Schools should "give up" trying to attract more girls into traditional male subjects like computing, engineering and physics, because attempts to bridge the gender divide "deny human biology and nature", a professor has said.
Dr Gijsbert Stoet, who is based at Glasgow University's Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change said that boys and girls are naturally drawn to different subjects, and that the UK "probably needs to give up on the idea that we will get many female engineers or male nurses."
"Girls will say, ‘well, that’s boring, I’m just not interested in it’," he argued.
Schools should "give up" trying to attract more girls into traditional male subjects, says a psychology professor
Speaking at the British Education Studies Association conference in Glasgow on Friday, he argued: "We need to have a national debate on why we find it so important to have equal numbers. Do we really care that only five per cent of the programmers are women?
"Well, actually, I don't care who programmes my computers. A wealthy, democratic society can afford to let people do what they want.
"What is better? To have 50 per cent of female engineers who do not really like their work but say, 'Yeah, well, I did it for the feminist cause.' Or do you want three per cent or female engineers who say, 'I really like my job'?"
The lack of women in science and technology was diverting attention from the real issue, he said, because it was boys who generally did worse at school.
He said: "Nobody seems to be that interested that boys have problems. We have, as human beings, a natural tendency to see woman as vulnerable and needing help. But if it's a boy who needs help, he's responsible for himself."
But Stuart Farmer, from the Association for Science Education, told the Herald Scotland he believed it was societal norms, not nature, that pushed girls into more creative or caring careers.
He said: "This starts with things as simple as pink for a girl baby and blue for a boy baby, and goes on to things such as segregated toys and books in shops, although this is starting to be addressed."
Institute of Physics’s Clare Thomson said Dr Stoet had been trying to make a point about differences in men and women's brains, but criticised his phraseology.
Clare Thomson, diversity manager at the Institute of Physics, told the Times Higher Education that schools with few girls studying physics also had low numbers of boys taking English and psychology, which “led us to think that however good your physics department might be there were likely to be other factors of a whole-school nature”.
If a girl declared an interest in physics, she added, parents and teachers were more likely to ask, “Do you really want to do that? It might be difficult.”
In a blog defending his talk, Dr Stoet said he was "all for gender equality in education".
"Boys and girls differ in how they choose optional GCSE and A Level subjects, with more boys choosing Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths, and girls more choosing social sciences, arts, and languages. I think that it will be pretty much impossible to change this," he wrote.
He added that giving children same-sex role models or intervening in their choices do not work, and that it is "very hard to change people's psychological attitudes".
"In the face of limited resources, we should be cautious in spending money on interventions that will have no effect. Instead of focusing on equal numbers of male and female students in all subjects, I think we should strive to get boys and girls to at least perform equally good in all subjects (which will be very hard in itself)," he added.
"People are often guided by their unconscious desires. In the stone age, it was useful for men to be hunters and women to look after babies, and nature has helped by encoding some of these skills in the hardware of our brain. That still influences how we think today.
"This does of course not mean that women in modern society should stick with traditional roles. I am the first to encourage women and men to do whatever they want. Of course, today's schools should not stop boys or girls choosing subjects opposite what the majority of their gender group wants.
"But girls are a lot better than boys in mathematics in some of the most socially conservative countries in the world, which just shows that gender equality policies are less effective than people would hope."