The silent gender divide

Last week, I went to my son's graduation ceremony. He has just completed a B.Sc in sound & light echnology at Derby University. So he is one of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) graduates that we are told this country so badly needs.

As I watched the graduates from the College of Engineering and Technology walking past the dignitaries on the stage, I became aware of a huge gender gap. The vast majority of the young people filing on to that stage were boys. I calculated that only about 16% were girls, and they were concentrated in architecture, computer animation and - above all - mathematics. A number of disciplines, notably civil engineering, electrical engineering and most branches of computer science, had no girls at all.

I asked my son about this. He doesn't have an answer. But he commented that even in his own discipline (sound & light engineering), of 34 people who started the course, only five were girls. However, all five girls graduated, three of them with first-class degrees: one was a prize winner. In contrast, nearly half the boys did not graduate.

I don't know what the drop-out rate was in other disciplines. But it was apparent from the listings that girls punched well above their weight. Girls were disproportionately recipients of first-class degrees, relative to their numbers: and nearly half the College's prizewinners were girls.

I wondered whether there was an element of self-selection going on here. The few girls who do engineering and technology are very good. Perhaps less able female candidates simply don't do engineering and technology. What do they do instead?

A possible answer lay in the second half of the ceremony, where graduates of the College of Health & Social Care received their awards. Here, the gender gap was reversed - and it was even wider. The graduates were overwhelmingly female. Of 182 graduates, only 20 were boys - less than 11% of the total. Unlike engineering, where girls seemed to gravitate towards certain disciplines, the few boys were scattered evenly across all disciplines.

Again, I wondered whether there was an element of self-selection going on. Do "average" boys tend to gravitate towards engineering, while "average" girls tend to graduate towards the caring professions? If so, then we would expect boys in Health & Social Care to be disproportionately able compared to girls.

Sadly, that is not the case. The boys in Health and Social Care were no better than the girls - in fact if anything, they were worse. Only four boys achieved first class degrees, and of seven prizes, only one went to a boy. It seems likely that there are other factors discouraging boys from going into nursing, social work and various forms of therapy. I suspect there are social factors at play. For example, even now, nursing is seen as a woman's job. A very able boy would be subtly pushed towards medicine rather than nursing. Similarly, boys who might make exceptional therapists could be pushed towards psychiatry. This might explain why the boys in this college did not demonstrate the exceptional performances of the girls in the Engineering college. And it might also explain why there were so few of them.

Now, of course this is only one university, and Health & Social Care is not the only non-STEM discipline that could attract young people of both sexes. But what I want to draw from this is our asymmetric and irrational social expectation of boys and girls.

We hear much about under-representation of girls in STEM. But there is an even greater under-representation of boys in Health & Social care. In an ageing population, nursing, social work and therapies are disciplines of growing importance. And there are already significant skills shortages. We need more people to work in these disciplines.

STEM subjects are by no means the sum total of our skills needs. Increasingly, in the future, we will need people whose job it is to care, skilfully and professionally. So why do we talk endlessly about the need to encourage girls to study STEM subjects, but never, ever, encourage boys to work in health and social care? Why do we still assume that caring is a woman's job?

Photo taken by me shortly before the start of Derby University's graduation ceremony in the Derby Velodrome. 


  1. Well its a bit of a nature versus nurture question , but perhaps the more interesting question is can anything be done about it.

    First the nature bit which is a bit complicated and relates to how different parts of the brain mature in different genders. Estradiol affects hippocampal cells ,dendritic spines and synapse development and delays synaptic pruning in some regions. The result is that verbal fluency, handwriting and recognizing familiar faces matured several years earlier in girls. Testosterone is associated with myelinogenesis with the result that mechanical reasoning, visual targeting and spatial reasoning appeared to mature four to eight years earlier in boys.

    When you reach full adulthood though there should be very little difference so in theory if teaching takes account of these and there is a desire to overcome this then this should not be an effect . The trouble is that if you try to teach something that a student is not ready for then they will fail and tend to develop an aversion to that subject or learning method. Over time assessments of ability have changed to favor learning over knowledge , communication over diagramming and prescribed theories over intuitive discussion which affects both genders in some form. On top of this we have parental influences and peer influences where one gender will prefer dolls and another construction toys.

    It can be overcome as parts of Sweden have proved (the Jokkmokk effect) , but it takes a radical rethink around teaching (some advocate single sex education) parenting (over coming stereotyping) and examination construction.


  2. I teach Criminology, and I've grown accustomed to a 2:1 or 3:1 female:male ratio in my classes. Non-attenders are also more likely to be male than female, by a similar ratio - which means that it's not at all uncommon to look round a classroom and see one male student, or none at all. And this is Criminology - I'm teaching the probation workers and police officers of tomorrow (hopefully). If there is a problem of male self-(non-)selection, it runs far wider than the obvious caring professions.

  3. Simple - the 'equality' police only ever look at areas where women are under-represented, and demand 'equality' there, never areas where men are non-existent, and only ever demand equality in the higher paid professions and managerial roles. There's no demands for more women to work in sewer cleansing, and there's no call for the NHS to be representative of the people it treats - its predominantly a female staffed organisation, but no-one is calling for special quotas of men to be introduced.

  4. Either there is a bit of "confirmation bias" or I have the opposite tendency because I do not see "endless talk encouraging girls into STEM".

    However it seems to me that a decade or two of wishful thinking is not going to overcome millions of years of evolution putting female mammals in the "caring mode" and male mammals in the "solving the getting food problem mode".

    Fortunately we are not all "equal", we are all different. Some men put stamps into albums and some men beat each other up in martial arts.


    "Why do we still assume that caring is a woman's job?"

    I could answer

    "Why do we still assume that being a soldier is man's job?"

    Maybe it is because of a natural tendency to do what we want to do? Or should we have an army that is 50% female?

    For me the most important statement in the whole article was "nearly half the boys did not graduate". This is a tragic waste of time and money. Why did it happen and what is being done to stop it?

    1. I'm surprised you have missed all the talk about lack of girls in STEM subjects. As you say, maybe it's confirmation bias on your part.

      Evolution didn't put women into the role of caring for the sick, the disabled and the elderly - which is what people working in H&SC do, mostly. All evolution requires women to care for is unweaned infants. The rest comes from society.

      Evolution also doesn't put men in the role of providing food. In many societies, women grow the crops. Men's job is protection, not producing.

      This perhaps answers your question "why do we still assume beng a soldier is a man's job?" But it does not answer mine. The choices of girls and boys in developed countries are still coloured by social expectations from a bygone age. We need carers, and men are as capable of caring as women. It is society that labels certain jobs as "women's work". This must change.

      I do not know why those young men dropped out of that particular course. But many of them may simply have changed horses.

    2. Thanks for replying.

      The duties of looking after young kids are very similar to looking after sick, disabled and elderly people, and women do seem to have more empathy than males. So it sort of "feels natural" that women would step into this role.

      We are now in the nature versus nurture discussion, and the relative importance of instinct versus all the other forces that come into play after birth.

      Are men as capable of caring as women? Physically in terms of mechanically carrying out the duties, yes, definitely. Would they exhibit the same empathy and be prepared to spend time holding hands and reassuring, clearly an essential function of good care? Hmmmm, I am not so sure the average man is going to perform very well at that.

      Does this come from instinct or from experiences after birth? If the first, then the battle is lost. If the second, then the role model behaviour of parents would have to change dramatically.

      Relabeling is not going to be easy and will not change things for a long time.

      However, I do believe that we do not even need to have the discussion. In less than a few decades, certainly way faster than society can be changed, we will have friendly "personal robots" able to talk, encourage and reassure tirelessly 24/7. This is the future.

      And based on my subjective assessment of the utterly banal conversations that most people have, this could even be done now.

      "What's the weather doing today?"

      (The "did not graduate" led me to falsely believe they failed.)

    3. I would venture to suggest that the "average man" does not exhibit empathy or want to spend time holding hands and reassuring because he has never been expected to. It is entirely nurture in my view.

      I agree this is not easy to change, but we expect parents to change their nurturing of girls to meet society's desire for girls to step into roles traditionally associated with men. Why should we not expect them to change their nurturing of boys, too?

      I do not believe that robots will ever substitute for human personal contact.

  5. Almost but not quite. Most of our ancestors' subsistence was from gathering not hunting. Both sexes are adapted to problem solving. Cooking meat created a different set of physiological changes. Women are on ave more interested in people. Men are on ave more competitive. (Findings by Helena Cronin and colleagues). Men more likely to try and fail (hence the silly fail culture of Silicon Valley). Darwin awards not won by many women. What to do? Nothing. It does get lonely in the IT Department sometimes. For female company I walk ten feet to the Marketing Department. You can bet that pay would be better if more men were nurses, carers and social workers. As men catch up in longevity, they might want to think about that when they need someone to take care of them.

  6. «However it seems to me that a decade or two of wishful thinking is not going to overcome millions of years of evolution putting female mammals in the "caring mode" and male mammals in the "solving the getting food problem mode".»

    In almost all mammals, both males and females take care of the "getting food problem" (besides humans in some historical moments, I confess that I don't know about any mammal where females don't get food; if anything, in some animals like lions females contribute more to hunting than males).

    But perhaps we have here the explanation because is more common to say "we need more women in STEM" than "we need more men in care areas": in nature both females and males find food, but usually only females take care of the newborn; then, seems more intuitive the idea of women working in stereotypical "man's jobs" than the opposite (like is also more common, I think, to see little girls playing stereotypical boy's games than the opposite).

    1. I think you are on to something here, Miguel.

      Also there is the status question: it is easier to encourage girls to aspire to (higher-status) "men's jobs" than it is to encourage boys to aspire to (lower-status) "women's work".

    2. Thank you for that, it has clarified my thoughts and brought them back on track.

  7. This serves to confirm my long-held preference to hire women in traditionally male disciplines, such as medicine, law and technology. In general, I've found them to be smarter, more qualified and harder working than their male counterparts. I prefer female doctors, dentists. lawyers, etc. for this very reason. I even used to call a female plumber for home repairs.


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