industry, Plumbing and Electro-Technical services.  Click here for good , but unfortunately slightly dated information on Gender issues from the Equal Opportunities Commission. Pages 4-9 refer to Gender and Education .

There are also significant gender differences in Applied GCE Advanced Level Subject Choice. Thus the best subscribed Applied Advanced Level courses in 2008/9 were Business [M 3735: F 3479],Health and Social Care [M 203 F 4763], and ICT[ M6869: F 4360].

With regard to Subject Choices at Advanced and Degree  levels it is important to note the following points .

  1. Girls' relative GCSE pass rates are much higher in English and Humanities subjects than in Mathematics and Science and one  would expect more females than males to opt for Arts and Humanities at Advanced level and Degree level because Girls' relative pass rates are higher than boys' at GCSE level in these subjects,  because girls' may have developed a greater interest in the issues dealt with in these subjects , because if Anne Colley is to be believed, teaching of Maths, Sciences and Computer Science subjects continues to disadvantage female students and because career  opportunities for well qualified females are still more favourable in careers related to the Arts and Humanities.
  2. For similar reasons boys are drawn more to Mathematics and the Sciences at Advanced and Degree level.
  3. However it is likely that, at least to some extent some subjects are decreasingly likely to be seen as specifically "female " or " male" subjects at Advanced and Degree level. It possible that  in the Sciences textbook materials and teacher attitudes are less male centred than in the 1980s partly as a result of the initiatives such as  GIST and WISE which have campaigned for the introduction of measures to improve the attractiveness of Science, Engineering and Technology to girls [although as mentioned above the effectiveness of these initiatives should not be overstated] and there are now better career opportunities for females in areas such as Law, Medicine and Business Administration while there have always been good career opportunities for   males well qualified in Arts and Humanities.
  4. As a result gender differences in some subject choices  at Advanced are declining although some significant differences remain.
  1. The above patterns of A level subject choice are reflected also at University level where Males are also especially likely to study science-based Engineering degree courses  and females are especially likely to opt for "courses allied to Medicine" and Education.
  2. You may click here to access the data which appeared in the previous document

 

Gender differences in subject choice may be explained in general terms by the following interconnected factors :

  1. Gender differences in socialisation operating via the family, the school, the peer group, the local community and the mass media.
  2. Overall perceptions of particular subjects as primarily "male" or "female " subjects.
  3. Apparent gender differences in ability in different subjects which themselves may be explicable in terms of gender differences in socialisation although some analysts have argued for a biological basis for gender differences in subject abilities.
  4. Processes and teaching styles operative in schools which in the past have encouraged females toward Arts and Humanities and discouraged them from choosing Maths, Science and Computing while encouraging boys to opt for Maths, science and Computing in preference to Arts and Humanities subjects.
  5. The existence of some single sex schools  and the introduction of some single sex classes in co-educational schools may have some bearing on subject choice.
  6. Gender differences in employment opportunities
  7. .
  8. The significance of these  factors may have altered significantly for some students but not others.

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