Women still shun 'male subjects' but dominate most disciplines. Paul Hill reports.
The scale of the gender divide in university courses has been underlined by new figures that continue to show women are turning their backs on engineering and computer science.
Figures produced last week by the Higher Education Statistics Agency reveal that only 14 per cent of first-year undergraduates studying engineering and technology in 2002-03 were female.
In stark contrast, women make up the majority of students in the biological sciences, the humanities, social sciences and the creative arts.
The statistics show that in 2002-03 72 per cent of veterinary students were women, compared with 76 per cent of undergraduates studying education and 61 per cent of law students.
The Hesa figures highlight the extent of the challenge facing the government, which has pledged to increase the representation of women in engineering and technology.
The Women into Science and Engineering campaign group said that stereotypes surrounding some disciplines remained one of the key problems in recruiting students from both sexes.
Marie-No lle Barton, director of Wise, said: "Stereotypes, the need for role models, teaching and the approach of the media are all issues.
"But stereotypes don't just affect women in science and engineering, it is an issue for men too - men who are nursery nurses, for example."
Ms Barton said that Wise tried to offer girls the opportunity to encounter role models by taking them into the workplace.
"The other issue is teaching," she added. "Girls outperform boys in all subjects - including physics - but the way that they are taught physics is so boy-oriented that they never think of it as a career or a real option.
"We've looked at whether single-sex teaching would make a difference. What we've found is that when a school decides to do the experiment of splitting boys and girls, the boys and girls perform better in technology and science. The teachers have then adapted their teaching to teach them together in one group," Ms Barton said.
The government's strategy to widen women's participation in the physical sciences and engineering, published last year, proposed setting up a new "resource centre" to advise employers and professional bodies and to raise the profile of women already working in academia and industry.
The Department for Education and Skills said: "Changing culture is always difficult and requires sustained effort over a period of time to see results. Encouraging girls to take up science starts with the work being done in schools and further education colleges to enthuse young girls to take up these subjects. In higher education we are already working to develop a long-term strategy to maximise our impact.
"The DFES has contributed £200,000 to fund schemes in higher education institutions to put support measures in place that aid the retention and progression of women science undergraduates into the science labour force."
A panel of 13 women, chaired by Lynne Frostick of Hull University, has been given the task of overseeing how the government's strategy is put into practice.
But the Hesa figures show that a higher proportion of women - 18 per cent - stayed on to study engineering and technology at postgraduate level in 2002-03 compared with the proportion of women undergraduates.
Intriguingly, the gender balance on business-related courses - where women account for 53 per cent of undergraduates in 2003 - changes at postgraduate level, where 54 per cent of students are male.
The gender gap in the social sciences also narrows at postgraduate level, when a 63 to 37 per cent split at undergraduate level in favour of women becomes a 57 to 43 per cent split.
The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons said that almost four times as many women as men applied for places on veterinary courses last year.
The RCVS said that anecdotal evidence suggested that young women were more likely to achieve the high A-level grades needed and that it may be "becoming labelled as a 'girlie' profession, which may result in boys being less interested".
The National Union of Teachers said that it was unsurprised by the Hesa statistic that 74 per cent of undergraduates and 70 per cent of postgraduates studying education were women.
"It is difficult to know how this male-female divide can be overcome in education and other subjects," an NUT spokeswoman said.
"In schools, I would take bets that the majority of hard sciences are taught by men - so there may be a role-model issue."
Overall, the Hesa figures reflect the trend of higher numbers of women than men at university, with women accounting for 58 per cent of undergraduates and 52 per cent of postgraduates in 2002-03.
Women form the majority in all disciplines apart from engineering and technology, physical sciences, mathematical sciences, computer science and architecture, building and planning.
Although Hesa said that methodological changes this year meant that its 2002-03 figures were not "directly comparable" to previous statistics, the proportion of women to men in each discipline has barely changed since 2000, with only minor fluctuations of one or two percentage points in some subjects year on year.
Hannah Essex, national women's officer for the National Union of Students, said: "There is evidence of gender stereotyping in higher education.
Figures show women are less likely to enter subject areas linked to some of the country's highest paid industries, such as financial management, sciences, maths, computer science, engineering and technology.
"We believe that students' subject choices should not be limited by their gender and will be working with universities and colleges that target schools and run access campaigns to break down barriers between sectors, so women are more likely to aspire to the courses that men have traditionally dominated."