Article by Dr Elaine Garcia, Head of Academics at InteractivePro. Elaine is also a lecturer with the London School of Business and Finance.

woman wearing a white lab coat working on an engineering project, International Women in Engineering DayGender equality is an issue in which much progress has been made. There is however still much work still to do.

Whilst laws concerning gender equality are allowing us to deal with overt inequality there has not been sufficient work undertaken to ensure that the more covert and latent forms of gender inequality have been removed.

One example of this form of gender inequality can be seen within education. When young people enter Higher Education, the choice of courses or subject areas made in some cases appear to suggest a gender bias that is not being eradicated.

From data available it is possible to see that there are some areas in which there are significant gender differences between the number of students undertaking programmes. These include within engineering and technology and computer science where 17%-19% of students were female between 2014/2015 and 2018/2019. This compares to the overall number of female students entering HE within this period totalling 56% of all enrolments.

Whilst these figures alone do not tell us the whole story of why there are differences between male and female student choices there are some concerning patterns within these trends which do not appear to have changed significantly within the last five years despite efforts to try to rectify this imbalance by a number of universities and other bodies. In this case we must therefore question why we are seeing gender imbalances within such subjects.

It is interesting to note that whilst imbalances have always existed, the number of female students studying computer science is reported to have fallen from around 30% in the 1970s to the figures we see today. The reasons for this drop are largely attributed to the ways in which personal computers and computer science were marketed within the 1980s and 1990s which was directed more towards male consumers rather than female consumers. This in turn led to less interest amongst woman for studies in computing science.

As computers have become more ubiquitous within our lives this marketing trend has been somewhat reversed and so it is hoped that this factor will start to play less of a role in prospective student decisions. With this in mind there must be other issues impacting on the decisions of subject areas both female and male students are making.

There has been a number of projects that have sought to try to encourage female students to consider engineering and computer science as possible future careers and therefore subjects for study. This has included seeking to define and develop courses within the areas as well as creating mentorship programmes and fostering an environment in which female students become more interested in these subjects at an earlier stage of their lives. These interventions have however, so far, had limited impact on the balance of student numbers within these areas.

Perhaps it is important therefore to consider why these imbalances may exist to begin with and therefore the experience that children have at school must be reviewed. It is reported that implicit bias and stereotypes are still pervasive within both primary and secondary school and are leading to children forming gendered attitudes and expectations about both school and the world in general. This therefore suggests that much of the work to ensure gender equality occurs needs to happen long before students are making decisions relating to the University subject choice.

Whilst there may not be an obvious answer to why and how the gender imbalances occur within university subject choice it is clear that there is still much work to do to ensure that gender equality is maintained within education. It is also apparent that this issue also needs to be addressed at a much earlier stage than when students are considering their subject choice. It may in fact be necessary to go back to the playground and consider the gender stereotypes and expectations that children may be forming long before they even consider their progression to Higher Education.

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