GIRLS-ONLY science classes in schools could help tackle a "gross under-representation" of women in fields such as maths and engineering, an expert group has said.

Equate Scotland, which was set up a decade ago to improve female representation in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), said that a "single sex" approach in classrooms or school clubs may help overcome a lack of confidence among girls when taking traditionally male-dominated subjects.

A new report, which has already won the backing of Nicola Sturgeon, found that while adults were unenthusiastic about the proposal support rocketed among 12 to 17 year old girls.

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Almost half, 44 per cent, of those of school age chose the proposal when asked to select up to three of six possible options when asked about what they thought would increase gender balance in STEM subjects.

The report states: "Research illustrates a lack of confidence from girls in science and STEM related classes; a single-sex approach may be a means to overcome this issue... Many schools, or extracurricular clubs, already work in single-sex environments and report positive outcomes."

However, it added: "The impact of single-sex education has been disputed by researchers and educators alike, who state that the role of the educator rather than a single-sex or co-ed environment is of more critical importance."

Other options that received widespread backing amongst all ages included closer working between industry and schools to tackle the issue, with only one in five of STEM sector employees across the UK female.

A recent survey found almost 80 per cent of girls felt the science and technology sector lacked high profile female role models. Of the woman who move onto university and qualify in STEM subjects, only 27 per cent of them are likely to remain in the industry.

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The First Minister pledged to work with Equate Scotland to secure "positive change" in the area. She added: "Women are enthusiastic about opportunities in the sector but still face barriers.

"The Scottish Government has committed to developing a STEM strategy to inspire more young people to consider a career in STEM. It will also specifically consider how we can encourage and get girls enthusiastic about subjects like physics where they are currently under-represented."

The report found that there is a need for talks from industry figures in schools to be rolled out centrally, to ensure all children can benefit. More than half of participants in the survey, made up of girls, women, educators and employers, wanted to see science ambassadors allocated to schools.

Talat Yaqoob, Director of Equate Scotland said: "Only 18 per cent of computing students and only 16 per cent of engineering students are women. If Scotland is going to be a global competitor in STEM and create a sustainable STEM industry, this needs to change and quickly.

"We need a more inclusive STEM sector, not simply for the sake of the industry but for women, who are at risk of being shut out of the jobs of the future.

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"What our research reveals is that women, educators and employers are eager for progress in this area– we hope the report provides a roadmap of what can be done to make Scotland a world leader on Women in STEM and we look forward to continuing our work with the Scottish Government to make that happen."