Increasingly gendered A Level choices are part of a wider problem and should concern us all

There is a widening gender gap in A Level students' subject choices which is arguably a result of socially conditioned gender norms. Subjects like Physics, Maths, ICT and Economics are dominated by boys whilst girls are the majority in Drama, Law and languages.

Natalie King is a Politics and Spanish student at the University of Sheffield. She tweets @Natalie_Dawn92

For the last two years, A Level results day has not been the predictable news day it always was. The tendency for each year group to beat the previous cohort’s results has been disrupted, making it harder for the usual critics to argue that exams are getting easier. With universities now allowed to recruit unlimited numbers of students with high grades, the so-called ‘scramble’ for places in Clearing was not quite so frantic this year. One trend that looks set to continue, however, is the widening gender gap in A Level students’ subject choices.

Before discussing the extent to which this pattern is or is not problematic, let us start with some numbers. From the figures that have been published, we know that eight out of ten Physics papers marked this summer were taken by boys; a 3.8 per cent increase on last year. 71.8 per cent of all English A Levels were awarded to girls. Boys continue to outnumber their female classmates in Mathematics, ICT, Economics and Business Studies, while girls are the majority in most Drama, Law and languages lessons. In fact statistics for the last ten years show that all subjects are considerably more popular with one gender than the other; the only exceptions are History and Geography, which both have a remarkably equal intake of girls and boys.

So why should this be a concern? Could it not just be that more boys happen to like numbers, and girls incidentally prefer disciplines that require in-depth reading and sensitivity to language and mood? If only it were that harmlessly simple. Research from the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) and others shows that at GCSE level – where studying sciences is compulsory – girls outperform boys in Physics, Chemistry and Biology. It is surprising then that so many of them shy away from the chance to study them at A Level when they have such a proven flair for them.

Let us be clear: no one should be obliged to study subjects they have no interest in for the sake of achieving a gender balance in every classroom. That would be incredibly rich coming from a female Politics and Spanish undergraduate who took no sciences to A Level. It is simply arguable that when all except two subjects show such a dramatically uneven gender balance and a recent Institute of Physics survey showed half of all state schools had no girls studying A Level Physics at all, that stronger forces are at work.

There is reason to believe that views surrounding gender roles and perceived differences in male and female behaviour are instilled in us from childhood and nurtured throughout our lives. A cursory glance at a toy section in any department store says it all. Girls are encouraged to want dolls they can care for or dress up, and toy kitchens in which they can play hostess. Toys or play-sets which involve building things or conducting mini experiments are marketed almost exclusively at boys. For girls, playtime tends to involve creating role plays between their collections of different dolls and characters, often leading to an enhanced interest in relationships and dialogue. Female-orientated craft sets encourage a greater awareness of aesthetic appearance.

With this information in mind, it is perhaps not so surprising that girls sit over 70 per cent of Psychology and Sociology papers, and that while they are the majority in most Art classrooms, they are vastly outnumbered across the corridor in Design and Technology. It is possibly easier to see why so many still believe women and girls care more for how things look than how they work or how they are made, with the opposite being true of men and boys. The skills that children’s toys develop prior to and during school often have a potent influence on the subjects that pupils engage with most strongly or feel a natural affinity for.

It would be easy simply to ignore the gender gap as an inevitable truth and put it down to boys’ minds being better geared towards logic and problem solving. However, when GCSE and A Level results repeatedly show girls matching or outperforming boys across the board we have to wake up and realise that just is not the case. Sadly, academic fields related to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (or STEM subjects) continue to exist as a predominantly male-dominated sphere. As long as this persists, large numbers of young women – particularly those with talent but lacking in self-confidence – are likely to find the prospect of working in such an environment unappealing and possibly intimidating.

Knowing that the issue of gendered A Level choices has been picked up by awarding bodies and discussed in numerous media outlets following this year’s results can only be encouraging. Sadly even in the 21st century there are stereotypes or preconceptions many of us hold – even subconsciously – about which subjects suit girls and which suit boys. For too long the skills required to excel in particular disciplines have been wrongly correlated with the characteristics valued in each gender.

In order to remedy the problem more needs to be done to ensure that students of any gender or none feel they can pursue whatever A Level course or field of further study interests them most. The fact that the vast majority of texts studied in English lessons are written by men shows (besides a tendency to forget many female contributions to history) that male students are just as likely to prefer sonnets to String Theory. By celebrating a varied selection of notable male and female contributors to each discipline in the school curriculum, and by making a conscious effort to reduce the influence of gender-related stereotypes on children, one day we might hope to see less of an academic divide along gendered lines.

4 Responses to “Increasingly gendered A Level choices are part of a wider problem and should concern us all”

  1. SR

    An excellent case in point with regards to gendered subjects is my old secondary school. I went to a high-performing, all-girls grammar school about ten years ago. The majority of the girls in the 6th form studied chemistry and/or maths but, when I was coming towards the end of my A-levels the chemistry and maths textbooks were tatty but the school had taken the decision to become a performing arts college, completely in contradiction to the areas in which the school excelled.

  2. James

    It seems to me that you’re focusing on trying to get more girls into the sciences. How about trying to get more boys to engage in English or the Languages?

  3. Adam Ladley

    Another solution is too make KS5 education more broad! As the author notes, girls outperform boys at GCSE in the sciences. Why not require everybody to study a broader range of subjects at KS5/ In only studying 3/4 subjects, we are in the minority compared to other countries. Qualifications like the IB set a good blueprint.

  4. Natalie King

    Hi James! You’re right I have focused primarily on getting into sciences. Your point is valid, which is why in the article I highlighted the importance of celebrating a variety of notable male and female contributors to all subjects on the school curriculum – not just successful women in STEM subjects.

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