Published: 18 December 2013

Surrey bucks gender bias trend for science subjects

The proportion of women studying engineering and physical sciences at Surrey challenges the national trend in co-educational state schools.

A report by the Institute of Physics has revealed that co-educational state schools are re-enforcing gender stereotypes when it comes to choosing A level subjects. Almost half of mixed state schools (49 per cent) are achieving worse than the national average – which is already heavily imbalanced – when it comes to gender ratios.

By contrast, the proportion of female students on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects at the University of Surrey paints a much more positive picture, equalling or exceeding the national average at degree level in every subject.

In Civil Engineering, 25 per cent of Surrey’s undergraduates are female compared to only 15 per cent nationally, and the proportion of women on Mechanical Engineering degrees at Surrey is almost twice the national average. In Computer Science, nearly a quarter of students are female (24 per cent) compared with 13 per cent nationally, while Electronic Engineering, Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry also have higher levels of female students than average.

Published on 9 December by the Institute of Physics, ‘Closing Doors: Exploring gender and subject choice in schools’ uses statistics from co-educational and single sex schools, both state-funded and independent, to build a picture of how far schools are countering gender biases. Looking at three subjects with a male bias (physics, maths and economics) and three with a female bias (biology, English and psychology), the report concludes that four out of five co-educational state schools achieve no more than the national average, while single sex schools do significantly better.

‘Closing Doors’ follows the Institute of Physics’ ‘It’s different for girls’ report in 2012, which revealed that 49 per cent of state-funded co-educational schools sent no girls on to take A level Physics, while girls in a single sex school were 2.4 times more likely to choose Physics than girls in a co-educational school.

Describing the 2013 report’s conclusions as “a woeful picture,” Institute of Physics President Frances Saunders said: “Schools are failing to counter whatever external factors drive school children to make gendered choices. Our schools are closing doors to both male and female students.”

However the report reveals that it is not all bad news: the picture is less bleak in single sex schools and co-educational independent schools, while co-educational state schools with a sixth form perform better than those without. A small number of co-educational state schools also demonstrate that it is possible to counteract gender imbalances.

Professor Julie Yeomans, Head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering Sciences, commented, “Subjects such as Mechanical Engineering require A level physics, so being put off taking this subject at school can really limit girls’ options. We need to encourage young women to study science as, once here, our female students often achieve wonderful things. Recent graduates such as Abbie Hutty, Samantha Simons and Johanna-Marie Best – who have all won prestigious national awards – demonstrate that women are every bit as suited to these subjects as their male counterparts.”

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