Perspective: Towards genderless education and beyond

Perspective: Towards genderless education

All the survey data would suggest that women are performing wonderfully well in education and in their careers. We are bettering the boys at study and beating down boardroom doors across all industries. But in order for one cohort to do better, another one must do badly, meaning boys are being left behind. Right? Not quite. 

Women are still playing catch-up in pay and position while fighting inequalities on the day-to-day office and personal front, too. For female school and university leavers of Generation Y, this might feel utterly dispiriting: why, indeed, do inequalities still exist? But it is reality, and must be addressed – facing up to things is the only way to progress. 

Meanwhile, we would be naive to assume that everything is wonderful in the world of men. As one man put it to me this week: "Ladies, if you want the top corporate jobs, you're welcome to them", hinting that not all is great in the top echelons of the corporate world. And then there's the mining boom, which is luring blokes away from their homes, and away from university and the professions, and into the trades. 

With the carrot stick of apprenticeship dangling in front of boys, there is less pressure for them to perform at school, and school is where the foundations are set for the future in learning, skills acquisition and knowledge building for overall wellbeing and giving back to the community (not to mention understanding and socialisation, which leads to tolerance and empathy). 

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the retention rate for full-time students between Years Seven/Eight and Year 12 is 73.2 per cent for boys and 83 per cent for girls. Sixty per cent of 15 to 24-year olds are participating in education beyond compulsory schooling. 

"These kids are not necessarily unhappy at school or low achievers compared [with] their city counterparts, but they have a very traditional attitude that says early entry to work is an effective economic strategy, the earlier you get into the workforce the better, you can always get an apprenticeship, you get promoted on the job and you don't need formal, external training or credentials," Richard Teese, professor of post-compulsory education and training at the University of Melbourne, told The Australian. "It's all based on a very short-sighted view that working takes care of itself."

Who knows when the big boom-boom bucks will stop? Potentially manufacturing or construction will pick up the slack, but nothing in our globalised world of off-shore productivity is a guarantee. The mining boom may be shooting the boys in the foot (look what happened to miners and printers in the UK during the Thatcher era for a clue). The smart ones will save and invest their takings. 

Let's look at the current state of play in terms of employment after school. The economy is changing tract, we know that much. Money is being made in mining while the more female-centric retail sector is looking depressed. Last May, the gender pay gap was at its widest in 23 years, registering at 17.5 per cent. "The female wage is 82.5 per cent of the male wage – the smallest proportion in 23 years," CommSec economist Savanth Sebastian told The Australian.

While a tightening in the retail sector is part of it, with employees given increasingly less hours as companies trim their bottom lines, the mining boom has exacerbated the pay gap by placing men (who are the vast majority of employees) on exorbitant salaries commensurate with the level of labour and risk on the job (not always just skill set), and in compensation for the away-from-home nature of the work. 

Males employed in mining in May were earning an average of $2180 per week while female retail workers earned less than half that, just $906.70 a week. Women employed in mining earn $1722.50 a week, 79 per cent of a male wage (unless you are Gina Rinehart). While women also work very hard, in whatever roles they're in, lower rates are still awarded to workers in traditionally female industries, and to women working within traditionally male industries.  

"Simply being a woman is the major contributor to the gap in Australia, accounting for 60 per cent of the difference between women's and men's earning," reported the authors of the 2010 NATSEM report 'The Impact of a Sustained Gender Wage Gap on the Australian Economy'. 

"Other differences between men and women such as women’s choices of careers, jobs and work hours, consideration of caring responsibilities, women’s work motivations, bargaining power and appetite for risk,  as well as discrimination against women that occurs in the workplace, all impact heavily on the gender pay gap."

The downside, not only for women's opportunity to succeed in their chosen field and be remunerated appropriately, is a retardation of the GDP. (-8.5 per cent according to NATSEM) caused by a lack of incentive to participate in the labour force. Why get employment, particularly if you have non-school-aged children, if there is no significant financial incentive, or if, when you go to work, you find you are not valued and respected like your male peers?  

So while lots of boys are heading off to the mines to make their fortunes, taking on near-heroic roles in the national economy, in a sort of World War II-like situation, the women left on the homefront have the opportunity to occupy their old occupations, taking up plum positions in all sorts of fields, from engineering and technology to veterinary science and business and the trades, only to find that in a throwback to the 1940s, they will be paid less (at least we're being paid, the suffragettes might say).

This is despite women entering tertiary education at record levels and international tests showing girls are starting to outperform boys in science and mathematics. Girls outperform boys in science in 21 of the 65 countries and economies that participated in the latest PISA survey; in 11 countries boys outperformed girls; and in 33 countries their is no significant difference in performance between genders. On average, in OECD countries, girls and boys perform about the same in science.  

While social/socio-economic background, teaching quality and the school experience will weigh for or against a girl's further education, there are still more expectations to meet when a girl's school education is complete. Rising entry standards for courses like nursing, teaching and the other caring professions, into which girls still tend to gravitate, have put more sustained pressure on girls to do well educationally. 

"They have no choice," says Professor Teese. "It doesn't mean their experience of school is any better than boys', that they are happier or that they are making the right choices. What it means is that the labour market won't accept them and is forcing them to aim for higher levels of the labour market which are credentials-based."

The dangling carrot for girls is a university degree. Sixty per cent of undergraduate students are female, while 58 per cent of all postgraduates are female. But a degree does not a career make – particularly if it is one of the many newfangled generalist degrees offered by universities to those students who, instead of taking a gap year to think over their options, enter into study without a true sense of vocation.

"We don't yet know whether success in educational terms will pay off in careers," Richard James, professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne, told The Australian. "But my guess is it won't because there are other factors at play. They are partly to do with social prejudices and social structures that disadvantage women, but may also be to do with women's aspirations and values."

Girls do have fantastic aspirations. One average, 15-year-olds surveyed by the OECD found that they are 11 percentage points more likely than boys to expect work as legislators, senior officials, managers and professionals. In every OECD country, more girls than boys expect a career in health and medicine, but only 5 per cent of girls expect a career in engineering and computing compared to 18 per cent of boys in these fields.

"In 25 OECD countries “a lawyer” is one of the ten careers girls most often cited when asked what they expect to be working as when they’re 30; in only ten countries was it one of the ten careers boys most often cited," note the authors of PISA In Focus 14: What kind of careers do boys and girls expect for themselves.

"Similarly, in 20 OECD countries 'authors, journalists and other writers' was among the ten careers girls most often expected to pursue, while this career was among the top ten that boys cited in only four OECD countries. In recent years, girls in many countries have caught up with or even surpassed boys in science proficiency. Better performance in science or mathematics among girls, however, does not necessarily mean that girls want to pursue all types of science-related careers. In fact, careers in 'engineering and computing' still attract relatively few girls."

The career segregation – between men pursuing jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and women's over-representation in the humanities and medical sciences – is something the Girl Scouts of America are currently seeking to address.

Their research paper, 'Generation STEM: What girls say about science, technology, engineering and math', found that while 74 per cent of high school girls are interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects, these areas aren't always their top career choices due to perceived gender barriers. Women account for only 20 per cent of Bachelor's Degrees in engineering, computer science and physics in the U.S., despite girls' aggregated GPAs across math and science outscoring boys.

Reducing girls' performance and pursuit of these fields are a few factors: outdated stereotypes (when girls internalise the stereotype that boys are better at math and science, they talk themselves out of achieving in this area); subtleties of society and culture (such as mothers interacting more with their boys than girls at museums); and girls giving up when the material gets too challenging (having confidence in one's abilities and believing that hard work and effort can increase intelligence are associated with higher achievement in math and science among girls.)

Those girls who overcome the myths about girls' abilities in these fields, due to parental, educator influence, peer or community influence, and go onto pursue study and work in the STEM areas are better able to cope with adversity and overcome obstacles; are more likely to consider themselves hard workers; and overwhelmingly feel that "Whatever girls can do boys can do".

But there are many obstacles. Overcoming the myths is going against the grain itself. And girls still operate under the belief that they have to work harder to get where they want to be. "I know that girls have accomplished a lot and handle a lot more stress than boys," says one pre-teen from Orlando, Florida, in the report. "People count on them to do everything and so girls work harder than boys most of the time. [We] have more to prove, that yes, we can do it better."

But what if you are working and striving harder than your male cohorts and you're not seeing the financial benefit? When they complete their degrees, many young Australian women will be disenchanted to find that their salaries are not on par with the boys'. In 2011 the average starting salary for men with a degree was $52,000; it was $50,000 for women. Save for a few industries, there is a pay gap across the board.

In Dentistry the gap was $5,000 (man's $80,000 to woman's $75,000); in Economics and Business women earned 86 per cent of a male salary; in Architecture and Building, women earned 90 per cent of the male starting salary; in Optometry the gap is $2000 ($72,000 to $70,000). However, female graduates earned more in Physical Science ($3000 more than men); Social Sciences ($2000 more); and Veterinary Science ($2000 more).

This is the landscape at the bottom of the corporate totem poll. What about further up it?

The drop-out rate for women entering levels of middle and senior management positions is reflected in the sheer numbers of women who are at this level. In 2012, 13.8 per cent of ASX 200 company directors are women (promisingly, up a from 8 per cent in 2010), while 64 per cent of ASX 200 boards have no women. Starting on the back foot, on a smaller starting salary, might be part of the problem. But there are more. The gap between good intention towards negating the diversity gap and bringing it to fruition is telling.

"Only 15 per cent of women believed they had equal opportunity (compared with 20 per cent in 2010) for promotion to senior management," reports BOSS magazine (The Australian Financial Review, March 2012) of a 2011 study of 842 senior business people by Bain and Company and Chief Executive Women. "With all the focus on parity, the slow pace of change is confounding, the survey states."

Journalists Catherine Fox and Narelle Hooper note that focusing on both formal requirements for gender imbalance in the workplace (such as compliance with new government reporting criteria) as well as attitude change within organisations is "the key to a different way of thinking about people, jobs and productivity." This means dismantling age-old belief systems at the business level, too: that women lack ambition and don't want promotions; that workplaces are meritocracies; that mothers don't want careers; that the pay gap is exaggerated; that time will heal all.

But while the government and business are working together to bring about equal opportunity in the workplace, with treasury secretary Martin Parkinson setting a target of 35 per cent of women in senior levels by 2016, there is the matter of what we can do now to help boost women's belief systems and help them address matters on the home and private front that may be an affront to their progress.

Women often keep mum, in corporate circles, about how challenging everyday work life can be, particularly if you are a mother. While we are expert jugglers, planners and organisers, men simply do not see or experience the efforts that take place each day to hold everything together. Part of the reason is that businesses are built on a patriarchal framework and remain inflexible or unable to accommodate women's needs.

The other part is changing perception through education, dissemination and support: getting the message out that, yes, you will, as a woman, face unique challenges, but, yes, there are ways to overcome these to have a career that is fulfilling and rewarding. Teaching girls how to be positively assertive, to be heard and to have their needs met should be part of any foundational education. And so too skills for coping with life and dealing with negativity, which can be major stumbling blocks.

"We're all there to make a contribution in the workplace but I don't think men are judged as harshly," says Vivienne Anthon, chief executive of the Australian Institute of Management. "Part of that is our own problem because we judge. Men don't necessarily judge each other on more trivial items like how you look and how much you weigh and what you wear... we have to negate these."

Part of the need is in media messaging: the unceasing criticism of women and the disproportionate coverage given to certain professions. Correcting the belief that only certain professions are open to women and desirable, and that you have to enter traditionally "female" professions, such as nursing, teaching and the humanities, and study "softer" subjects at school, to be considered helpful to society (overwhelmingly, the Girl Scouts report that girls want to make the world a better place by helping people; they are nurturers at heart) is part of the role of schools and parents but also media.

The ideal is, of course, to work towards a sort of "genderless" workforce, where men can enter teaching and nursing without feeling like they are leaping over a gender barrier while women can equally enter Law or Engineering without feeling the same. One of the most gender-segregated fields is education, according to PISA, with almost 70 per cent of lower secondary school teachers women, and women more likely to teach language arts (79 per cent) and human sciences (57 per cent). However, the post of school principal is still for the most part occupied by men.

"Gender differences in career aspirations and expectations may be one of the factors that lead to gender-segregated labour markets, which, in turn, can have important adverse consequences for individuals and societies," reports PISA. "Just as an absence of women in the labour market is associated with lower economic growth and development, a lack of equal opportunities for men and women to realise their potential in any field of study and work is likely to result in wasted talent and thwarted human potential."

In BRW magazine's March 1-7 issue, Jessica Gardner reports on the five hardest jobs to fill right now in the Australian economy (i.e. those fields where there's a significant gap between demand and supply): early childhood teachers, mining engineers, underground electricians, project managers (infrastructure) and senior digital marketers. Other jobs growth areas, according to IBISWorld, include mineral sand mining, online shopping, organic farming, copper ore mining, online education, pipeline transport, mining services, alternative health therapies, childcare services and mineral exploration.

It would be nice to think that all these areas were open to both men and women.

Further reading/listening:
'Women at the top', Mornings with Steve Austin, with Serena Beirne, Monica Bradley and Vivienne Anthon, March 8, 2012.

PISA in Focus: What kinds of careers do boys and girls expect for themselves? OECD, March 2012
'Women uni graduates surpass PM's target' by Andrew Trounson, The Australian, February 8, 2012
'School ties traded for King Gees' by Julia Hare, higher education editor, for The Australian, July 30, 2011.
AHRI/UN Women Australia Gender Equity in the Workplace Summit, Speech by Gail Kelly, CEO, The Westpac Group, 2011
'Schoolgirls excel at exams, then what?' by Diana Temple for Wisenet Issue 43 (February 1997).
Education Today: the magazine for education professionals

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