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Girls turning to science and engineering degrees faster than boys, survey shows

Campaigns to boost girls’ enthusiasm for science and engineering are beginning to bear fruit, according to data compiled from a survey of 20,000 sixth formers.

Statistics from Cambridge Occupational Analysts (COA), the university choices and careers experts, shows a rise in the proportion of female pupils who are actively considering university courses in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects.

The proportion of girls expressing an interest in civil engineering, general engineering, combined sciences, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, chemistry and biochemistry has shown a bigger increase over the last seven years than their male counterparts.

The figures are published amid concern over the gender imbalance in the study of STEM subjects and the make up of the science and industry workforce.

They provide additional evidence that efforts to redress the imbalance are having an impact, as suggested by the findings of a recent study gauging interest in engineering among 11-14 year-olds, commissioned by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills.

The COA survey asked around 20,000 sixth formers in hundreds of schools across Britain completing Centigrade, a university choices questionnaire, which subjects they were interested in studying. Responses collected over the past 7 years reveal a significant rise in interest among female pupils in the vital STEM subject areas of civil engineering, general engineering and combined sciences.

The percentage of girls expressing an interest in civil engineering rose by 10 per cent between 2006/07 and 2012/13 – double the percentage rise of male pupils.

General engineering was considered as a possible choice by over a fifth (22 per cent) of female respondents last year -- a 16 per cent increase compared with 7 years ago. Over the same period, the proportion of boys expressing interest in the subject rose by just 5 per cent.

Figures for combined sciences show a 19 per cent rise in the proportion of girls expressing enthusiasm for the subject, compared to an 11 per cent rise for sixth form boys.

Girls’ interest in mechanical engineering and electrical engineering rose by 18 per cent and 27 per cent respectively, compared to 10 per cent and 13 per cent for boys.

Other STEM subjects where the level of interest increased more among females than males include chemistry and biochemistry (2 per cent difference). Interest in physics-based subjects has grown by 14 per cent for both genders since 2006/07.

Responses to the Centigrade questionnaire also reveal the subjects that have been winners and losers over the last seven years across both sexes.

It confirms a move towards “harder” subjects and those that are perceived to be more closely related to providing good job prospects. Interest has mushroomed in the combined sciences, biochemistry, maths and physics since 2006/07.

By contrast, sixth formers last year were less likely to express an interest in art/craft subjects, surveying, hospitality/institutional management, and media.

Commenting on the findings, COA joint director Joyce Lane said: “Our survey results suggest that girls are beginning to respond positively to the message that they can perform as well as boys in STEM subjects and aim for rewarding careers in related professions such as engineering.

“It must be remembered that they were starting from a relatively low base, and women are still under-represented in these subjects areas. Nevertheless, these are promising signs and it appears that we can expect to see more young women graduating with STEM degrees in the coming years. We can only hope that firms will respond to this trend by ensuring there are attractive career opportunities for female as well as male STEM graduates.”