GENDER inequality is too often the norm, writes Grahame Smith
On an October afternoon in 2012, Malala Yousafzai – who had been sharing her views on promoting education for girls in the Swat Valley – was shot three times.
Her actions brought equality in education to the forefront of people’s minds; it generated debate and brought about positive action. We were united in agreement that men and women should have equal access to education, no question.
But when we shift our focus from the classroom to the workplace, gender inequality seems to be accepted.
While we’ve moved forward with greater emphasis on gender equality in legislation, the issue is a tough one to crack as it goes deeper than policy.
There are structural barriers in place preventing both men and women from pursuing jobs in certain industries. It could be something as simple as the way the role is marketed or it could be as challenging as the employer’s perception of who is suitable to fill the post.
Social and cultural norms also dictate the roles men and women should fill and we seem to be reluctant to challenge those norms. For example, for girls leaving school and going on to employment, the most popular career choices are hospitality, travel and tourism, and retail, sales and marketing.
While many women opt for careers in science, they tend to follow specific roles such as veterinary medicine, midwifery or general medicine. Very few pursue careers allied to other sciences such as physics.
For boys leaving school, the most popular jobs are, unsurprisingly, construction and engineering. While the numbers of boys pursuing a career in veterinary medicine is drastically lower than girls.
This unconscious gender bias is deeply rooted long before subject choices are made at school or university applications are submitted. We, therefore, need to educate them at an early age in order to open up their minds to the possibilities available to them regardless of gender.
Last year we started trialling a project that offers work-based learning in schools to give pupils the chance to complete the core elements of a modern apprenticeship while in full-time education.
The first of these pilots was in the engineering sector – traditionally a male dominated industry – and the project gave female and male pupils the chance to go out to an engineering company to learn about the industry. The feedback from the female pupils has been encouraging with some of them speaking positively about continuing down the engineering path. Through the experience we’ve opened the door to the sector for them and shown them that it’s not just a “jobs for the boys”.
We’ve also joined forces with The Institute of Physics and Education Scotland to empower more young women to choose subjects based on ability and interest, rather than gender.
We have a number of projects that aim to bring industry to life for young minds, including the launch of Learning Through Work Week in 2014 that brought employers to the classroom in more than 300 schools across Scotland.
We will look to repeat the initiative again in November this year and we’ve also organised a series of projects with a similar approach.
In Aberdeen, we worked with employers including Stewart Milne Homes as well as a range of partners including local authorities, colleges, CITB and Equate. Together we hosted a week-long pilot project for young women from the City and Shire to give an insight into the wide range of careers.
We strongly believe in the value of this work in beginning to address gender inequality in the workplace but we can’t do it alone. From parents to teachers, employers and peers, everyone has a part to play.
We need to work together to do what we can to tackle gender inequality but we also need to accept that there’s one major factor that we can’t influence and that’s personal choice.
There will be a number of young women in Scotland today with their hearts set on pursuing careers in the likes of veterinary medicine, hospitality or marketing. I could do my utmost to convince them that it is in fact a career in engineering that they should be pursing.
I could point to successful female engineers, tell them about the exciting jobs they could be doing and share with them the potential earnings. Now I ask you, is that enough to make you change your choice of career?
• Grahame Smith is a board member of Skills Development Scotland, www.skillsdevelopmentscotland.co.uk