GIRLS are continuing to dominate leading professions such as medicine, dentistry and the law, according to new analysis.

Figures collated by academics from Edinburgh University show more than 56 per cent of students studying medicine and dentistry in Scotland are women while the same is true of 63 per cent of those studying law.

Dr Linda Croxford, from the university's Centre for Educational Sociology, said throughout the 1990s women's participation in higher education had increased to the point where more women now enter universities compared to men.

She said: "The figures reveal the extent to which women have now come to predominate in key professions including law, medicine, dentistry and veterinary science."

Ms Croxford said more males studied science and engineering subjects - apart from agricultural studies, biological sciences veterinary science - as well as dominating engineering and computer science.

But she added: "Thereafter, it is a pattern of women predominating to a greater or lesser extent in all subject areas apart from economics and politics.

"The suggestion here is to focus on the relatively recent under-attainment of boys and the implications this under-attainment might hold."

Professor Emer Smyth, from the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin, is to discuss the trends at a seminar in Edinburgh this week organised by the David Hume Institute think tank.

She said research suggested under-representation of males in higher education was down to a number of factors including the fact working class boys were more likely to underperform at school and therefore not secure the grades required for demanding and over-subscribed courses such as medicine.

She said: "Recent decades have seen a shift in the policy discussion of gender and education away from a focus on female disadvantage towards a concern with male underachievement.

"To a certain extent this is because of a culture of laddishness which means boys are more likely to act up, more likely to be the subject of punitive disciplinary measures and are therefore more likely to be disengaged.

"In contrast there is still a sense girls are more likely to be better behaved, to spend more time reading for pleasure and doing homework."

Ms Smyth said she believed another significant factor was the likelihood that girls took part in a activities outside school which benefitted their attitude towards achievement and their cognitive development.

"There is a growth in children taking part in activities such as dance, music and drama and these have significant benefits which are not afforded to those from poorer backgrounds who are boys," she said.

Despite efforts to tackle under-achievement by tailoring the curriculum towards under-achieving boys by, for example, allowing the reading of comic books, Ms Smyth said she did not believe these would provide long-term solutions.

She concluded: "A range of measures has been adopted in developed countries to promote gender equity. Over time, the focus has shifted somewhat from encouraging girls to take up traditionally male subjects towards a concern with male underachievement.

"Few of these initiatives have been subject to systematic evaluation, but it would seem to be unlikely that they will be wholly successful unless underpinned by more fundamental change in the school and wider society."