When ageism meets sexism

18th July 1997 at 01:00
Research reveals pressures on older women entrants to teaching. Josephine Gardiner reports

If the Government is serious about attracting mature teachers in shortage subjects, it should consider addressing the particular problems that older women experience on training courses, research suggests.

In a paper given to a conference on "Women, Policy and Politics" at London's Institute of Education this week, Rosalyn George and Meg Maguire examined the experiences of 11 women trainees aged 33 to 50. All were deeply committed to teaching and had made financial and personal sacrifices to pursue their courses.

The researchers point out that while there are more women than men in the profession, men hold about three-quarters of secondary headships, and at primary level, half the heads are male, though entrants to primary teaching are 83 per cent female. They suggest that the reason for this glass ceiling is that women are more likely to be victims of ageism.

At training college, the older women complained that their tutors either felt threatened by them because they were more assertive than the younger students, or refused to recognise their prior experiences. One PGCE student said that the older women had been obliged to sit and work together simply because they were older - they had nothing else in common. One can imagine the outcry if this practice had been applied to a racial minority.

Nine of the 11 women were mothers. They reported that family commitments were frequently dismissed by both college and school. Trainees on teaching practice found that they were expected to come in early and stay for late meetings, without the salary that could pay for extra child care.

The women also reported that they were excluded by the other students, who saw them as boring mother figures. All were keenly aware that their age would tell against them when applying for jobs. Ursula, 50, included a photo "to show that I'm not some old lady in Crimplene". Only three out of the women who qualified this year have got jobs.

The researchers also cite the case of Sue Woods, a mature trainee who has written to The TES about her difficulties in the job market. She has had letters from 49 older trainees who have been blocked because of their age, some of them being informed bluntly that "your application was not considered on the grounds of age" , or "I have never known a mature entrant who made a go of it."

* Striking British Airways cabin staff - at least the female ones - can take comfort from the news that their grievances are being recognised and studied by academics.

According to another paper delivered to the conference, the position of the air hostess is "a metaphor for femininity in contemporary Western societies and a symbolic representation of the subordination of women".

While it is easy to laugh at the po-faced language used in sociological studies like this, some of the researchers' findings about routine practices in the two airline companies they spent a year investigating (not named) make working for a modern airline sound like a 19th-century women's teacher training college.

Melissa Tyler, from University College, Scarborough, and Pamela Abbott, director of social sciences at Teesside University, found that female air crew have to conform to an exacting set of physical standards of dress, grooming and, particularly, thinness, which are not applied to the men, who merely have to look neat and tidy. The women are expected to visit gyms and hairdressers regularly, in their own time and paid for out of their wages.

During one recruitment session, the researchers observed applicants being rejected for the following reasons: being too old, having blemished skin, having bitten nails, too-short hair, prominent teeth, poor posture or chubby legs. Others were turned down because their weight was not considered to be in proportion to their height, they "lacked poise and style", had "a common accent" or "a pear-shaped figure".

Once past this hurdle, female flight attendants - and only females - were regularly subjected to "weigh-ins" as part of routine grooming checks carried out by both the airlines studied. "The pilots aren't weighed and nor are the male cabin crew - it's because we're women," said one. One woman was told during a grooming check that she ought to lose "at least half a stone", and others said that uniforms were routinely labelled a size larger than they really were, so that a woman issued with a size 12 uniform (really a size 10) would be worried she was getting fat.

British Airways cabin staff are in dispute with the management, which has proposed a cost-cutting pay and conditions package. The company recently spent Pounds 60 million redecorating the outside of its aircraft in flamboyant patterns.

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