We should stop advising students to choose subjects they’re good at

Image: Shutterstock/Patrick Foto

We should stop advising young people to do what they’re good at when they are making subject choices at school.

It sounds like such sensible, non-controversial advice, doesn’t it? What could possibly be wrong? Plenty.

Girls still tend to opt out of STEM subjects early. There are many and complex reasons for this. I’m focusing here on girls’ self-perception. Girls often don’t think they are good at STEM subjects. But why?

There are real issues around the effects of gender stereotyping on self-belief, and we know that believing you can’t do something often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, I want to focus on something else here. Maybe girls are doing what they are told. They are choosing subjects they are good at, and the evidence is telling them they aren’t good at STEM subjects. But what is that evidence?

The graph on the left shows the gender gap in A–C passes in National 5 (Scottish school qualifications at age 15/16) in 2015 in a selection of subjects.

The gender gap for each subject was found by subtracting the percentage of boys presented for the subject who achieved an A–C pass from the percentage of girls presented who achieved an A-C pass.

So, for example, 71% of boys entered for physics achieved an A–C pass, compared to 83% of girls entered: resulting in a 12% gender gap.

The first thing I notice is that in all subjects shown, girls outperformed boys. This is often where the headline news stops.

Secondly, I notice there is an especially large gender gap in physics. So this proves girls are good at physics. Except it doesn’t.

Generally, only particularly confident and motivated girls choose physics. They are atypical, and we would expect them to do particularly well. And, in fact, if we compare those high-achieving girls to equivalently high-achieving boys, they don’t do as well in physics as the above graph suggests.

The above graph is misleading in that pupils have already self-selected into subjects where they are more confident. What would the graph look like if all girls did physics?

Luckily for us, students in England don’t choose discrete sciences at this stage: all of them do some physics. If we look at the equivalent graph for English GCSE results A*–C we get a slightly different picture. (I’m assuming the cohorts are otherwise comparable.)

Physics still shows a gender gap in favour of girls, but it is much smaller. And this is my first main point: if you ask a typical girl to make her choices based on her strengths, she is much more likely to think her strengths are in art, English and drama than in maths and physics. She is likely to outperform boys more significantly in arts subjects then STEM ones.

This is borne out elsewhere. The 2015 OECD report on gender equality in education states that:

Because girls tend to perform so well in reading, they may, unconsciously, believe that they are underperforming in other subjects. OECD (2015)

This is why I think we should stop telling pupils to choose subjects based on what they are good at. Girls are doing well in STEM subjects, but their evidence tells them they are ‘better’ at arts subjects.

And there is another issue – boys catch up in literacy skills.

From the same report:

While PISA reveals large gender differences in reading, in favour of 15-year-old girls, the Survey of Adult Skills suggests that there are no significant gender differences in literacy proficiency among 16- to 29-year-olds.

This is my second point. Girls self-select out of mathematical subjects because they choose what they believe they are good at. Meanwhile boys, who at subject-choice age are relatively weak in literacy subjects, choose STEM ones, but then also, crucially, catch up in literacy proficiency. Girls are opting out of mathematical subjects, and at the same time lose their advantage in literacy areas.

What can we do?

We need to stop advising students to choose subjects based on which ones they think they are good at.

We need to explore with them where job shortages are now and will be in the future. We need to help them discover what jobs in STEM might look like.

We need to discuss the evidence presented here: that, yes, girls, at subject choice age, tend to be relatively better in literacy subjects than in mathematical ones – but that does not mean that they are not inherently able to do STEM subjects.

We need to tell them that boys will catch up in literacy skills, while continuing to develop their mathematical skills and that this is one reason why boys tend to have much wider opportunities post-school.

Not every girl wants to work in STEM. But we need to encourage the ones who do to recognise that being good at English does not mean they are bad at maths.

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Heather Earnshaw

Heather Earnshaw

Improving Gender Balance Scotland project manager
Heather Earnshaw

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