Schools should abandon efforts to attract more girls into physics, computing and engineering because pupils with an aptitude for the subjects will choose them anyway, according to a University of Glasgow psychologist.
Gijsbert Stoet said that effort was wasted trying to bridge gender divides in education when innate differences meant that boys and girls would always be drawn to different subjects and careers. "We probably need to give up on the idea that we will get many female engineers or male nurses," Dr Stoet told the British Education Studies Association conference in Glasgow.
It was "really hard" to attract girls to subjects such as computing. "Girls will say, `Well, that's boring, I'm just not interested in it," he said, adding that initiatives to reduce gender divides "completely deny human biology and nature".
Policymakers needed to take a more evidence-based approach, said Dr Stoet, who is based at the university's Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change. There would be an outcry if a health minister backed homeopathy despite evidence against its usefulness, but there was less opposition when decisions in education were based on hunches, he added.
"We need to have a national debate on why we find it so important to have equal numbers," he argued. "Do we really care that only 5 per cent of the programmers are women? Well, actually, I don't care who programs my computers.
"A wealthy, democratic society can afford to let people do what they want. What is better? To have 50 per cent of female engineers who do not really like their work but say, `Yeah, well, I did it for the feminist cause.' Or do you want 3 per cent of female engineers who say, `I really like my job'?"
Dr Stoet said he was sceptical about the impact of gender-specific role models, citing work by former colleague Professor Bruce Carrington: "He found no evidence that girls are more inspired or inclined to learn when they are being taught by female teachers, and the same is true for boys."
Areas where girls struggled, such as maths, gained greater media attention even though boys generally did worse at school, Dr Stoet said. "Nobody seems to be that interested that boys have problems," he added. "We have, as human beings, a natural tendency to see women as vulnerable and needing help. But if it's a boy who needs help, he's responsible for himself."
But Dr Stoet insisted he was "not a social conservative". "If you see that a girl does well in maths, of course you should encourage her to do maths if that's what she likes," he said.
Stuart Farmer from the Association for Science Education said there was poor uptake among girls for physical sciences, computer science and engineering, "despite considerable effort over many years to address this".
"The influence of wider societal pressures and norms should not be underestimated," he added. "This starts with things as simple as pink for a girl baby and blue for a boy baby, and goes on to things such as segregated toys and books in shops, although this is starting to be addressed."
Clare Thomson, pre-19 curriculum and diversity manager at the Institute of Physics, said the body's research had found that schools with few girls studying physics also had low numbers of boys taking English and psychology, which "led us to think that however good your physics department might be there were likely to be other factors of a whole-school nature".
If a girl declared an interest in physics, she added, parents and teachers were more likely to ask, "Do you really want to do that? It might be difficult."
Glasgow education director Maureen McKenna, a maths teacher, said that gender-specific role models "absolutely" influenced pupils' subject choices. Getting more women into technical departments and more men into primary schools and nurseries could "change stereotypical views and widen young people's choices for future careers", she added.
Gregor Steele, head of physics and technology at the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre, said that boys and girls often based subject choices on fundamental misconceptions.
"It was not that long ago that a poll where young people were asked to name Britain's best known engineer was topped by Coronation Street mechanic Kevin Webster," he observed.