Colleges specialising in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) should make their provision more female-friendly to avoid being perceived as "schools for boys", a new report claims.
Just one in 10 engineers in the UK is female, a third of the proportion in other European countries such as Bulgaria, Cyprus and Latvia. Among apprentices, the disparity is even more stark, with girls accounting for just 2 per cent of construction and 3 per cent of engineering apprenticeships respectively.
As a result, the WISE (Women into Science, Engineering and Construction) campaign has published new guidance to encourage university technical colleges (UTCs), 14-19 institutions specialising in technical education, to promote themselves among prospective female learners.
"We need to attract more women," says former education secretary Lord Baker, a pioneer of the UTC movement, in the foreword to the report. "The UTC offering is set up to help ensure that as many women as possible have the opportunity to follow a scientific or engineering career - and these sectors will benefit from greater diversity in the workforce."
Many UTCs, however, are finding it difficult to entice female learners into traditionally male areas.
"Despite offering direct pathways to rewarding and successful careers in Stem, UTCs are struggling to attract girls in significant numbers and are at risk of being seen as `schools for boys' by many parents unless they are proactive in challenging stereotypical perceptions," the report says.
The first UTC, the JCB Academy in Staffordshire, which specialises in engineering and business, has struggled more than most. In 2012, it had eight times as many applications from male students as female ones; out of an intake of 120, only 11 girls were offered places.
Its move to address the imbalance by reserving half its places for girls was last year found to breach admissions rules. Although the academy said the policy would provide "a much healthier cohort.in a school that is overwhelmingly male", the Office of the Schools Adjudicator disagreed.
After a parent whose son was refused a place at the school claimed that female applicants were given a "distinct advantage", the JCB Academy was found to be in breach of equality laws on account of "indirect sexual discrimination". Although adjudicator Cecilia Galloway expressed "considerable sympathy" with the school's "laudable aim of making it easier for girls to get into engineering", she concluded that the policy "[had] the effect of making it easier for the girls to get into the school simply on the basis of their sex".
The new WISE report calls on UTCs to rely on "positive action" to encourage more female applicants. Possible strategies, it suggests, could include "female-focused open days", "leaflets specifically aimed to encourage girls to apply" and even "altering the provision".
Colleges, the report says, should consider whether their practical activities could inadvertently discriminate against girls. "Can everyone participate regardless of physical strength?" it asks. "Do you take account of variations in confidence and familiarity? Girls may be less likely to have used hand tools, changed tyres or carried out domestic electrical tasks than boys, and may be less confident in doing this type of activity."
Institutions should also consider whether their displays "reflect positive images of women and women's interests".
"There is a strong perception that certain careers, particularly those in the physical sciences, are masculine," the report says. "Stereotypes limit girls' choices - and those who are willing to step out of the `normal' need reassurance that they are doing the right thing. Their parents also need reassurance."
Catharine Wensley, acting principal of Hackney UTC in London, which specialises in health and digital technology, said the institution had targeted "digital media-savvy" teenage girls, with 60 per cent of the student body being female. "We're lucky to have found some very independent-minded girls with a clear idea of what they wanted to do," she said.