Last Updated on March 3, 2023 by Karl Thompson
Despite gender becoming more fluid in recent decades, students continue to choose subjects aligned to stereotypical, traditional male and female gender identities.
While it is true that subject choice is becoming gradually less gendered, gender stereotypical subject choices are still apparent when we look at the statistics in the 2020s.
For example, 95% of candidates studying Health and Social Care BTEC are female while Computer Science and Engineering are dominated by males.
For a more in-depth dive into gendered subject choices at different levels of education in 2022 please see my post on gender and subject choice.
Explaining gendered differences in subject choice
There are three broad explanations for why boys and girls continue to choose gender stereotypical subjects:
- factors external to the school such as socialisation in the family home and peer group pressure.
- In school factors such as the gender of the teachers teaching certain subjects and gender stereotypes held by teachers.
- Ingrained gendered subject images which is a result of home and school factors.
Socialisation and gendered subject choice
Some research suggests that the gender stereotypes of parents still influence what toys boys and girls and play with, with some parents believing that certain types of toys are only really suitable for boys and girls.
Girls being steered into playing with dolls from an early age may influence their choice to study health and social care later on as teenagers, with its focus on child care.
Similarly, boys being steered towards toy tools and trucks may result in a higher proportion of them choosing to study engineering at university.
More generally, socialisation differences may result in different levels of self-confidence for boys and girls.
The results of laboratory experiments also suggest that men are more likely to enter competitive arenas than women because of higher levels of confidence (Gneezy et al., 2003; Niederle and Vesterlund, 2007).
Colley (1998) found that peer groups often subscribe to gender stereotypes and may encourage girls to choose more traditionally feminine subjects at GCSE and vice-versa for boys.
Teacher Labelling and gendered subject choice
Traditional beliefs about masculinity and femininity may still be held by teachers, lecturers and careers advisors, especially in mixed schools.
Some contemporary sociological research suggests that teachers’ gender stereotypes result in girls being less likely to choose STEM-related choices within high school and beyond ((Lavy and Sand, 2018; Lavy and Meglokonomou, 2019; Terrier, 2020).
There is a gender divide based on the subjects taught by men. Male teachers are more likely to specialise in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and PE, whereas women are more likely to teach humanities and languages. A lack of educational role models in STEM and PE can put some girls off taking these subjects. The effect is particularly visible among teenage girls who feel that male PE teachers cannot understand their needs properly (Gender Trust).
The fact that subjects in secondary schools such as English are more likely to be taught by women, and girls may feel more drawn to such subjects because they prefer the discursive style of female teachers. Similarly, subjects which boys are more likely to choose at GCSE and A-level, such as computing and physics, are more likely to be taught my males lower down in secondary schools, and boys might be more drawn to these subjects because of the more matter of fact way they are taught by male teachers.
Colley (1998) notes that girls in single-sex schools are twice as likely to study maths at university. This could be because the cultural pressures to not study maths are less likely to exist in single sex schools
Gendered Subject Images
The combination of external and internal factors above results in subjects becoming gendered: they develop an identity as essentially male or female.
This makes it harder for boys to choose ‘female’ subjects and girls to choose ‘male’ subjects.
Colley believes that the gender-identity of subjects may well shift with curriculum changes. For example the introduction of more technology into music is correlated with more boys choosing to study it.
Conclusions: Why do gendered differences in subject choice persist…?
Boys are more likely to choose traditionally male subjects and vice versa for girls as a combination of home and school factors such as gender stereotyping held by parents and teachers, which affects boys and girls self-concepts which are in turn reinforced by peers.
In a review of the literature Skelton et al (2007) noted that ‘gender stereotyping’ and ‘differential constructions of gender among pupils and teachers’ are probably the most significant factors in explaining gendered differences in subject choice.
It is very difficult to pinpoint one main causal variable for gendered differences in subject choice, the reasons are due to a multitude of factors.
This material has been written primarily for students studying the education option as part of their A-level in sociology.