Why are Female Students Now Outnumbering Males in A-level Science?

Recent efforts to encourage girls to study sciences at A-level have finally come to fruition with female students now outnumbering males for the first time ever.

Following A-level results day, figures were released that showed there were 84,111 entries (50.3%) from girls for biology, chemistry and physics this year, compared with 83,133 (49.7%) from males.

The number of both males and females taking STEM subjects made up 21% of A-level entries, up from 19.2% in 2018.

When you look at recent HESA data, of the students studying science-related courses at university between 2017/2018, the gender balance is nearly equal. 49% of students were female and 51% were male, revealing that the increase in female students taking A-level science seems to be translating to higher education.

There are many reasons for this increase, from rises in funding to a change in exam questions, let’s take a closer look at why the balance may have tipped.

Why have female students now overtaken males in A-level science?

Since 2012, the number of female students studying A-level science has increased by 10%. This shift in tide is the result of an increase in funding and huge initiatives to encourage young women to take up STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects.

There have been numerous campaigns from exam boards, schools, universities, recruitment companies and businesses that have worked towards addressing the gender imbalance in STEM courses.

One of the biggest reasons for female students not taking science A levels was due to a lack of female role models. In recent years, efforts have been made to increase the exposure of positive female role models both in schools and in universities. Famous women working in the industry today, and throughout history, are now much more present on syllabuses and exam papers.

The chief executive of OCR exam board, Jilly Duffy, highlighted that including women in science, like Rosalind Franklin, within the curriculum has aided the boost in female students: “ This is the result of years of effort to get over some of the stereotypes girls might have had about studying science.”

There has also been a big drive to break the gender stereotypes and stigma attached to STEM subjects and the industry. Geoff Barton, the leader of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), highlighted that schools are actively trying to recruit more female teachers into science posts to give students more role models. He added that former female students and current students are also often invited to give informative talks, which helps to boost the confidence of students when deciding which subjects to study.

Furthermore, A-level science classes have undergone a restructure, with more practical experiments now on the syllabus, which exam boards believe has made the subject more engaging and popular with students.

There is no doubt that these reforms have helped towards the boost in female students taking A-level science courses. However, it has also been argued that with the increased awareness of the skills shortage in STEM subjects, many female students have chosen to study the sciences as a career-savvy move.

Female students perform well in A level science

Alongside the boost in the female STEM students, data has also been released surrounding performance.

A recent report from WISE showed that in physics and computing A-levels, the percentage of girls who were awarded A* and A grades were higher than the percentage of boys. This is despite reforms to the way in which A levels were tested which, as anticipated, led to a drop in the percentage of students awarded A* and A grades.

Helen Wollaston, chief executive of WISE, said: “This year’s results are a fantastic testament to all of the work which has been done over the last few years to encourage more girls to study core STEM subjects. These results should encourage girls, their families and teachers because they show girls are interested in science and they are good at it.

“I want to see teachers sharing this message with girls who are considering which subjects to take at A-level. It’s commonly thought that girls don’t take science subjects because they are ‘too difficult.’ These results prove this isn’t true.”

Still work to do

Overall biology was the most popular STEM A-level for females, making up 63% of the total students. Similarly, female chemists also outnumbered males proportionally, however, physics was still dominated by male students, making up 77% of entries.

Physics is still more likely to be studied by male students than female students, with more than three times as many entries. Other STEM subjects such as mathematics and computing also remain unbalanced.

These figures are reflected in the HESA 2017/2018 UCAS data, which shows that of students studying biology, 60% are female, chemistry degrees comprise 44% female students and in physics degrees, just 24% of students are women.

The Institute of Physics highlighted that more needed to be done to encourage female students to study STEM subjects. “We continue to be deeply concerned that even in 2019 there are still so many ways in which girls are steered away from taking up technical sciences,” said Charles Tracy, the IOP’s head of education.

The continued gender imbalance in physics A-level could explain why so little female students decide to study engineering and computer sciences at university. Many higher education courses specify physics as a requirement to gain a place.

Women in Science Industries

Even though the recent data following A-level results day highlights a shift in gender balance in STEM subjects, there is still plenty of work to do to enable these women to convert their qualifications into industry-specific jobs.

According to UIS data, less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women. Women make up 23% of those in core STEM occupations in the UK and 24% of those working in core STEM industries, according to a 2017 WISE campaign report.

It is clear that there is still more to be done to reduce the gender gap in science. At STEM Women, we’re on a mission to address this gender imbalance. We host a number of networking and graduate careers events that are perfect for women who have studied a science, technology, engineering or mathematics degree. Meet employers, hear from role models in our panel sessions and get inspired at events in Edinburgh, Dublin, Manchester, Bristol, London and Birmingham.

Did you know you could also become a STEM Women member? It’s completely free and you’ll have access to a monthly newsletter containing industry news, updates and all the latest jobs. Be the first to hear about exclusive volunteering opportunities and receive invitations to all of our events. Become a part of a growing community of women in STEM today, sign up only takes 30 seconds!​

Or, perhaps you’re an employer looking to hire female STEM graduates? We can introduce you to thousands of students looking to start careers in STEM industries. From sponsorship and stands at careers events, to job boards and recruitment consultants that specialise in sourcing the very best talent, get in touch with us today for more information.

Enjoy this blog? Check out our piece focused on women in technology and find out how the industry has changed over the years.