Gender and Subject Choice – Section 4

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Section 4:

Possible Explanations of Gender Differences in Subject Choice:

Please note that I have currently written 7 essays on the Sociology of Education and intent to write a few more in the near future. Note that in each case these essays are far longer than could be written under examination conditions and that although they include points of knowledge , application and evaluation I tend to use separate paragraphs for each of these categories rather than to combine several categories in each paragraph  as in  the strongly recommended PEEEL approach whereby each paragraph should include Point; Explanation, Example: Evaluation and Link to following Paragraph.

I hope that you find the information in these essays useful but would strongly recommend that you write your own essays using the PEEEL approach or something very similar to it. Obviously your teachers will advise you as to appropriate essay writing technique.

Essay: Gender Differences in Subject Entry

Essay revised: August 2019

In many past societies men and women have performed significantly different social roles and despite a range of economic, political and social changes such differences persist to a considerable extent in the contemporary world. For example in the case of the UK women are still more likely than men to take disproportionate responsibility for childcare and housework; they are more likely to opt for some types of employment than others ;their overall ir employment opportunities, although improving, are still worse than men’s and although they finally gained the right to vote in 1928 they are still much less likely than men to become local councillors, MPs or government ministers. There has been great controversy surrounding the extent to which these differences in social roles are explicable by biological sexual differences or by gender differences which are socially constructed rather than biologically determined.

It has been claimed that gender differences in childcare and housework responsibilities and in employment patterns derive from gender differences in hormonal balance, from biologically determined differences in physical strength and competitiveness and from women’s biologically determined maternal instincts. It has even been argued in the past that because males have larger brains they are on average more intelligent than females and that differing aptitudes and skills between males and females can be explained partly by differences in brain shape which mean that on average males have greater spatial awareness and numerical ability and that females have greater verbal reasoning skills and writing ability.

However sociologists are much more likely to argue that gender differences in social roles are mainly socially constructed and they have claimed  that in societies such as the UK the socialization process as it operated at least up to the 1970s meant that many parents socialized their daughters to show dependence, obedience, conformity and domesticity whereas boys were encouraged to be dominant, competitive and self -reliant At an early age girls might well be encouraged to play with dolls while boys  might be encouraged to embark on tasks such helping with gardening or cleaning the family car and  also  when young children saw their parents acting out traditional gender roles it was likely that in many cases they would come to see these roles as natural and inevitable. Thus it has been argued that even before they began school boys and girls would become conscious of their differing gender domains which encapsulate the differing tasks, activities attitudes and values which are associated with males and females respectively and would "feel comfortable" primary when they feel they are acting in accordance  with their respective gender domains.

Furthermore gender differences in socialisation would continue in schools as teachers generally praised girls for "feminine qualities" and boys for "masculine qualities" and both boys and girls could expect criticism and ridicule from their peer groups if they acted other in accordance with their gender domain. . Furthermore in the mass media girls were encouraged to recognize the all importance of physical attractiveness, finding "Mr. Right" and settling down to a life of blissful domesticity in their traditional housewife-mother roles. Boys and girls were encouraged to opt for traditional male and female subjects to a considerable extent because they were expected to opt for traditional male and female careers

The 1976 study by Sue Sharpe could be used to explain gender differences in attitudes to education in general in terms of  gender differences in socialisation and the differing employment aspirations  and opportunities available to males and females.. Thus  she argued on the basis of a study of 15-16 year old girls that they saw their futures more in terms of marriage and motherhood rather than an permanent employment career but also that they had rejected many potential careers  because they had been socialised via family , school and mass media to regard them as traditional male careers and therefore inconsistent with their image of femininity and/or because they also recognised that employers would in any case be unlikely to employ females in such positions. Thus if they were intending to leave school at age 16 they were especially likely to opt for secretarial or retailing or light assembly work and if they were intending to continue their education they were most likely to opt for the caring profession such as nursing, teaching or social work which were widely believed to be in accordance with females' inborn nurturing qualities.

However it has been pointed out that from then 1950s to the 1980s gender differences in subject entry at GCE Ordinary Level  were actually  fairly limited  fe 1980s  in that 8 or 9 of the most popular O Level/GCSE subjects  were roughly the same for boys and girls  although there have been some differences in the rank order of the different subjects. Also at this time boys were typically more likely than girls to opt for Physics , Chemistry , PE,  Craft and Technology while girls were more likely to opt for Domestic Science and Religious Studies.,

Also gender differences in the allocation to practical subjects  at CSE level and in non-examination courses may well have been greater. Boys were highly likely to be entered for the handicraft subjects which would prepare them for entry into traditional male skilled manual work. Very few girls . in the 1970s would have aspired to careers as say, motor mechanics, plumbers , bricklayers or electricians and even if they so aspire did would usually have been dissuaded by the realisation that they were highly likely to face gender discrimination  if they sought these types of employment. Instead they routinely opted for domestic science and childcare to prepare themselves for marriage and motherhood sometimes combined with routine office skills courses to prepare themselves for secretarial work or retailing

Once the GCSE replaced the GCE and CSE examinations from 1986 [for first examination in 1988] gender differences in subject entry were again small in relation to the 10 most entered GCSE subjects  although there were some significant gender differences in subject choice especially in relation to subjects geared to careers which were seen as traditionally male or traditionally female. For 2019 relationships between gender and GCSE subject choice may be summarised as follows  [although you will need to discuss with your teachers how these statistics might be used much more concisely for examination purposes.!!]

  • GCSE Examinations, Gender and Subjects Choice 2019 [The figures in brackets indicate the % of entrants from the majority gender in each subject. For example Mathematics +50.7%F  means that %50.7% Mathematics entrants were female.]
  1. In relation to most of the 10 highest entry GCSE subjects gender differences in subject entry are small.
  2. These differences were negligible for Mathematics: [50.3%F]; English [52.0%M] ; English Literature [50.03%M]
  3. Differences were small also for the Science Double Awards [50.2%M], , History [52.8%F], Religious Studies [54.5%F]} and Geography [53.8%M}
  4. However the were substantial differences in entry for Art and Design [66.6%F] and Design and Technology {+59.7%M] .
  5. Gender differences in subject entry for individual Science subjects were small : Biology [50. 5%F]; Chemistry [50.1%M]; Physics [50.1%M]
  6. Gender differences in subject entry were substantial in French [58.4%F] and Spanish [57.7F] but not in German [51.5%F]
  7. However in some other subjects gender differences in entry were much larger and to some extent reflected gender differences in career aspirations or and/or expectations. Thus Males were significantly more likely than females to opt for Economics, PE, Business Studies, ICT, Construction, Technology [excluding Design and Technology] and Engineering while females were much more to opt for Social Science, Drama, Health and Social Care, Home Economics and Performing Arts. At the extremes 89.6% of Engineering entrants were male  and 98.7% of Home Economics entrants were female.

6 Possible Conclusions

  • In the Compulsory subjects English, Mathematics  and the Sciences gender differences in subject entries were  were predictably small .
  • In several key optional subjects gender differences in subject entry were small.
  •  Males are proportionately more likely than females to enter PE and females proportionately more likely than males to enter Expressive Arts and this has been explained , for example by Carrie Paechler[1998]  in terms of orthodox gender domains and the dangers of peer group shaming of "unconventional" behaviour.
  • It is notable that males opt disproportionately for Construction and Engineering which are geared to traditional male working class occupations and this may be explained in terms of traditional working class hegemonic masculinity. Males also opt disproportionately  for Economics, Business Studies, ICT and Technology which may reflect a specifically young male responses to changes in the nature of male employment and may be explained in a newer form of hegemonic masculinity which emphasises facility with these subjects.
  • Similarly female preferences for  Social Sciences, Health and Social Care and Home Economics may well reflect their assessment of their likely future employment. Carol Fuller[2011]  has argued that for some working class females their interest in their own personal appearance may encourage them to opt for employment in the Hair care and beauty industries.
  • Why are these gender differences in subject entry not reversed?. Answer : because the socialisation process operative in the family , the school, the peer group and the mass media encourages males and females to remain within their own gender domain Thus are current gender differences in employment maintained and these patterns serve to reinforce conventional subject entries in new generations.

Although as stated above gender differences in subject entry in the main GCE/GCSE subjects had been fairly small sociologists especially from from the 1980s onwards sociologists had voiced concerns especially in relation to the effects of schools themselves in encouraging stereotypical option choices and limiting girls' access to the Natural Sciences. Thus 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 also that subject choices were affected also by the gender division of labour in the home and in the labour market.

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. [Notice however that this study was undertaken  before  the National Curriculum was introduced and Science became a compulsory subject at GCSE Level such that  from 1988 onwards more or less equal numbers of boys and girls would study the Sciences at GCSE Level]

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 nevertheless 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. ]

As mentioned above when the  National Curriculum was introduced in 1988 English  Maths and Science all became compulsory subjects at GCSE level and most schools entered males and females in very similar proportions for the Double Science Award although there remained significant gender differences in entry for separate GCSE courses in Physics, Chemistry [ more boys] and Biology [more girls] and boys were also more likely than girls to study GCSE options such as Economics , Information Technology and Computing.  Thus Anne Colley [1998] argued that despite the introduction of the National Curriculum girls were still being dissuaded from opting for Science and Technology subjects. 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 .[I  shall provide some further information below on the issue of single sex education]

In more recent years gender differences in entry for single science subjects at GCSE Level have narrowed very significantly. In the following table the black figures illustrate the male or female majority of subject entrants and the red [female]  or blue [male] figures illustrate the gender gap in attainment of A*-C or 9-4 GCSE grades. It should be noted that traditionally larger percentages of entrants for individual Sciences have been males but that these gender gaps have narrowed appreciably in recent years and since 2015 female entrants have exceeded male entrants in Biology  and this was also the case in Chemistry in 2017 but not in 2018 and . Male entrants continue to narrowly exceed female entrants in Physics. Note that Female pass  rates have narrowly exceeded Male pass rates in Biology, Chemistry and Physics in every year with the exception of Physics in 2012 , 2018  and 2019

Thus the most  recent  data indicate that gender differences in entry for single science GCSE courses are negligible but  for data indicating that  males were significantly more likely than females to opt for Economics, PE, Business Studies, ICT, Construction, Technology [excluding Design and Technology] and Engineering while females were much more to opt for Social Science, Drama, Health and Social Care, Home Economics and Performing Arts. At the extremes in 2019 89.6% of Engineering entrants were male and 98.7% of Home Economics entrants were female. Gender differences in subject entry were substantial also in French [+57.3%F] and Spanish[+56.6%F] but not in German [+52.1%F]

In her 1987 study Alison Kelly had suggested a variety of reasons why females were less likely to opt for  Natural Sciences subjects at GCE O  Level and CSE Level but nowadays gender differences in entry for Double Science and the Individual Sciences at GCSE level are negligible . However in 2017 the Institute for Fiscal Studies conducted an analysis of the factors limiting female entries for Advanced Level Mathematics and Advanced Level Physics  which explained the relatively low entry of Females for Advanced Level Physics among females who were predicted to gain Grade 7 or higher in GCSE Science examinations ] in terms of the same factors as had been suggested by Alison Kelly and by Ann Colley [1998] in relation to GCSE Science and Technology subjects.

Gender and Subject Choice: GCE Advanced level

When Sue Sharpe repeated her 1976 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 they have since the 1990s been increasingly  likely to enrol on GCE Advanced level and Degree courses and to seek employment in professional and managerial occupations. In her  study[2000]  of 50 girls and 50 boys in years 10 and 11 at 3 London comprehensive schools Becky Francis found that the girls in her sample expressed interest in a relatively wide variety of careers; were relatively unlikely to favour stereotypical female careers such as nurse, clerical worker or air hostess ; were  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 even in 2019 despite some considerable relative improvement women remain generally under-represented in high status, well-paid professional and managerial occupations relative to men and under-represented especially  in some professions such as those related to Mathematics, Physics, Engineering, Computing,, Technology, and Architecture. It transpires that gender differences in subject choice at Advanced Level and beyond are greater than at GCSE Level  and that these gender differences in subject choice may be seen as both a consequence and a cause  of the underrepresentation of women in particular professions.


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 here,  here and here   for BBC items on women in scientific careers

Click here for recent   information on proportions of Women in STEM occupations.



Gender differences in subject choice are considerably larger at GCE Advanced Level than at GCSE Level and if anything such differences are even greater at University Level.

Click here for HE  Student Enrolments and  Personal Characteristics 2012/13- 2 017/18 Females continue to be more likely than males to enrol for Higher Education Courses. Some students self- identify as "Other" rather than male or female

Click here for HE Enrolments by Subject Area and Sex. The gender differences in subject choice which occur at Advanced Level continue in Higher Education .


You may use to the following links to access more detailed data on the 2018 -2020 GCE Advanced Level Examinations

  •  Click here [2018] for EXCEL Charts: GCSE; Gender and Subject Entry; the 10 Most Popular GCSE Subjects ; Separate Sciences and Modern Languages; Subjects with high percentages of female and male entries.
  •  Click here [2019] for EXCEL Charts GCSE : Gender and Subject Entry: the 10o Most Popular GCSE Subjects ; Separate Sciences and Modern Languages and Click Here to download   subjects with especially high percentages of female and male entries
  • Before looking at the GCE Advanced Level Charts below use this exercise  to estimate of gender differences in subject choice at GCE Advanced Level
  • Click Here [2020]  Click here [2019]  and  Click here [2018] for  EXCEL Charts showing the 10 Most Popular GCE Advanced Level Subjects in 2018 with percentages of Male and Female entrants for each subject
  • Click Here [2020]  Click here [2019] and   Click here[2018] for  EXCEL charts showing gender differences in entries for GCE Advanced Level Mathematics, Sciences and Modern Languages and for subjects with especially large percentages of female and male entrants.
  • Gender differences in subject entry in the Sciences and Mathematics are considered to be especially important.

Percentages and Numbers of Males and Females Taking Science and Mathematics A level Examinations 2012-2019

In summary Females were more likely than Males to opt for Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences [other than Economics ] and Biology Males were more likely than females to opt for Mathematics, Further Mathematics Physics, , Other Sciences, Computing, ICT, Economics and Business Studies. These subject choices at Advanced level have important implications for subsequent choices at Higher Education Level and for future careers. It is very important to note , however, that in 2019 Female entries in all Science subjects combined exceeded male entries in all Science subjects combined.

  • Click here for very useful BBC item : Which subjects are students dropping?
  • Click here for a very useful Guardian article focussing on fall in percentage of A* and A grades, gender differences in attainment of A*-C grades, increased take up of Science subjects by females [data are for England rather than UK but this is true also  for the UK as a whole], data on the 10 most popular A Level subjects in 2019 and 2018


How are these gender differences in subject choice to be explained?

  1. As females came to outperform males in almost all GCSE subjects  it was noted that they did so especially in Arts and Humanities whereas Males outperformed narrowly in Mathematics and sometimes in Physicss 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 and males to develop superior numerical and spatial skills;l.
  2. Here are some links  to articles related to this type of theory which you may discuss with your teachers. Click here and here and here . The last article summarises some of the findings from a recent episode from the BBC Horizon series which is available here on You Tube.You may wish to discuss this with your teachers
  3. 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 that males superior spatial abilities might be explained in terms of their differing leisure activities in comparison with females
  4.  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 .
  5. Female students are in many cases  more likely to opt at Advanced Level for the subjects in which they have been especially successful at GCSE Level and although Male and Female GCSE pass rates are similar in the Sciences and Mathematics Female pass rates exceed Male pass rates in Humanities subjects , sometimes by a considerable margin. .
  6. The above mentioned studies of Alison Kelly[1987] and Anne Colley[ 1998] suggested that there were aspects of GCSE Ordinary Level and GCSE teaching of Science and Technology subjects which may well have dissuaded females from opting for these subjects at Advanced Level even when they were successful at GCSE level. It may be that the GIST and WISE [see above] programmes addressed these issues to some extent but that further initiatives are necessary to encourage females to opt for Science and Technology subjects at Advanced Level  There is evidence that even when females have gained high grade GCSE passes in the Sciences they are not necessarily confident in their abilities in these subjects. Click here for a Guardian article on why girls who achieve good GCSE results in STEM subjects are nevertheless less likely than boys to choose them as A Level options.
  7. Female students may have been  socialised also to recognise that it was mainly men who were likely to secure employment in most scientifically and technologically based  based subjects and in some , perhaps many cases  these attitudes may be reinforced by misguided advice from subject and career teachers.
  8. However as increasing numbers of females have opted to train to become doctors and as Nursing becomes a graduate profession it is easy to see why more females opt for Biology and Chemistry than Physics. It is notable that in 2018 and 2019 more females than males sat the A Level Chemistry examinations
  9. With regard to the lower entry rates of females in Advanced Level A recent Institute for Fiscal Studies Report reiterated several of the reasons which have traditionally used to explain the relatively low entry rate of Females in Advanced Level. Thus in the report  female students who were predicted to gain Grade 7 or above in GCSE Science examinations  stated that:
  • They perceived Mathematics as 2 of the most difficult Advanced Level Subjects..
  • Even though they were predicted to gain good grades in Mathematics and Sciences several students still lacked confidence in their abilities in Physics. Some tended to believe that males were naturally better at Mathematics and Physics than Females.
  • They referred to the discriminatory  behaviour of male students in their GCSE classes. Thus "Girls gave examples of boys chanting and making noises to intimidate them when they were asked a question by a teacher or laughing if they gave incorrect answers."
  • They knew that if they opted for Advanced Level Physics they were likely to be  part of a female minority in male dominated classes and this would be even more likely if they opted for these subjects at University Level.
  • They recognised that well paid careers were available for scientists and technologists but many believed that these professions were dominated by men and this was a factor which dissuaded them from opting for Advanced Level Physics

Click here and here for short articles and here for a detailed report on Gender and STEM subjects from the IFS

10 . Once subjects are strongly perceived as predominantly "male" or predominantly "female" subjects self-fulfilling prophecies may operate as males continue to choose "male" subjects and females continue to choose "female" subjects.

  1. It has been noted that larger proportions of female students in single sex girls schools than in coeducational schools opt for Advanced level Sciences and it has also be claimed  that this is because female students in single sex schools  are more strongly encouraged by teachers to consider the possibility of entry into scientifically based professions, that the. teachers approach the teaching of the natural sciences in more female-friendly ways  and because the possibility of denigration by male students is removed.  A 2013 Report by the Institute of Physics illustrated that  in 2011 both in the state sector and in the independent sector girls in single sex schools were much more likely than girls in coeducational schools to take A level Physics.
  • Click here for Guardian article on Closing Doors"


Such comparisons should be treated with some care since it is also argued that female students in single sex schools are more likely to have middle class parents who are more open to the possibility of scientific careers for their daughters   and that there may be smaller differences between the subject choices of girls in single sex schools and high performing  [ and often but not always middle class ] girls in high performing coeducational comprehensive schools.  The GCE Advanced Level Data for 2019 show that both Biology and Chemistry now have larger percentages of female entrants  but In Physics and in subjects such as Computing, Economics and Business studies larger percentages are male.Thus some progress has been made in alleviating gender differences in subject entry but further progress is clearly necessary.

Thus Females may be more likely than males to opt for Arts, Humanities and some Social Sciences at Advanced Level because they have been more successful than males at GCSE Level partly as a result of superior language skills, because they may feel more comfortable in discussion of the subject matter, because they associate the Arts , Humanities and Social Sciences with career opportunities which are more open to females partly because they have been influenced in these perceptions by parents, teachers and the mass media. Meanwhile they are dissuaded from Mathematics, Physics , Chemistry [to a lesser extent] , Computing, Technology, Economics and Business Studies the Science because they have been socialised to believe that these are "male" leading to male career opportunities and have been dissuaded from choosing these subjects at Advanced level as a result of teaching methods at GCSE level which in various ways discourage girls.

Similar factors operate to encourage male pupils toward Mathematics, Further Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry [although female entries exceed male entries for A LeveL Chemistry in 2018 and 2019], Computing, Technology, Economics  and Business Studies .

  1. Young boys may be socialised from an early age to perceive careers in Science and Technology as especially appropriate for males.
  2. The gender attainment gap in GCE Ordinary Level/GCSE has always been small in Mathematics and the Sciences. In   in recent years boys have narrowly sometimes outperformed girls in GCSE Mathematics  and Physics while although girls have narrowly outperformed males in GCSE Biology and Chemistry  the attainment gap has been smaller than in Arts and Humanities subjects.
  3. It may be that boys are relatively successful at GCSE Level in Mathematics, Physics and Technology subjects because they have been encouraged to recognises the linkages between success in these subjects and primarily male career opportunities. ...
  4. Be that as it may boys are then in many cases more likely to opt for the Advanced level subjects in which they have been most successful at GCSE Level.
  5. GCSE Science and Technology subjects may in some cases be taught in ways which encourage boys to continue to study them at Advanced Level while discouraging girls although it must be remembered that females are more likely than males to opt for Biology and that the gender difference in Chemistry entry is small.
  6. As with females once  subjects are strongly perceived as predominantly "male" or predominantly "female" subjects self-fulfilling prophecies may operate as males continue to choose "male" subjects and females continue to choose "female" subjects.

Nevertheless within Sociology social action theorists have always tended to argue that the power of the socialisation process is rather weaker than has been suggested in structural theories and in theories focusing on postmodernity and high modernity it has certainly been suggested  that individuals have become far more self-reflexive and more in control of the development of their own identities. Thus  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 and Advanced Levels . Nevertheless it is abundantly clear that significant gender differences in subject choice exist at Advanced level and that they are are even greater in Higher Education.



Explanations of Gender Differences in Subject Choice: A Brief Summary

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


  1. The significance of these  factors may have altered significantly for some students but not others.
    •  Thus recently several factors have combined to encourage more females to enhance their own career prospects rather than to assume that their most significant future roles were likely to be as housewives and mothers and this has encouraged them to concentrate much more on improving their overall educational qualifications and also to choose subjects which would prepare them for a wider range of career opportunities than was available to them than in the past. All pupils must now study English , Maths and Sciences as compulsory subjects at GCSE level but there are still some fairly significant gender differences in option choices at GCSE Level. Also in exercising the greater choices that exist at Advanced level and Degree level, there may be some slight increasing tendency for both females and males to be influenced less by stereotypical views of particular subjects although some very significant gender differences in subject choice remain at Advanced Level and Degree levels with females still far less likely than males to opt for Physics, Mathematics and Further Mathematics at GCE Advanced Level  .
    • Thus although female students are still far more likely than male students to opt for Arts and Humanities subjects at Advanced` level and Degree level they are also more likely than males to opt for Law at Advanced Level and Degree level and more likely than males to opt for Medicine at Degree level. .Similarly  although greater numbers of males have traditionally been drawn more to Mathematics, Science and Technical subjects it has long been widely there have always been good career opportunities for males well qualified in Arts and Humanities subjects which explains why  a significant minority of  males opt for these subjects rather than Maths, Sciences and Engineering at Advanced and/or Degree level.
    • However some very significant gender differences in subject choice at Degree level remain. Females are far more likely than males to opt for "Subjects related to Medicine" and for Education Degrees and males are far more likely than females to opt for Engineering and Computer Studies suggesting that these subjects are still seen primarily as "female" and "male" subjects respectively.
    • Also it may be that relatively unsuccessful students , especially living in traditional working class areas, are more likely to be subject to traditional processes of socialisation and to feel that their employment opportunities are still limited to traditional "Male" and "Female" occupations all of which may encourage more traditional subject choices especially, for example, with regard to apprenticeship schemes.



Further Reading.


Women in Public Life, BBC summary of this report - Click here 

Click here for article on genetics and subject choice .[Guardian June 2016]You may like to discuss this article with your teachers bearing in mind that sociologists focus upon the social rather than the genetic influences on human behaviour.

Click here for article from The Conversation on Gender and Choice of Computer Science [December 2016]

Click here for Guardian article on bridging the Gender gap

Click here for an article on EBacc and Subject Choice

Click here for Guardian article on Closing Doors"

Click here for LSE blog item

Click here and here and here and here and here for 5 recent[2016-17]  BBC articles on gender, subject choice and employment

Click here for a useful BBC article on the 2017 ICT entries

Click here for recent [January 2018 ] BBC article on reasons why females do not choose a career in engineering

Click here for recent [January 2018] BBC article on Gender and Career Aspirations

Click here  and here for perceptions of subject difficulty and subject choice. Very useful

Click here for summary of study suggesting females with top GCSE Science grades deterred from studying STEM A Levels

Click here   for short articles and here for a detailed report on Gender and STEM subjects from the IFS

Please note that these final hour  articles are highly technical  and may be more suitable for study at University level.

Click here for detailed paper on individuals' subject choices at age 14

Click here for Perceptions of subject difficulty and subject choice  [Lond detailed paper from DfE]

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