C4. What proportion of students choosing each of physics, chemistry, biology and maths A levels are female?

Why this is important

  • It is common for there to be differences in the gender breakdown of students choosing science and maths A levels, particularly physics and further maths.
  • As A level study leads on to university applications, gender differences at this stage can continue through higher education and into careers.
  • Given the evidence17 that STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) qualifications lead to a wider range of well-paid and interesting jobs, gender imbalances suggest that in some subjects girls are closing down their options to a greater extent than boys.
  • The government launched a new campaign, Your Life, alongside many industry partners and other organisations, to try to increase the numbers of women choosing to study and work in STEM fields.


Chart 5 and Table 9 show the percentages of all A levels that were taken by male and female students in England in different subjects in 2015. They illustrate the lower uptake of female students taking physics and maths A levels compared with male students (with the opposite trend for English, for comparison). These gender differences are not inherent – in single sex schools the differences are reduced28, as well as in some independent schools, and they are not evident or sometimes occur in the other direction in different countries. We hope that schools will aspire to perform better than our national benchmarks and strive to eliminate gender differences in the uptake of different subjects.

Table 9: Percentage of A level taken by female students
SubjectPercentage of A level taken by female students
All Subjects53.7
Further maths27.9
English (for comparison)71.8

Ideas for improvement

  • In the Ofsted report from December 2013, ‘Maintaining Curiosity’, school governors were advised to monitor the gender differences of students taking A levels and tackle any significant imbalances.
  • Similarly, in a 2014 Science Grrl report on gender inequalities in the sciences and maths, it was stated that ‘school governors have a duty of care to reflect upon their own statistics around gender participation and put in place whole school measures to counter gender stereotypes’.

There are many ways that school leaders may begin to address gender imbalances.

  • The Institute of Physics has done extensive research29 into gender imbalance, and possible ways to improve it, which will be of interest to the school’s physics teachers
  • It is important that all options are extended to all students – worryingly, only 59% of the female 14- to 19-year-olds questioned felt they were able to choose their preferred science options, compared with 76% of male respondents in a nationally representative survey of the UK (Wellcome Trust Monitor in 2012).
  • Schools should work to ensure that they do not reinforce negative stereotypes and be aware of and work against any unintentional subconscious biases that may do so.
  • See WISE for more resources and ideas to address gender imbalance.
Last updated June 2014

Other questions in Choices

Back to Choices