The Leaving Cert and that Google memo

The recent furore over the Google gender memo has all been a bit tedious. It’s boring to say it but nearly everything in life is a mix of nurture and nature and to adopt an ideological stance on what are extremely complex questions is not going to get you anywhere except perhaps into an endless argument on Twitter.

Anyway, here’s some data for Ireland’s school-leaving class of 2012. The data shows the % uptake by girls in the major subjects (honours level). Note that the numbers for maths may well be inflated by the fact that bonus points are awarded for higher level maths and many of the university courses that are dominated by women demand very high points, so girls tend to be under a lot of pressure to get every point they can. Note also that ICT is not yet on the Irish Leaving Cert curriculum so most students who study ICT at university level will have taken a bit of a punt unless they’ve been in a coding club, or whatever. Finally it’s worth noting that the engineering curriculum is dominated by aspects of mechanical engineering and it looks dead boring to me.

Although I personally believe that there plenty of innate behavioural differences between men and women, I challenge anyone to come up with an explanation for these numbers that is based on innate differences only. For example, is chemistry so different from physics as to be so much more attractive to the so-called “female brain”. Is it tenable to suggest that women are biologically primed to be more interested than men in Music and Art, or to prefer Accounting over Economics, or to be so much more interested in languages than men? I doubt it and I suspect that the choices that boys and girls make at school are influenced by all sorts of cultural, historical and logistical factors. And choices made at secondary school can have significant long term career consequences, at least in Ireland.


  % Female
Engineering 5
Applied Maths 23
Physics 27
Ag. Science 40
Maths 46
Chemistry 55
Biology 62


English 55
German 58
French 61
Irish 63
Spanish 64


Economics 33
Accounting 47
Business 51


Music 67
Art 68



About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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3 Responses to The Leaving Cert and that Google memo

  1. bob says:

    I think you are sensible to take a non-ideological stance on this. I would say though, that the thesis of the google memo was that boys prefer things while girls prefer people. Unarguably biology and languages are people centric subjects. However, so is economics and its male dominated but overall there is something of a trend. One could argue girls head to accounting as it is a safe stead career compared to economics but that is more speculative.

    • Greg Foley says:

      Hi Bob

      I think you’ve made a good point there. From many years of talking to students at careers fairs and the like, I get the impression that girls tend to be less happy to ‘take a punt’ and pursue studies in a discipline that they know little about. Boys on the other hand tend to be less sure about anything and seem to be happy to take a chance, basically because a lot of them have absolutely no idea what they would like to do. So, for example, if we want to get more women into engineering and ICT, we really need to offer these subjects at secondary school. (Engineering is offered in Ireland but it is a terrible curriculum.) For me, it’s all about ensuring that girls and boys can make decisions that are well-informed. At the moment (at least in Ireland) that is not the case.

  2. trionaoc says:

    On the likes of engineering, they just don’t have the facillities in all-girl schools, so it’s not an option. Most don’t have woodworking or metal working labs. even the likes of technical drawing isn’t an option (I went to the local boys school as an after school extra to do tech drawing for the junior cert, and they had to drop a board to draw on to my exam centre on the day).
    Likewise, applied maths for the LC was extra curricular, and we only had it because we had a maths teacher who thought it was interesting and used us as a guinea pig class to learn it (she was delighted that the six of us were also taking physics so we could explain those bits back to her, it’s a glorified classical mechanics course with none of the other interesting things that applied maths covers in the real world).

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