A transition point for sexual equality

28th September 2007 at 01:00
Helene Witcher is a quality improvement officer with Clackmannan-shire Council.

In 1976, I taught in a primary where the head called the first staff meeting in two years. He paced up and down, haranguing us about female teachers wearing trousers. This decline in standards was imperilling pupils' moral character. In 1975, the Equal Opportunities Commission opened its doors to support women and men in fighting sex discrimination. On October 1, it will pass this baton to the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights.

In case the CEHR is unsure where to start, the EOC has provided a crisp Gender Agenda the Unfinished Revolution. And for schools, the Scottish Government has issued a Gender Equality Toolkit.

The sexism of my first head may be long gone, but how much has changed? Working on the EOC's education strategy in 1983-84, I drew on Ryrie's research on the experience of Scottish secondary pupils. At that time, 98 per cent of O grade presentations for secretarial studies were from girls; 98 per cent of O grade presentations for technical drawing, woodwork and metalwork were from boys. We argued that schools had to challenge stereotypes from the early years and to encourage girls and boys towards careers they might not otherwise enjoy.

After a flurry of anti-sexist publications and activity, commitment dropped. The impact was not sustained and the newer concepts are not robust enough to bring sig-nificant change. A snapshot from the 2005 statistics shows girls making up 97 per cent of pupils awarded SCQF level 3-5 in care, 75 per cent of administration awards and 7 per cent of technological studies awards.

In 1983, I heard described at a conference a male nursery teacher's experiences of sexism and how it affected boys in the nursery. There was growing awareness of women predominating in nursery and primary schools and of men as positive role models in children's lives. In 2005, a male student nursery nurse quit college because of sexism during his placement. Female staff subjected him to sustained sexual innuendo and unsavoury comments about his reasons for wanting to work with children.

I guess most senior managers from the mid-1980s have retired. My best tale of sexism is of visiting my local authority in 1984, looking for work after five years of child-rearing, working part-time (for the EOC) and doing an MEd. I laid my credentials before the depute director of education, who talked at me about the scarcity of staff before lifting a phone and securing me a job. I thanked him profusely, and as I opened the door, he said: "Mind you, if you'd been a 50-year-old bag, you wouldnae have got a job."

Things are different now. Sexism is less blatant. Job prospects have improved, although women remain under-represented in senior positions in schools and few have reached the top posts in local authorities.

Rather than being the end of an era, the closure of the EOC marks a transition. Charged with fighting discrimination across the equalities, the CEHR has a rich legacy to draw on. But it needs the commitment and action of the foot soldiers to make the final and lasting differences.

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