Scotland’s schools are still suffering wide gender gaps with boys still choosing more technical subjects while girls avoid them, according to a new analysis of official figures by The Ferret.
In 2018 boys outnumbered girls in ten subjects offered as highers including maths, physics, engineering, computing and economics. Girls made up more than three quarters of those studying art, fashion, food, dance, childcare and psychology.
The gaps have hardly changed in the last seven years, suggesting that little progress has been made by Scottish Government efforts to redress the gender imbalance. Ministers have identified improving equality across education as one of their “key priorities”.
Campaigners say the persistent divides are due to deep-seated stereotypes, ingrained sexism, shortcomings in the education system – and even sexual harassment. They argue that the gender imbalance must be addressed, pointing out that inequality at school is linked to women being paid less than men at work and workplace segregation.
“At the current rate of change it will be over 30 years before girls are studying physics or engineering at the same rate as boys,” observed one campaigner. “The jobs of tomorrow are in these industries.”
The Ferret mined seven years of data from the Scottish Qualifications Authority to measure the different uptake of subjects for highers in Scotland’s secondary schools and colleges.
We found that in 2018 girls accounted for 56 per cent of candidates across all higher courses, with boys outnumbering girls in ten of the 46 subjects on offer. Many of the male-dominated subjects were in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects traditionally been dominated by male students, despite girls being more likely to successfully pass.
The male dominated courses are accounting, computing science, design and manufacture, economics, engineering science, graphic communication, mathematics, music technology, physical education and physics.
In the remaining subjects, girls make up more than 75 per cent of students in art, care, childcare and development, dance, fashion and textile, health and food technology and psychology.
A further analysis of data over the past seven years shows there has been little change in the gender gaps in higher qualifications across Scotland.
Between 2012 and 2018 the male-to-female ratio in subjects such as economics, graphic communication, physics, art and design, childcare and psychology has remained effectively static.
Physical education and health and food technology classes have seen gender gaps decline by five and seven percentage points, respectively. But the gaps in computing, design and manufacture and music have all increased.
Accounting has gone from being an almost gender-balanced subject in 2012 to one where 58 per cent of candidates are now male. In 2018 boys made up less than 10 per cent of students in care, childcare & development, dance and fashion & textile higher classes.
The data also highlights examples of the difficulty in attracting girls to study science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, despite ongoing government efforts to address the issue.
In music classes, 60 per cent of students are female but this number drops to just 28 per cent for music technology courses. Although engineering science courses have managed to achieve a reduction in the gender gap, it remains the case that 90 per cent of candidates are boys.
The Ferret recently reported that just 16 per cent of computing science students are girls.
Talat Yaqoob is the director of Equate Scotland, a national organisation working to boost gender equality in STEM areas of education and employment.
“There are considerable efforts being made across Scotland at a national level and within Schools to tackle the gender gap within subject choice, but these efforts need to be coordinated, better invested in and teachers need more support,” she told The Ferret.
“If we don’t tackle deep rooted gender stereotypes we risk girls being locked out of the jobs of the future and further exacerbating occupational segregation.”
Yaqoob suggested there was a particular area where the gender equality efforts and STEM engagement was taking place. “We need to ensure that all of Scotland’s schools, particularly in rural areas and in areas of social deprivation, have the same access to engagement activities,” she said.
“The gap isn’t closing for numerous reasons: stubborn gender stereotypes which take considerable effort and repeat intervention across the learning pipeline to solve, as well as the ongoing issue of teachers being stretched.”
In some subjects such as computing there was a lack of teachers, she argued. “To engage girls – and really more pupils across the board – into these subjects we need to support teachers to know the latest about the tech industry and develop their confidence in these subjects.”
According to Engender, a feminist organisation seeking to ensure equal rights for men and women, the gender divide in Scottish schools is “a product of the sexism that is ingrained within our education system.”
It leads directly to gender segregation in our colleges, universities, and workplaces. Much of this gender gap can be explained by stereotyping about girls and boys’ interests and capabilities. Emma Ritch, Engender
Executive director, Emma Ritch, said: “It leads directly to gender segregation in our colleges, universities, and workplaces. Much of this gender gap can be explained by stereotyping about girls and boys’ interests and capabilities.
“Girls also tell us that sexual harassment stops them from choosing male-dominated subjects and that teachers seem ill-equipped to tackle misogyny in the classroom.”
Ritch described efforts to tackle gender inequality within education in Scotland as “small-scale”. Tools to understand and tackle sexism are not taught in initial teacher education, she said.
“Scottish Government’s pay gap strategy, Fairer Scotland for Women, includes schools, but the education sector has yet to commit to the type of change needed to make a difference. Engender supports the recommendation of the National Advisory Council on Women & Girls for an independent commission to investigate sexism in Scotland’s schools.”
Close the Gap, an organisation working to tackle gender inequality on the workplace, argued that gender gaps in schools are key drivers for inequalities later in life. More must be done to support school teachers and early years workers to break down stereotyping, it urged.
“Studying stereotypical male subjects, such as computing, results in better labour market outcomes, including higher pay and improved opportunities for progression,” said the group’s executive director, Anna Ritchie Allan.
“The opposite is true for subjects dominated by girls and young women, such as childcare, which as a sector is economically undervalued and characterised by low pay. This job segregation is a key cause of Scotland’s gender pay gap.”
Continuing professional development could help build capacity in teachers, Allan suggested. “They can reflect on their gender equality practice, and including gender stereotyping and occupational segregation in teaching training content is a good starting point.”
Allan pointed out that gender stereotyping started from birth. “By the time young people are making decisions about subjects, their ideas about gender and work are fixed. To tackle this, we need to see early intervention which challenges gender norms and stereotyping in early years settings.”
In a bid to tackle gender gaps the Scottish Government has instituted a five-year STEM strategy for education and training in Scotland, which has completed its first year. A key target is to achieve “significant reductions” in equity gaps, including gender.
A team of gender balance and equalities Officers has been tasked with delivering gender training in schools and establishing a gender ‘kite mark’ to share best practice in breaking down barriers. The strategy has a target of “increasing the number of females passing physics by 15 per cent and computing by 20 per cent by 2022.”
Ministers have also provided funding to schemes aimed at increasing the number of men working in childcare, focused on courses in further education colleges and universities.
The Scottish Government stressed that improving equity and equality across the Scottish education system was a key priority. “We have taken a series of actions to raise awareness of gender bias with parents, families and teachers at all stages of the education process,” said a spokesperson.
“This includes providing new resources to help teachers tackle gender stereotyping and unconscious bias, improving career advice and preparation for work within schools, and working with colleges and higher education institutes to narrow gender gaps in participation in courses.”
The government spokesperson added: “We will build on this, including through working with the new Improving gender balance and equalities team, who are taking forward a programme of work under the STEM education and training strategy.
“This team will promote whole school approaches to tackling gendered thinking and improving equity in schools over the five year lifetime of the strategy and will benefit gender balance across the curriculum.”
This story was co-published with the Sunday National on 19 May.