Equality - Some subjects still a boy's own world

31st January 2014 at 00:00
Post-16 gender gap grows in engineering and computing

Women in Scotland's colleges are still struggling to close the gender gap in traditionally male-dominated subject areas despite efforts to break down stereotypes, figures obtained by TESS reveal.

The recent decline in women taking up key subjects such as engineering, computing and construction has prompted politicians to call for schools to make greater use of female role models in lessons. Promoting the subjects to girls was vital not just for equal opportunities but for the Scottish economy, advocates said.

Statistics provided by the Scottish Funding Council on enrolments at colleges show that despite a government commitment to support women in engineering, the percentage enrolled in the subject dropped from 10 per cent in 2005-06 to 8 per cent in 2012-13.

And despite industry bodies promising great career prospects and growth, women now make up the minority of student enrolments in computing and ICT. Almost two-thirds of students taking the subjects in 2005-06 were female but this has fallen to just 46 per cent in 2012-13.

Women also remain firmly in the minority in construction and nautical studies, making up 10 per cent and 4 per cent of enrolments respectively.

There appeared to be some good news in the latest statistics, with women making up 60 per cent of science students. However, a breakdown for chemistry, physics and biology was unavailable, potentially masking large discrepancies along subject lines.

NUS Scotland said that the persistent under-representation of women in subject areas such as these was "worrying". The union's president Gordon Maloney told TESS: "While we know that STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects are vital to the success of Scotland, we can't simply build up places on these courses without addressing the severe gender imbalance which exists."

Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesman Liam McArthur said the figures showed that attempts to break down gender stereotypes for particular courses were "continuing to fail". "Too many young women are still missing out on opportunities to study STEM subjects and to pursue these as careers," he said. "As a result, the potential of individuals is not realised and the Scottish economy pays a heavy price.

"It is quite clear that more strenuous efforts are needed to bridge this gender gap if we are to build a stronger economy and a fairer society."

Mary Scanlon, education spokeswoman for the Scottish Conservatives, agreed that the statistics showed the gender gap was still "very much in operation". "For the good of the Scottish economy, it is paramount that we encourage more women to train in 'non-traditional' subjects such as engineering," she said.

"I know Skills Development Scotland are committed to tackling this problem, and I hope that the recommendations of the Commission for Developing Scotland's Young Workforce will also make a difference. In the meantime, female role models should be used in schools to get the message across that no subjects are the preserve purely of boys."

But Professor Muffy Calder, a female computer scientist and chief scientific adviser for Scotland, has already commented that this is not always the best approach.

"It's not necessarily about having a female teacher, or female role models. A lot of it is about connecting to what you can do with science - how it empowers you to change and understand your world," she told TESS last year.

The Scottish Funding Council has also revealed new figures that show the overall number of students with a disability has dropped from 33,967 to 29,895 in the past seven years. The number of ethnic minority students also fell from 15,674 to 11,809 between 2005-06 and 2012-13.

Ms Scanlon said this was further proof that the Scottish government's severe spending cuts were damaging the college sector. "It is completely unacceptable that the effects of these cuts have fallen disproportionately on some groups who are less likely to attend college in the first place," she said.

A Scottish government spokeswoman said that women continued to outnumber men at college. In addition, she said, the government had invested a further #163;6.6 million in 2013-14 and were asking colleges to provide 2,000 extra full-time places, including for women returning to education.

This would be supported by "record levels of funding - over #163;102 million this academic year in college bursaries, childcare and discretionary funds", she said.

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