Employment and education figures consistently show that certain subjects or professions are favoured by men or women. Engineering, for example, is dominated by men, while a look at nursing will show an overwhelming majority of women in the role. But why is this? Why is it that men or women are turned towards (and thereby away from) certain career choices? Can it be that we all suffer from the same prejudices when it comes to work and that we just feel that some jobs are for men and others for women?
A recent study of higher education found that, when it came to choosing subjects, there was a definite gender divide among students. 80% of those studying nursing and medicine-related subjects were women, while on the other hand, 83% of computer science students were men. This research, revealed by the Higher Education Statistics Agency is just the tip of an iceberg that goes back into our younger years – colouring the choices we make through school and into our careers. At least that is what UCAS chief executive, Mary Curnock Cook asserted, when she said, “The sex gap in education begins long before university choices are made and many cultural norms need to be challenged.”
Meanwhile, Susannah Lane, head of public affairs at Universities Scotland, argued that, “Unless you address the social pressures on children at school when making subject choices, you aren’t going to bring about the level of change you want to.,” adding, “It comes down to girls playing with certain sets of toys and boys with others.”
While this may be simplifying a complex issue, there certainly seems to be different cultural and societal pressures placed upon boys and girls, with different expectations too. These can be in the form of values or beliefs that we are taught as we grow – such as that girls aren’t much good at science, or that it is better to have a female teacher for younger schoolchildren. Of course, these values are not true, but could it be that they are so ingrained in us that they alter the choices we might have made for our own futures?
It could be that you are unaware of the way gender might impact which subjects you chose at GCSE or A level, or even how this may have helped decide your career path – and perhaps more importantly which careers you ruled out as options.
But why does it matter? Surely, if we have enough well-trained teachers, computer scientists, nurses, or engineers it doesn’t matter what gender they are?
Except, of course, it does.
Gender disparity in the workplace means that it can be harder for voices to be heard, and it also ignores the potential skills of one sex or another. What happens, for example, when there are no male primary school teachers, and young children don’t come into contact with potentially influential men in their lives? And can male computer programmers know how to cater to the needs of a female audience as well as a woman might?
Fortunately, I have met some great employees who have crossed the gender divide – including male nurses and female engineers. Not only are they in demand in careers where their gender is undersubscribed, but they can also offer an important or fresh perspective to the workplace.
Changing our perceptions of certain subjects and careers may not be easy – especially with the weight of culture bearing down on us. But understanding and recognising the issue is the first step in challenging it.
It might make you wonder just how much your decisions have been influenced by whether you are a boy or a girl…