The relationship between gender and subject choice in post-16 UK education is both persistent and well-known and has produced a range of explanations – some sociological, some not (Skelton et al (2007), for example, note the widespread belief ‘natural’ differences – babies are born with an inbuilt biological and / or genetic predilection – “push boys and girls towards some curriculum subjects whilst avoiding others” or the argument “boys and girls have different brain structures that result in their gender differentiated skills and abilities”).
Most recent sociological analysis, however, has tended to focus on gender identities and how concepts of masculinity and femininity, constructed and reconstructed inside and outside the classroom in a reflexive way (how personal identities are influenced and shaped by social identities), contribute to gendered subject choices – and this research is another useful and accessible contribution to the debate.
Analysis was based on the ASPIRES project, “a five-year, longitudinal exploration of science aspirations and career choice among 10–14-year-olds in England”. This involved:
Gendered subject choice, where girls are far less likely to choose science / STEM subjects post-16, reflects the “underlying constructions of science careers as ‘masculine’” rather than girls having less enthusiasm for, or aptitude with, science subjects as compared to boys.
Rather, the crucial factor in not choosing to pursue science subjects is, for girls, that possible future careers in science are “incompatible with girls’ performances of popular femininity”. This results in the idea that “science aspirations are ‘unthinkable’ for many girls” because they see science – and a career in science – as not being:
These perceptions are “exacerbated by social class inequalities” and “may be amplified for working-class girls”. This follows because working-class girls tend to construct their notions of gender identity around “discourses of ‘glamour’, ‘girliness’, ‘hands on’ (vocational) education and popular performances of working-class femininity”.
The cultural identification of science with “high academic achievement” means many girls self-exclude from science at post-16 because they fail to identify themselves with high achievement. This, in turn, contributes to a class-based perception of “science” as being the preserve of upper and middle-class students – both boys and, to a lesser extent, girls.
Popular constructions of science (in both schools and wider society) that align it with associations of ‘cleverness’ and abstraction (it is seen as academic and cerebral, rather than practical) “do not fit easily with many of our girls’ interests in the body, appearance and celebrity culture, nor with their ‘non-academic’ learner identities”.
For some girls, “science is an ‘unthinkable’ identity due to its profound incongruence with key elements of popular femininity”. In other words, “science is constructed as an undesirable and unthinkable aspiration because it simply does not ‘fit’ with these girls’ sense of identity”.
The continuing alignment in popular discourse of science with both masculinity and middleclassness (and conversely non-scientific subjects with femininity and lowerclassness) contributes significantly to a lack of science take-up post-16. This suggests any change in the perception of particular subject choices needs to begin with cultural changes in wider society.
Christine Skelton, Becky Francis and Yordanka Valkanova (2007) “Breaking down the stereotypes: gender and achievement in schools”
Louise Archer et al (2013): ‘Not girly, not sexy, not glamorous’: primary school girls’ and parents’ constructions of science aspirations