Gender-based subject choices

By Marcus Wilson 10/01/2014


The UK's Institute of Physics has just released a report "Closing doors: exploring gender and subject choice at schools" It follows on from the report a year or so back: "It's different for girls", which looked at the way girls experienced physics. I blogged about the latter report here

The report is not long, so you can read it in full. Although the results are, for the most part, not at all surprising, it is still good that they've been properly researched and are based on evidence, rather than anecdote. That should provide a firmer basis for doing something about the problem. 

Essentially, the study looked at six different subjects at 'A'-level (taken at the end of school at about age 18): Biology, English, Psychology, Physics (of course), Economics and Mathematics. These subjects were chosen as they cover the spectrum of different subjects at A-level, both core ones, popular choice ones and less popular choice subjects. English and Psychology have a fairly strong bias female bias (in terms of the numbers of students taking them), biology is almost gender-balanced, economics and mathematics have a fairly strong male bias, whereas physics has an extremely strong male bias: 80% of students taking physics A-level are male. 

The study analyzed data from ALL co-ed secondary schools (state and independent) in England, from 2010-2012, though schools where numbers doing A-level were very small were omitted. It's a comprehensive study!

There are some interesting results. First, independent schools do better at tackling gender inbalance than state schools. (There are relatively few co-ed independent secondary schools so the statistics are more uncertain).  Then, some regions do much better than others, but it's not down to socio-economic reasons. The reasons for regional discrepancies need investigation. 

Next, there's notable differences between schools with and without their own 'sixth-form'. Some secondary schools have 'sixth-forms' attached, whereas students at other schools need to move to a sixth-form college to do A-levels. Students who need to move end up making more gender-specific subject choices that those who don't. Perhaps this is suggestive that being able to see other people of your sex tackling a subject in the years ahead of you will encourage you to do it. This result was also found in the 'It's different for girls' study.

Finally, there's an interesting observation regarding subject choices. Boys, as a cohort, are quite broad in their choices of A-level subject. A boy is, roughly speaking, equally likely to choose to study physics, chemistry or biology. However, the choices of girls are much more polarized – some subjects are highly attractive, and some (like physics) are highly unattractive. The implication I draw from that is that it is the choices that girls make (rather than the choices that boys make) that leads to the gender imbalances. A conclusion would therefore be that efforts to correct gender imbalances should be actively focused towards girls. 

A further, physics-specific conclusion can be drawn regarding the low numbers of students taking physics A-level, in general: it is caused by a lack of girls, rather than a lack of boys. The implication is that encouraging girls to take physics won't just help gender balance, but will help tackle the problem of low student numbers in general – it will, probably, increase female participation but also without reducing male participation. That is of relevance to university, where many institutions (such as The University of Waikato) struggle to attract students to physics. 

Finally, I'll point out that when I did my blog entry on 'It's different for girls' I got some flak for using the word 'girl' rather than the word 'woman'.  In using the word 'girl' here (or, for that matter, boy), I am referring to a child at school. I note that here, in Hamilton, we have a 'Hamilton Girls' School' and a 'Hamilton Boys' School'. The choice of words 'girl' and 'boy' mirror the choice used in the two IoP reports. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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