RETAILERS are involved in a new drive to encourage more females into science from an early age by persuading girls to buy chemistry sets in toy shops.

It is feared sexist store layouts can put girls off playing with certain toys, leaving parents to buy the products only for their boys.

Females account for fewer than one in 10 engineering professionals and there is a shortage of skilled workers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics sectors.

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Marketing of construction toys and how toys are packaged by gender are also the focus of plans.

Liberal Democrat business minister Jenny Willott, who met top toy makers and retailers yesterday, called for children to be able to make their own decisions, without having categories decided by adults influencing them.

"What I want is children to make their own choices," she said.

Her comments follow calls from parents. Earlier this year Marks & ­Spencer pledged its toys would be gender-neutral by this spring after a high-profile campaign.