Only one in eight girls who gain an A* in physics or double science GCSE goes on to take physics at A-level, figures uncovered by academics have revealed.
By contrast, nearly half of comparable boys do so. In both maths and chemistry, the proportion of girls with A* at GCSE going on to take the subject post-16 is also lower than boys.
The figures, revealed in a report for the Royal Society, are being taken as evidence that girls are passing up the chance to study subjects that could be the gateway to lucrative careers.
They will intensify the debate over the gender gap post-16. Undergraduate engineering, maths and physics courses are overwhelmingly male.
The Royal Society study also found that most of the A-C grades awarded in physics and maths A-level in England go to boys. In physics this figure was 77 per cent, while in maths it was 60 per cent.
This is largely because boys dominate entry numbers: some 79 per cent of candidates for physics, and 62 per cent in maths, are male.
In the report, Professor Jo Boaler and Geoff Kent, of Sussex University, wrote: "The relatively low proportions of young women participating in mathematics and physics is a cause for concern.
"The inequitable rates of participation have serious consequences: for women, as they are denied access to scientific and technological careers; for the disciplines of mathematics and science that are not being advanced by their perspectives; and for society, which is in need of many more people qualified in mathematics and science."
The study also uncovered major differences between the four UK nations, with England revealed as having greater gender differences than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. For example, in Scotland in 2006, 49 per cent of A-C Higher grades in maths went to girls.
For A-levels, the comparable figures were 48 per cent for Northern Ireland, 42 per cent for Wales and 40 per cent for England. Similarly, in Scotland, 30 per cent of these grades for physics went to girls. In Northern Ireland, the proportion was 34 per cent; in Wales, 26 per cent; and in England, 23 per cent.
English schools suffer from a much more acute shortage of girls studying traditional sciences at A-level than counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.