Gender stereotyping and careers advice

Recently, Ofsted published a new report: Girls’ Career Aspirations. The report explores girls’ views on careers and whether they are still influenced by perceived gender stereotypes when choosing a career.

While the research, which formed the basis of the report, covered a relatively small number of schools (16 primary and 25 secondary), the findings are interesting and seem to show that more work needs to be done on promoting equality of opportunity in career choice.

One of the key findings from the report was that opinions of what are ‘girls’ jobs’ and ‘boys’ jobs’ are formed at a very early age and that, despite being taught about equal opportunities later on, they tend to retain stereotyping views.

This echoed a recent experience that I had while working on the development of our new program for primary schools, Paws in Jobland.

 Along with a member of our research team, I have visited a number of schools over the last month to ‘test’ how the program works in the classroom.

During one visit, I was sitting next to an eight-year-old boy called Liam, observing how he was interacting with the computer program. Having completed a number of activities within the program, Liam started to explore information on a number of jobs. Liam was glued to the screen, listening to the audio intently via his headphones.

Suddenly, his face changed and he looked puzzled. After a minute or two he removed his headphones. I asked him what he thought and his response surprised me. Liam said,

“I’ve been looking at what it says about being a mechanic. I really like the idea of doing that kind of job but it’s really weird because on here there’s a girl doing the job and that’s not right is it?”

I assured Liam that girls could in fact be mechanics and we had quite a ‘grown-up’ discussion about why girls could do any job.

However, the fact that someone so young already had preconceived ideas of what a person could do based on their gender made me wonder what caused Liam to form his opinion.

Having never owned a vehicle that he would have needed a mechanic to repair, how would Liam have formed an opinion that only boys could be mechanics? Maybe his opinion was influenced by friends or family members? I asked Liam if he knew any mechanics and he said he had seen them “around and on the telly.”

And it was that which made me remember something. When I was about the same age as Liam, I would probably have agreed that being a mechanic was a ‘boy’s job’. No one had told me that it was a job that girls couldn’t do but I’d only seen men repair cars.

But then I saw something which changed my opinion – Charlene Robinson appeared on screen. For those too young to remember or who aren’t Australian soap-opera addicts, Charlene was the character played by Kylie Minogue in Neighbours in the late 1980s. Charlene was young, female and a mechanic and like many nine-year-old little girls I wanted to be just like her.

 My point is that until I had actually seen, even fictitiously, someone doing that job who was female, I assumed that it wasn’t something that a girl would do.

While parents’ and children’s immediate community is undoubtedly their biggest influence, the impact of what a young person sees outside of that also has a bearing on the opinions that they form about what is possible. This is why it is important that we promote non-stereotyping in every part of learning.

Programs like Paws in Jobland help to do this at primary level. The program shows a wide range of non-gender stereotyping, including examples of male childcare workers, female painters/decorators, a male hairdresser and female RAF officer.

We also try to include as many examples of non-gender stereotyping in our programs for older pupils. Our secondary school programs Kudos, Careerscape and Launchpad all include videos, case studies and photographs of males in job roles that may be thought of as traditionally female and vice versa.

The Ofsted report illustrates that we need to go further to address preconceived ideas about gender and career choice. To do this, we need to promote more positive examples of people challenging the ‘traditional’ gender stereotypes and show both boys and girls that anything is possible.

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