Gender and Subject Choice – Section 3C

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Section 3[c]

Vocational and Higher Education

Gender Differences in Subject Choice: Vocational Education

Gender, Subject Choice and Higher Education

Section 4 :

An introductory essay on Gender and Subject Choice which relies on data from Sections One and Two




Gender Differences in Subject Choice: Vocational Qualifications

You may click here for some information on gender differences in patterns of employment                                            

Many 16 year olds do not enrol on GCE Advanced Level courses and may take BTEC courses [or most, recently T Level courses] or they may progress directly to employment which may well involve taking up an apprenticeship or enrolling on a wide range of vocational courses.  The relative quantitative importance of these alternatives is illustrated in this article from the BBC [August 2020].

This article indicates that apprenticeships and vocational qualifications are increasing in importance [Chart 4]; and that increasing numbers of students have taken BTEC National courses either as alternatives to GCE Advanced Levels or in combination with them and gained access to Higher Education based on their BTec qualifications. Also research by the Social Market Foundation has shown that it is white working class students and some ethnic minority students who are especially likely to take this route to Higher Education .

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 Construction and Building, Engineering or 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.

You may click here and scroll down to pages 16-17 for data indicating that in recent years females have been more likely to take up apprenticeships than males. This trend is clearly related to the relative decline of manufacturing employment in the UK economy. However Click here for a recent item from FE News which provides the following information on sectoral differences in the gender take up of apprenticeships

“Sector representation: Female apprentices work in fewer sectors than their male counterparts. Research by the Young Women’s’ Trust (YWT) “Making Apprenticeships Work for Young Women” in 2016 found that 25% of all female apprentices work in Health and Social Care and 14% in Business Administration. Only 6% of male apprentices work in Health and Social Care and 6% in Business Administration. Females mainly work across only five sectors whilst male apprentices mainly work across 11 sectors. Later research produced in 2018 by YWT reported that for every one female apprentice in construction there were 50 males, and in engineering one female for every 25 male apprentices.”

There are also significant gender differences in Choices of BTEC options as is indicated in this article from ffteducationdatalab.   Males are far more likely than females to opt for Engineering Studies, Computing and Construction and Females are far more likely than males to opt for Health Studies, Animal Management and Speech and Drama.  However the Department of Education announced in May 2022 that 38 BTEC courses [ including the Health and Social Care Course which is very popular especially as a route into nursing] would be scrapped in 2024 to make way for T Level courses. Click here and here  and here  for further details. Also click here for problems which have arisen on Health and Healthcare Science T level courses.



Gender, Subject Choice, and Higher Education


Click here for HE Student Enrolments and Personal Characteristics 2016/17- 2020/21emales continue to be more likely than males to enrol for Higher Education Courses. Some students self- identify as "Other" rather than male or female/

Females are more likely than males to enrol in Higher Education but there are significant variations as between females eligible and ineligible for free school meals.  Click here for DFE publication July 2022 Widening Participation in Higher Education

Females are also nowadays more   likely than males to gain First Class and Upper Second Class degrees as indicated in the following table. Click here for HESA and scroll down for fuller relevant data.

  1st Class % 2:1% 2.2% 3rd/Pass %
Males 2017/18 27 46 21 5
Females 2017/18 28 50 18 4
Other 2017/18 33 48 15 4
Males 2018/19 27 46 21 5
Females 2018/19 29 50 18 4
Other 2018/19 33 45 19 3
Males 2019/20 34 46 21 5
Females 2019/20 36 48 14 3
Other 2019/20 41 40 17 3
Males 2020/21 35 46 16 3
Females 2020/21 37 46 13 3
Other 2020/21 45 43 9 3
Males 2021/22 31 46 19 5
Females 2021/22 33 47 16 5
Other 2021/22 38 44 15 3


However, the gender differences in subject choice which occur at Advanced Level continue in Higher Education and there are significant gender differences in subject choice at first degree level which rare replicated also at post graduate level.  Click here for HESA data 2020/21 which illustrate gender differences in entry to HE courses 2021. Females predominate in subjects allied to Medicine, Psychology, Social Sciences Languages and in Design and creative and performing arts. Males predominate especially in Engineering and Technology and Computing. Business and Management courses are very popular with both males and females,

I have downloaded the 2020/21 chart data below. As an exercise you might like to highlight in different colours the subjects which are most likely the subjects which are most likely to be chosen by Female, Male and Other students.

Subject Female Male Other Not known Total
01 Medicine and dentistry 47,435 29,445 155 0 77,035
02 Subjects allied to medicine 269,305 69,445 395 0 339,150
03 Biological and sport sciences 58,050 59,050 220 0 117,320
04 Psychology 109,505 25,265 315 0 135,080
05 Veterinary sciences 9,430 2,100 45 0 11,575
06 Agriculture, food and related studies 12,070 6,325 30 0 18,425
07 Physical sciences 29,045 39,005 150 0 68,195
09 Mathematical sciences 18,010 30,405 110 0 48,530
10 Engineering and technology 36,875 146,060 225 0 183,160
11 Computing 32,480 120,975 370 0 153,825
13 Architecture, building and planning 23,970 38,195 70 0 62,235
26 Geography, earth and environmental studies (natural sciences) 17,005 15,335 55 0 32,400
Total science CAH level 1 663,180 581,610 2,135 0 1,246,920
15 Social sciences 188,365 93,725 525 0 282,615
16 Law 87,805 50,170 105 0 138,080
17 Business and management 225,915 248,675 380 0 474,970
24 Media, journalism and communications 28,895 18,585 145 0 47,625
19 Language and area studies 66,895 25,250 495 0 92,635
20 Historical, philosophical and religious studies 46,890 38,750 300 0 85,940
25 Design, and creative and performing arts 120,355 68,710 1,080 35 190,180
22 Education and teaching 104,995 30,795 250 0 136,045
23 Combined and general studies 28,265 16,190 70 0 44,525
26 Geography, earth and environmental studies (social sciences) 7,235 5,070 20 0 12,330
Total non-science CAH level 1 905,620 595,920 3,370 35 1,504,945
Total 1,568,795 1,177,525 5,505 35 2,751,865


Useful Links

Click here for a report from HEP1 on the underachievement of young men in higher education and here for Guardian coverage of this report   May 2016

Click here for Mind The Gap: Gender Differences in Higher Education [Rachel Hewitt; 2020]

Click here for Women and STEM

Click here for recent information on Women in STEM Statistics

Click here For Section 4