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When gender is a barto work experience

* "Boys have too much to do, carry on and have fights; it's always been like that . . ."

While concern mounts over the comparatively low educational attainment of white working-class boys, new research suggests that boys and girls in areas of poverty may be further disadvantaged in work-experience programmes. Boys who stepped outside traditionally masculine roles risked peer rejection, while girls who rejected feminine roles found it hard to be taken seriously.

Thirty-nine fourth-year pupils, 17 boys and 22 girls, were interviewed in single-sex groups before and after a week's work experience. They talked about their choice of placement, their taste of the world of work and their expectations for the future. The work-experience week forms a major part of schools' vocational education, and it was clear that for these young people traditionally masculine and feminine roles were reinforced.

A study of 147 pupils revealed that boys were allocated traditionally masculine occupations, such as transport, garage-related services, construction and engineering, while girls were much more limited, with 70 per cent taking up social service placements. A sample of placements during a six-week period involving more than 2,500 pupils found similar tendencies, but the traditionally defined roles were much more strongly reinforced for pupils on the poverty line.

Groups of boys used a total of nine different abusive terms to describe a boy who might chose a placement in vocations such as social work, nursery nursing or caring for the elderly. All of the terms used had connotations of sexual preference, demonstrating how threatened the groups felt. None of the boys or girls used a similar term for a young woman who might chose a masculine role.

Young women who aspired to be mechanics were not considered a threat; they faced so many obstacles that they could not be considered serious contenders. These obstacles were rooted not only within family and peer groups, but in their schooling and place of employment.

There was evidence that girls who were unsuccessful in obtaining the placements they sought were offered more gendered placements, especially in relation to clerical work. Boys who could not obtain placements in more masculine occupations were allocated to clerical placements that girls sought, while girls who chose clerical placements were allocated to the care of the elderly.

There was strong evidence that the schools involved challenged stereotypical vocational roles across the curriculum and through special events such as industrial awareness days. Pupils demonstrated awareness about gender stereotyping, but this cognisance was not translated into action when work-experience choices were made. As one girl said: "Girls can do anything they like nowadays, I mean like they're supposed to do anything, but then they don't believe you can do it when it comes to the bit . . . And they think, naw, she doesnae really mean it, she's just acting it to get a name for hersel' . . ."

Teachers interviewed expressed doubts about certain choices, and some teachers admitted they would have to hide their surprise when faced with a boy wanting to work in a nursery or a girl wanting to work in a garage. Positive action as a means to encourage pupils who were interested in gender-contrary vocations was considered. There was strong support for positive action from most of the employers interviewed.

This was particularly evident among childcare professionals, as one head of a pre-five establishment confirmed: "We would treat a boy just the same as girl, but if there was a way to encourage more boys then we would be doing that. We badly need more men in the profession . . . But we also need to get rid of this superwomen image, that women can do it all, work, cleaning and looking after the children. Men need to learn this is for them too."

Teachers expressed less certainly about positive action. They regarded work experience as "one of the best things we do for them", but expressed frustration at the lack of time and training. Both employers and teachers expressed enthusiasm for new approaches aimed at raising and widening pupil aspirations, as one teacher made clear: "This has to be something that the whole community gets involved in more. . . we should capitalise on what's good going on out there. This isn't just about education in a narrow school sense, we have to get together more with parents, and employers and other people as well."

Jeannie Mackenzie is area project officer for the Home School Employment Partnership (0141 848 7963, The research was jointly commissioned by Glasgow University and Strathclyde Region

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