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When girls choose science

When girls choose science

by Katherine Mathieson, Director of Education at the British Science Association


Recent coverage of this year’s A-level results shows that the proportion of girls doing A-levels in physics and maths is dropping. Richard Garner writing for the Independent says that boys accounted for 79.3% of physics entries (3.8% higher than last year) and 60.1% of maths entries (3.9% higher than last year).

This is in the context of an overall increase in the number of A-level pupils choosing to study one science or maths subjects. Chemistry, maths, and physics A-levels have increased by an average of 22% since 2010. This increase has come at the expense of subjects like law, general studies and drama (figures from Department for Education press release - 15th Aug 2013).

So although the overall picture is promising, with increasing numbers of young people opting for science and maths, there is a gender imbalance. However, this gender balance isn’t seen in the programmes we run, such as CREST Awards and the National Science + Engineering Competition.

Does it matter? 

The future health of our science and engineering sector depends on attracting sufficient numbers of talented, enthusiastic people to take up careers in the sector. It also requires an informed appreciation among wider society about how science works, so it can be directed and held to account effectively. If women are under-represented in science and in wider conversations about science, we all lose out.

What can we do?

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School & College Leaders (ASCL), has called for more female ambassadors from science and engineering jobs visiting schools. There are already organisations that can facilitate these links, such as STEMNET’s excellent STEM Ambassadors scheme and Inspiring the Future run by the Education and Employers Taskforce.

Sir Peter Knight, President of the Institute of Physics (IoP), says that more needs to be done to combat gender stereotypes in the classroom. The IoP has previously published recommendations for schools on this subject, and continues to provide intensive support to physics teachers through its Stimulating Physics Network

What are girls interested in?

Our CREST Awards programme stimulates and recognises young people’s own research and investigation projects. Happily, 51% of CREST Award projects are done by girls.

Using data about all UK CREST Awards projects in 2012, we found there was very little difference between the numbers of boys and girls who choose to do each of the different kinds of CREST Awards project, which are: design & make (engineering), research (science & maths) and science communication.

Table: Numbers of girls and boys choosing to do different kinds of CREST Award projects in 2012


Design & Make


Science Communication


Female students





Male students










We then analysed the project titles that boys and girls use for their CREST Award projects. As the Word Clouds show, there aren’t any dramatic differences between the kind of words used overall. However, at Gold level, you can pick out more design/physics words in the boys’ Word Cloud compared with more biology-related words in the girls’ Word Cloud. However project titles are constrained by a brief that’s been set by someone other than the student, like the teacher or the host of a placement, so these differences might reflect grown-ups’ choices rather than young people’s.

Girls Gold Award project titles 2012 

Girls Gold Award project titles 2012

 Boys Gold Award project titles 2012

Boys Gold Award project titles 2012

Girls Silver Award project titles 2012

Girls Silver Award project titles 2012

 Boys Silver Award project titles 2012

Boys Silver Award project titles 2012

Do more girls do biology projects while more boys do physics projects?

We delved deeper to analyse a sample of 1400 Bronze and Silver projects from 2012. We classified each project as belonging to one of the main curriculum subjects: biology, chemistry, physics, maths, D&T and other (where it was not possible to determine the discipline from the project title information).

We found that in our sample, there was a roughly even split of boys and girls across all subjects. For example, 52% of the 433 physics projects were done by girls - which was the same as the proportion of biology projects done by girls.









Female students (%)

162 (52%)

64 (52%)

170 (45%)

25 (47%)

227 (52%)

52 (53%)


Male students (%)

152 (48%)

59 (48%)

208 (55%)

28 (53%)

206 (48%)

47 (47%)
















There are several caveats attached to this analysis: the sample is only a small proportion of the total number of projects, and it can be difficult to accurately classify the discipline using only the project title information – especially since many projects draw on more than one subject. Bronze and Silver Awards are typically done by students before they reach sixth form (the Gold Awards were excluded since the students usually have little influence over their project titles). Also, the total number of CREST Awards done nationally (28,423 in 2012) is much smaller than the total number of A-level students (850,752 from JQC figures). More work is needed to determine whether this phenomenon applies more widely. It would also be useful to compare these data with similar figures for other extra-curricular activities.

Despite the caveats, there seems to be a considerable difference between the proportion of girls doing physics CREST Awards compared with the proportion doing physics A-levels. A similar difference is evident for maths.

What’s causing this difference?

Perhaps girls are more daunted by the reputation of physics and maths as being ‘hard’ subjects? Perhaps the gap between girls’ and boys’ participation in physics and maths widens as they progress through secondary schools, so any analysis of younger age groups shows a more balanced picture than older age groups? Perhaps the real world relevance of a CREST project appeals to girls more than the curriculum does? Perhaps the schools offering CREST Awards to their students are also the ones making extensive use of inspirational role models?

The answer is probably a mixture of all these things and probably a few more too. What’s clear is that we need to better understand the factors that affect girls’ (and boys’) choices – and to invest in developing ways to apply our understanding within the classroom and beyond.

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