Can jobs for the boys ever be careers for all?

9th January 2015 at 00:00
Nicola Sturgeon may have taken Scotland's highest political office but in other industries women are struggling. Julia Belgutay asks what education can do to bridge the gender divide

"I hope that it sends a strong, positive message to girls and young women - indeed to all women across our land - that there should be no limit to your ambition for what you can achieve. If you are good enough and if you work hard enough, the sky is the limit and no glass ceiling should ever stop you from achieving your dreams."

So spoke Nicola Sturgeon, a self-declared "working-class girl from Ayrshire", after her elevation to Scotland's first minister - the first woman in the role - and her subsequent appointment of a Cabinet that is 50 per cent female.

In the weeks that have followed, the issues of gender and gender equality have been at the forefront of public debate in Scotland - not least in the further education and school sectors. Statistics on the number of men and women studying at college reveal significant gender divides in some subject areas.

Figures published by the Scottish Funding Council last November show that 75 per cent of computing students at colleges in 2012-13 were male, as were 93 per cent of construction students and 94 per cent of engineering students. At the same time, 85 per cent of health students and 87 per cent of social work students were female.

As a result, access to promising careers is being cut short for many female students. TESS has already reported on the wealth of opportunities available in Scotland's IT industry; engineering is another key area for jobs. In female-dominated public services, however, funding is being slashed.

Student choice

North East Scotland College principal Rob Wallen argues that college enrolments have always tended to reflect social norms and expectations. "There are courses delivered in colleges where there is a reasonable balance between male and female students, but there are other types of courses where there continues to be a large imbalance," he says.

Wallen adds that colleges put arrangements in place to "promote and encourage participation by female students in male-dominated subjects and vice versa". He points to one example of this at his own institution - a course designed to inspire young women to enter careers in the energy sector.

"Young women study in a female-only group and have familiarisation visits to the facilities of the sponsoring oil company," Wallen says. "Women are also actively encouraged to join construction programmes and men are encouraged to enter caring courses."

But, Wallen warns: "Although colleges can do a lot to ensure that gender-based barriers to participation are removed and incentives given for people to enter occupations traditionally associated with the opposite gender, there is also a need for schools, families and wider society to avoid reinforcing - and to actively challenge - gender stereotypes and assumptions about `male' and `female' roles and occupations."

Building up barriers

Research has shown that "gendering" starts very early in a child's educational journey. According to a study by University of Glasgow teacher Dr Mary Wingrave (bit.lyWingraveTESS), even early-years practitioners believe that physical, biological and psychological differences separate boys and girls.

The early-years professionals who were interviewed for Wingrave's research argued that girls were emotionally more mature whereas boys were more physically active and exhibited better gross motor development. They also agreed that "the observed differences between the sexes inform teaching and learning and that these are sometimes exploited to optimise learning and development for boys and girls."

Yet Wingrave worries that this results in children being exposed to a very specific environment which in turn could reinforce the stereotypical behaviour. "Adults significantly contribute to the reinforcement of behaviours, learning and attitudes, with the result that these differences can appear to be innate," she says.

"All children should have the opportunity to learn and develop free of gender stereotypes. There is a need for adults to avoid the reinforcement of particular gender associate behaviours, to reflect on practice to identify possible sites of gendering, examine beliefs about gender and, if necessary, to challenge and question understandings of gender and sex."

By the time children reach school, attainment figures seem to indicate that girls and boys really are different, particularly when it comes to their results in crucial curriculum areas such as literacy and science.

The 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) study shows boys outperforming girls in maths in 37 of 65 participating countries; the reverse is true in only five countries. Girls also feel less motivated to learn maths and have less confidence in their ability than boys, Pisa has found. Conversely, the gender gap in reading performance, which favours girls, widened in 11 countries between 2000 and 2012.

Teaching difference

So what does that mean for teachers? Should their teaching methods - and the curriculum more generally - take account of these differences? General secretary of the EIS teaching union Larry Flanagan argues that although some factors relating to gender always have to be considered, schools take great care not to treat pupils differently on the basis of gender.

"Both girls and boys should always have access to the same educational opportunities, in all curricular areas, with no restrictions based on their gender," he says.

"While, in the secondary sector, some subjects may continue to be more popular with either boys or girls, there should never be any assumptions made regarding pupils' abilities or interests based on their gender. There can be as many differences within a gender group as between the two. Generalisations are not helpful; pupils should be treated as individuals."

A spokeswoman for Education Scotland confirms that there are "no prescribed differences in how male and female learners should be taught in Scottish education". She adds: "Where we do see some imbalance is in the types of subjects chosen by male and female learners at the secondary stages, their performance within some subjects and the influence the gender of teachers can have on subject choice - for example, female technologies teachers making technologies more attractive to girls."

Simplistic stereotypes?

Recent research backs up the idea that children's experience of school should be gender-neutral: the assumption that girls are good at some things and boys at others is too simplistic, according to Dr Sarah McGeown, a University of Edinburgh academic (see panel, right).

McGeown, a lecturer in developmental psychology at the Moray House School of Education, says that although plenty of education professionals appear to be interested in understanding gender differences, there is "quite a lot of misunderstanding as well".

"Gender stereotypes often prevail, whether there is research evidence to support these or not," she says. "Therefore, although there is awareness and consideration of sex differences within schools, often these do not align with the research evidence. This is most likely because of a lack of communication between the research and education communities."

McGeown says that a clearer and more accurate understanding of where robust and consistent differences between the sexes really do exist would put education professionals in a better position to challenge them. In her own experience, she has found that considering "gender identity" can help.

"There are many more differences among girls, and among boys, than there are differences between boys and girls within most aspects of education," she says. "Therefore, while sex differences do exist, it is important to appreciate the considerable variation among boys and girls.

"In my own research, I have suggested that `gender identity' - that is, the extent to which children identify with traditional masculine and feminine traits - is a better way to study variation among boys and girls than by simply comparing [them]."

McGeown says that when it comes to literacy, gender differences in reading attainment are consistently narrower than in attitudes to reading and time spent engaging in related activities.

"Therefore, if one were interested in addressing sex differences in reading, the focus should be predominantly on raising boys' reading attitudes and engagement in reading activities rather than focusing on attainment differences," she says.

It seems that when it comes to tackling the disparities in attainment and the persistent gender divide in some subjects, it is not ignoring the differences between boys and girls that will help them achieve, but a much more detailed understanding of the underlying science and the causes of those differences.

Chapter and verse

Dr Sarah McGeown of the Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh, has condensed her research on gender difference and literacy into a series of teacher-friendly guides. These include:

Sex and gender differences in children's motivation to read

Gender differences in reading skill and attitudes to reading

Investigating gender differences in reading

To download these resources and more, visit bit.lyMcGeownTESS

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