Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Equal Opportunities Commission


The role of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC)

  1.  The Equal Opportunities Commission was established as an independent statutory body under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, (SDA) to:

    —  work towards the elimination of discrimination on the grounds of sex or marriage;

    —  promote equality of opportunity for women and men; and

    —  keep under review the Sex Discrimination Act and the Equal Pay Act.

  The EOC is a non-departmental public body, funded through grant-in-aid. Our sponsor department is the Women and Equality Unit at the Cabinet Office.

  2.  The EOC is pleased to provide the Committee with this memorandum outlining gender issues in science education from 14-19.

  3.  The EOC has identified breaking down male and female stereotypes as one of its key objectives. Traditional attitudes to working and caring limit life chances for women and men. Promoting equality demands challenges to outdated roles and changes which open up wider opportunities for both sexes.

  4.  Sex-stereotyping affects young people in all aspects of their lives, including education. Subject and career decisions provide clear evidence of how stereotyping currently limits choice. While the SDA has been successful in opening up all subjects at school, the challenge is to ensure that young people enjoy and progress in non-traditional subjects so that they have access to a wider range of good career opportunities.

  5.  The EOC's work on stereotyping takes the form of a campaign "What's Stopping You?" which targets young people with posters and postcards, and policy recommendations for action by government and others, which are set out in this memorandum for the Committee to consider for inclusion in its report.

  6.  Additional sources of information are listed in Annex A. A mapping of organisations and activities currently addressing girls and science issues is set out in Annex B.

The gender issue in science

  7.  Government has identified shortfall in the supply of scientists, engineers and computer scientists as a problem which needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency to support international competitiveness and economic growth. These professions are almost exclusively male. Since more than half the young people in the country are female, the under-representation of women in science is a waste of valuable resource.

  8.  For women, achieving science qualifications, can and should open up many more career opportunities. Yet despite girls' improvements in academic achievements and the attainment of science GCSE, the labour market still presents a picture of women segregated into traditional and non-SET occupational sectors with low pay and poor career prospects.

  9.  Educational achievement for all as the key to good life chances is high on the Government's agenda. Rightly, boys' relative underachievement in secondary education overall has been identified as a focus for government action. However, the gender issues in relation to science are about girls rather than boys. Current education practice fails to engage the majority of girls with science and IT so that very few progress to A level and beyond. The EOC believes that action is needed to target the problem and to develop practical solutions.

The current situation

  10.  Girls' participation in science and their attainments are broadly equal to boys up to age 16. But girls opt out of physical science and ICT as soon as it becomes optional and there is a significant gender gap in entry to A level physics.

  11.  Before 1988, more boys than girls studied physics and chemistry subjects up to age 16. In 1981, 45,000 girls entered physics "O" level compared with 131,000 boys. The situation was reversed in relation to biology where girls outnumbered boys by almost two to one.

  12.  Since the introduction of the national curriculum in 1988, science has been compulsory for all pupils from 5-16. Current statistics show that entries and achievements are now broadly even with girls achieving a higher per cent of grades A-C in single and double award general science and more boys than girls being entered for all the single sciences.


Entries thousands'
% pass A-C*
Entries thousands'
% pass A-C*
Science single
Science double
Biological Sciences
Other Sciences
Any Sciences

  Statistical First Release November 2001 SFR 45/2001.

  *As a percentage of 15 year olds attempting the subject.

  13.  It is significant that the cut-off point for girls' engagement with physical science comes when science is no longer compulsory and the opportunity is presented at 16 to choose either to continue to A level, or to opt for different subjects. The following picture emerges:


Success rate
Success rate

  English is by far the most popular A level choice for girls, although it is significant that English is also top choice for boys—with physics a close second. Once again, boys dominate entry for physics while more girls than boys opt for biology. Chemistry entry is broadly similar. It is interesting to note that girls have a slightly higher success rate than boys in all "A" level sciences.

  14.  Girls' ability to achieve in science is evidenced not only by GCSE and A level results but also by SAT results:


Key Stage 1 (5-7)
Key Stage 2 (7-11)
Key Stage 3 (11-14)
Teacher assessment level
and above
test level 4
and above
test level 5
and above
test level 5
and above
test level 6
and above
Boys %
Girls %

  15.  When given the opportunity or when they are obliged to study science, girls of all ages perform as well, or better, than boys. The decision to opt out of science is, therefore, one of choice rather than ability. A compulsory curriculum has delayed the exercise of choice and enabled girls to achieve science knowledge and skills at GCSE level. Young women with scientific and IT skills will have wider career choices with greater opportunity for economic independence than those with only arts subjects at GCSE—if their enthusiasm for science can be secured at school.

Implications for 14-19 science education

  16.  There are clear policy lessons for maximising attainment and securing progression for girls:

    —  the compulsory nature of the science curriculum has secured girls' performance and engagement with science; the science entitlement to age 16 should remain so that opting out is delayed as long as possible; and

    —  there is a need to understand why girls opt out of school science and to implement solutions which will remove stereotyped choices and improve engagement and progression.

The national curriculum entitlement to science

  17.  In its response to the White Paper "Schools—Achieving Success", the EOC made the following comments and recommendations in relation to proposed changes to 14-19 education:

    —  To mainstream equality into proposals, policy development needs to be informed by the knowledge that national curriculum entitlement has been good in improving engagement of girls with non-traditional subjects. Creating greater flexibility in the key stage 4 curriculum must be introduced in such a way that girls are not enabled to disengage with science and ICT in order to enter traditional vocational routeways. Increased flexibility must be accompanied by improved guidance and intervention strategies to challenge stereotyping and widen choice.

    —  The EOC could not support any legislative change which reduced the entitlement curriculum at key stage 4 in such a way that pupils were enabled to opt out of key national curriculum subjects and were enabled instead to opt into vocational subjects and routeways which could reduce their opportunity to maximise achievement, progression and pay.

    —  Any consideration of changes to 14-19 education, including the content of the proposed additional consultation document should include discussion of how benefits for girls and boys can be maximised.

Why girls opt out and what solutions work

  18.  There have been several recent research reports investigating the reasons why girls opt out of science and what strategies appear to be effective in securing engagement and progression. The "Cracking It" Report[44] found:

    "The answers are many and varied. Factors that seem to emerge include the way science is taught, the preconceptions and stereotypes held by girls and boys and men and women about the nature of work in SET, the lack of role models and, in the past, the negative attitudes of some employers to employing women—although this has changed radically in recent years".

  19.  A literature review[45] for the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (SHFC) as part of an initiative to encourage more women to choose SET, identified key factors which appeared to underlie the persistent gendered patterns of pupils' subject options in schools including: early socialisation, guidance and careers advice, teachers and teaching and work experience. Similar factors were identified in Breaking the Mould, a DTI report[46] containing an analysis of 100 research projects aimed at breaking down barriers to female participation in SET.

Attitudes, Pre-conceptions and Stereotypes

  20.  Research commissioned by the Promoting SET for Women Unit in the Office of Science and Technology DTI,[47] for their campaign to challenge the negative perception of careers in science and engineering among 14-16 year old girls, provides more detailed evidence on why and how girls are put off science:

    —  They often have different value systems to boys and prioritise human, global and environmental issues more highly.

    —  Their perception of science as impersonal and value-free often alienates them from it and reduces their interest in following it as a career path.

    —  Girls generally prefer subjects that they see as more creative and socially relevant, where there is a degree of involvement through debate.

    —  There is also evidence that girls are discouraged by the image of science as male-dominated, aggressive and competitive.

  21.  The report highlights three key areas for action to help make science and engineering careers material more appealing to girls and contains good practice guidelines for each of the three areas:

    —  Humanise and personalise science as much as possible.

    —  Address issues of confidence.

    —  Make material appealing and relevant to the target age group.

  22.  The report encourages taking a fresh approach to engaging girls in SET. Careers materials must motivate the needs of all girls, or target separately girls with either high or low aspirations. By projecting an image that girls can relate to on a personal and emotional level, the message that SET jobs can be for them may be better heard.

Early Socialisation

  23.  There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that early socialisation disposes girls and boys to different perceptions of science and technology (Stanworth, 1981[48]: Kelly, 1985[49]; Smail, 1985[50]; Smithers & Zientek, 1991[51]). EOC research on the development of gender roles in young children, 2001[52] confirmed that attitudes towards gender and what is seen as gender appropriate behaviour are formed in early childhood and influence choices and decisions which are made throughout life. The research recommends intervening in the early learning and play experiences of young people to ensure that their development is free from stereotyping.

Guidance and careers advice

  24.  The SHEFC research review identified the significance of guidance teachers not being experts in science. It also found that careers materials used in Britain from 1970s until 1998 equated male with practical and female with caring jobs. The Connexions remit includes promoting equality, challenging stereotyping and widening career choice and partnerships are required to develop an equal opportunities strategy and delivery plan as part of their business plans. It is hoped that this will lead to more action to encourage non-traditional choices by girls and boys.

Teachers and Teaching

  25.  All the research identifies good teaching as the most salient factor in uptake of physics by boys as well as girls. There is recognition that some specific classroom strategies will make a positive difference. These include:

    —  Intervention in the curriculum—this needs to extend beyond repackaging science to remove masculine associations, to making science courses attractive, motivating and relevant to girls, and taking into account their interests and abilities and their preferred learning styles.

    —  Environment and resources—science classrooms need to be more "girl friendly" and curriculum materials need to be appealing and relevant to the target age group.

    —  Classroom setting—research supports the view that girls benefit from working without the distraction of boys although mere segregation is not an automatic guarantee of success, and that girls and boys approach groupwork in quite different ways. Recent research by Arnot and Gibb[53] has found that some strategies to lift boys' performance could have bad side-effects for female classmates. In particular, popular current practice of setting boy/girl, boy/girl is not good for engaging girls, particularly in science and ICT. It is suggested that all-female and all-male groupings in the classroom should be developed.

    —  Role models—the lack of female teachers as role models for participation in science is evident throughout schooling. Strategies to attract women into science teaching generally, and into specific posts in schools are needed.

  26.  The SHEFC Research concluded that schools need to be empowered and teachers need to be supported in increasing the opportunities for girls in the curriculum and in developing inclusive teaching methods, and to involve parents. It stated: "With the current emphasis on school standards, it is easy to lose sight of the persistence of gendered option choices, which are not subject to the same intense monitoring. Such an oversight would be a disservice, firstly to girls and women, and secondly to science, which would suffer a continuing decline as a higher education and career goal."

Work experience

  27.  The SHEFC research found that pupils' choices for placements show traditional gendered patterns, especially in male-dominated "installation, maintenance and repair" and "technical and scientific" occupations, and in "community and health", the most female-dominated choice. Teachers still play safe by arranging gender-stereotyped pupils' placements and girls themselves often make choices based upon previous experience. The research advocated more creative solutions to gendered work experience such as community-based work projects, which apply science and technology in the human context.

  28.  While there is no data on work experience placements in England, anecdotal evidence discussed at the conference: "Work Experience in the 21st Century", in 2001, confirmed that work experience placements for boys and girls reflect the traditional gender segregation of the labour market with very few young people having any exposure to experiences which might widen their career mind-set. Decisions on placements are often made by teachers on the basis that the type of work is less important than the experience of being in a work situation. CITB research has found that many young people are greatly influenced in their subsequent career choice by the type of employment in which they have been placed for work experience. This signals the importance of providing a wider range of experiences to girls and boys.

  29.  The benefits of non-traditional work placements has been evidenced by the success of the taster days run by the Women's Unit in 2001. Leading employers in work areas such as construction, engineering, IT and telecommunications offered a range of activities to young women. Girls were asked if they would like to work in the industry they had experienced and 83 per cent expressed a positive interest. 100 per cent thought that taster days should become part of the school curriculum to enable girls to make more informed choices. The Women's Unit recommended that the taster days initiative should be extended and the EOC fully supports this.

The role of employers

  30.  In the past, SET employment has presented an unattractive and unwelcoming image to girls and this, together with discrimination in recruitment[54] has acted as a disincentive for girls to engage with science at school. This is changing as the business benefits of recruiting from a wider pool are realised. Many of the large SET employers are now taking positive steps to recruit more women and changing work-place practices to meet the work-life balance needs of their employees. Employers can assist in creating enthusiasm for science by working in partnership to develop positive action strategies in the workplace and in schools to improve the image and appeal of SET. Women working in SET, particularly recent school leavers, can provide important role models and ambassadors in schools.

Implementing solutions

  31.  In its White Paper Response the EOC makes the following recommendations to Government for improving engagement and progression in science in the 14-19 curriculum:

    —  The non-traditional taster days and work experience initiative should be extended and offered as part of the curriculum entitlement for girls and boys.

    —  As part of science year, there should be a focus on developing girls' participation and progression in science post-16. Information on approaches to science teaching which make the subject attractive to girls, should be shared widely.

    —  The proposals to extend school specialisms to include engineering, science, business and enterprise, and mathematics and computing should be implemented with particular care to avoid reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes. The EOC advocates positive efforts to encourage applications for new specialist status from girls' as well as boys' secondary schools.

    —  The proposal to establish a network of advanced status schools which promote innovative practice, provides an excellent opportunity for innovation around attracting girls to engineering, science, mathematics and computing, and securing progression in these traditionally male subjects.

    —  Learning models and interventions should be developed which can be piloted in schools to challenge stereotyped decision-making and widen choice of non-traditional subjects.

    —  We would like to see the Government setting up a challenge or pathways initiative with funding which can be accessed by schools for projects. The aim of the initiative would be to maximise individual gain from the changes to the 14-19 curriculum and one of the criteria for accessing funds should be a commitment to challenging stereotyping and improving take-up of science and IT.

  32.  Girls' participation and achievements in science to age 16 can be regarded as one of the recent success stories of education. Action to secure these gains and to build greater engagement and progression post-16 will bring double benefits—for individual girls and for the GB economy. The EOC invites the Committee to adopt the recommendations in this submission for inclusion in its own Report.

February 2002

44   Cracking It!-Helping Women to Succeed in Science, Engineering & Technology, Josephine Warrior. ISBN 1-840219-000-0. 1997. Back

45   Factors underlying persistent gendered option choices in school science and technology in Scotland-Angela Roger and Jill Duffield-Gender and Education, Vol 12, No. 3, pp. 367-383, 2000. Back

46   Breaking the Mould-an assessment of successful strategies for attracting girls into science, engineering and technology-DTI-ISBN 0711503478. 1997. Back

47   Get With It! Adopting a creative approach to engaging girls in science, engineering and technology: Promoting SET for Women Unit, DTI. 2001. Back

48   Gender and Schooling: a study of sexual divisions in the classroom. Stanworth, M (London, Hutchinson) 1981. Back

49   The construction of masculine science, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 6, pp133-154. Kelly, A (1985). Back

50   An attempt to move mountains: the Girls into Science and Technology Project, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 17, pp.351-354. Smail. B. 1985. Back

51   Gender, Primary Schools and the National Curriculum, London, the Engineering Council/National Association of School Masters/Union of Women Teachers. Smithers A and Zientek, P. 1991. Back

52   The Development of Gender Roles in Young Children: A Review of Policy and Literature, Skelton, C and Hall, E ISBN 1 84206 000 7. EOC 2001. Back

53   Adding value to boys' and girls' education-Madeleine Arnot and Jennifer Gibb, West Sussex County Council, 2002. Back

54   Modern Apprenticeships and Gender Stereotyping, QPID Report No 71, DfEE 1999. Back

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