Stereotypes are a powerful thing. They colour our ideas of who people are and what they should be like, based solely on their nationality, race, gender or occupation.
We all know this from personal experience. As a German, people expect me to be on time, slightly more honest than is sometimes seen as polite and in possession of an in-built filter sifting out even the smallest trace of humour. I have also been called “freakishly tall for a woman”, despite the fact that I don’t reach 6ft and, therefore, am not even close to breaking any records.
Of course, there are those stereotypes that have a core of truth to them – my TESS colleagues will confirm that very few things make me as happy as a neat, colour-coordinated spreadsheet. And if you catch me at just the right tiredness level or up against a publication deadline, I do occasionally lose the ability to pronounce my “w” and “th” properly.
But while what society expects of me has never adversely affected me personally, stereotypes and our perception of who people should be can have a significant impact. We know, for example, that they present a sizeable barrier around some economic sectors for those who may not fit our traditional idea of someone in that role.
For years, there have been subject areas at colleges that are overwhelmingly dominated by students of one gender – whether it is male students in construction or female students in childcare and hair. The problem self-perpetuates. While there are only a handful of female students on an engineering course, that will reinforce the perception among female youngsters that engineering is not for them.
And in some ways, the situation may be even worse for any young men considering careers in areas like hairdressing and childcare. Because they may, rightly or wrongly, feel that those careers are less “masculine” than others, and therefore worry that they would send a message about who they are as men.
These ideas will have formed long before they even came near a college, often in very early childhood, and will have been reinforced ever since.
But that is not to say we must be without hope.
This month, the Scottish Funding Council published its interim Gender Action Plan, setting out targets for tackling these inequalities (see page 12). By 2030, it suggests, there should not be any courses at colleges or universities with more than 75 per cent of students of one gender.
Undoubtedly, encouraging colleges to do more in this arena will help. Colleges have tried numerous initiatives – and some have, unquestionably, been successful – albeit normally on a small scale. And they cannot do it alone: better careers advice and guidance will also be key.
But the only way to really, truly change things and break down barriers is to alter perceptions and the way that specific industries are viewed. This cannot be done without role models. There are already successful female engineers out there, just as there are men working in childcare. We need to make sure that students have the opportunity to learn from these role models and see that there are people “like them” already in the workplace.
Over time, this method will be the only way to challenge our idea of “normal”, not just in the education sector, but also in wider society.
And don’t be fooled – this could well take a long time. After all, it was only last week that, upon being introduced to me, someone reassured me that they would try their best “not to mention the war”.