Stereotypes 'change' brains
Science is losing out because of the mistaken belief that "men are from Mars and women from Venus", a leading neuroscientist has claimed.
Professor Gina Rippon said it was time to debunk the myth that gender differences are hard-wired into our brains.
In reality, there was no significant difference between the brains of a girl and boy in terms of their structure and function, she stressed.
But experiences and even attitudes could change the "plastic" brain on a physical level, causing its wiring to alter.
It was this that led girls and boys from an early age to head in different directions, said Prof Rippon, from Aston University.
While girls tended to tended to gravitate towards fields of communication, people skills and the arts, boys were more likely to become scientists and engineers.
Even when girls went into science, they mostly chose careers at the "softer" end of the subject, such as biology, psychology and sociology, rather than physics and maths.
Speaking ahead of this year's British Science Festival, taking place at the University of Birmingham next week, Prof Rippon said: "We're stuck in the 19th century model of the 'vacuum packed' brain, the idea that we're born with a brain that gives us certain skills and behaviours.
"The brain doesn't develop in a vacuum.
"What we now know is that the brain is much more affected by stereotypes in the environment and attitudes in the environment, and that doesn't just change behaviour, it changes the brain."
Last year, 5,000 boys in the UK completed Level 3 engineering apprenticeships, but only 40 girls, Prof Rippon pointed out.
Boys taking physics A level also vastly outnumbered girls.
But Prof Rippon insisted this was nothing to do with innate differences in the way the brains of girls and boys worked.
Rather, it was likely to be the result of their brains being altered by experience.
One of the most often quoted examples of gender difference is spatial ability - the ability to understand the relationships between different objects in space.
Boys are said to be naturally more spatially gifted.
But if girls aged six to eight are given the tile-matching puzzle game Tetris, their brain wiring changes and their spatial ability improves, Prof Rippon said.
She added: "It's quite clear that spatial cognition is very much involved with experience, whether or not you have experience of manipulating objects as opposed to just observing them.
"This goes back to 'toys for boys'.
"From a very early age, boys have a lot more experience with manipulating objects."
Research had shown that as women attained greater access to education and power, gender differences began to disappear.
Prof Rippon was also dismissive of evolutionary psychologists who claimed the way men and women thought was largely the result of natural selection.
"The idea that women like the colour pink because it made them better able to pick berries - it's nonsense," she said.
Ill-conceived attempts to "fix" the problem of girls not going into science were likely to backfire, Prof Rippon argued.
One infamous example of this was the European Commission's Science Is A Girl Thing video released in 2012 which was swiftly dropped "because it was so awful".
"It showed girls in lab coats testing lipstick and giggling a lot," Prof Rippon said.
She added: "Science is something everybody should engage with.
"Let's not make science girly.
"Let's make science interesting to anyone."