Australia's Minister for Women wants to encourage more women into engineering, science and technology. This coincides with the release, by the UK Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (Ofsted), of its report on girls' educational outcomes and career aspirations. Painting a bleak picture of female students' inability to seize opportunities by stepping outside conventional boundaries, the findings have their parallel in Australia. As in the United Kingdom, in Australia myth clouds the terrain, although ready to hand lies evidence disputing the stereotypes and dispelling notions of female conformity.
Based in the research undertaken in primary and secondary schools (co-ed and all-girls) and educational colleges, Girls' Career Aspirations found:
There can be little argument with these findings, nor with their replication on the Australian educational and paidwork scene. Nor is it likely that Australian research would dispute the report's confirmation of schoolgirls and students of all ages knowing that conventions apply to 'girls' jobs' and 'boys' jobs'.
Ofsted's report found further that despite the existing conventions, by secondary school the students understood that according to theory they could, if they wished, choose a job in any field, whether traditionally male or female. Pursuit of a career challenging gender stereotypes was seen by the vast majority of these girls and young women as open to them – so long as such a career was of sufficient interest. Yet this awareness 'did not always translate into practice':
Course and career choices made by the girls and young women, in the schools and colleges visited, were predominantly stereotypical and mirrored the national picture of take-up of courses.
A principal finding was that careers education was 'weak'. This meant 'making informed choice of courses and careers was difficult' for the students. A consequence of the paucity of strongly informative careers advice was that, in turn, girls and young women gained a 'limited knowledge and understanding of how their choices [would] influence their future pay and progression'. Further, despite a slightly higher level of such knowledge and understanding for those from all-girls' schools, ultimately the outcomes were little different for both cohorts. A lack of confidence, drive and ambition on the part of girls and young women was said to inhibit their capacity to take risks.
It is here that questions arise. Is the answer too glib, too ready to locate in girls and women themselves the problem of disparity in jobs, wage and salary levels, entry into non-traditional fields and promotion into leadership roles? In suggesting that to compete on an equal level with boys and men less qualified educationally and intellectually, girls and women need to be 'fixed' or to 'fix' themselves, or be 'mentored' by being put in touch with professionals in diverse fields, do the findings avoid confronting what truly lies beneath the workplace conundrum of men in greater numbers in high and higher places, still dominating 'male' careers, leaving behind the women who surpassed them in brainpower at school and college?
The finding as to risk-taking – or a purported fear of risk-taking - on the part of girls and young women demands further analysis. It conforms too readily to stereotypical notions of man, the hunter – out in the wild, challenging the environment, exploring the world and defending the home with ingenuity and daring, whilst woman-as-homebody remains passively at the hearth, hardly daring to venture beyond the potato patch or, at most, outside the hen house or past the paddy fields. Rather, any open review of women's engagement in the world of paidwork, untrammeled by preconceived ideas of what constitutes risk, what risks are confronted and what risks are dealt with casts the proposition into doubt. In myriad ways, women are the great risk-takers. Furthermore, and just as confounding, the risk-taking often involves women who have entered traditional 'women's jobs' or 'women's fields'.
When looked at without blinkers, the evidence puts paid to the proposition that it is girls and women who limit their own horizons through timidity, that they perform stereotypically in taking on careers in traditional fields, or that they simply lack drive or ambition. Indeed, it may well be in those traditional fields that women are more likely to engage in risk-taking, to challenge stereotypes, and to embrace risk not only with vigour, but with courage unmatched.
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She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.