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Gender divide in education: Can the root causes be found in early years play?



ALTHOUGH girls are doing better at every stage of the education system than boys, there remains a ‘gender gap’ when it comes to choice of subjects and career at 16.

Young women are still more likely to take arts, humanities and social science subjects, like English, foreign languages and sociology, and young men are more likely to take scientific and technology –based subjects such as physics, engineering and IT, especially level 3 (A-level and Btec National) in our schools and colleges.

Even within the supposed ‘gender neutral’ national curriculum, there are marked gender differences. For instance, girls are more likely to take home economics and food technology (cookery), while boys are more likely to opt for woodwork and electronics.

Although young women account for over half of all apprenticeship starts only 8% of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) apprenticeships were begun by women in 2017.

A report by the Careers and Enterprise Company, ‘Closing the Gender Gap’, has found that “gendered stereotypes” still determine the occupational choices of young women.

The study of 2,000 young people found that women are much more likely to go into care-related jobs such as nursing or teaching, while men are more likely to opt for IT or engineering type jobs. Today there are few women bricklayers and even fewer male beauty therapists!

City MP Chi Onwurah, a former engineer, has called for an end to sex-specific toys, which she argues has contributed to the gender gap in education and vocational training, and deters young women from jobs in technology and science.

There’s some compelling evidence which supports Ms Onwurah’s claim.

Through parental upbringing, which sociologists term ‘gender role socialisation’, means that from an early age, boys and girls are encouraged to play with different toys and do different activities in the home.

This process of socialisation through the family and early-years education may encourage young men to develop more interest in technical and scientific subjects and careers, and discourage young women from taking them. It’s not simply about ‘pink’ for girls and ‘ blue for boys’.

The latest study by Becky Francis, ‘Gender, Toys and Learning’, found that while parental choices for boys were marked by toys that involved action, construction and machinery, there was a tendency to steer girls towards dolls and perceived ‘feminine’ interests such as hairdressing and beauty therapy.

As Francis notes: “The clear message seems to be that boys should be making things, using their hands and solving problems, and girls should be caring and nurturing.”

Gender stereotypes when it comes to play and toys has a clear impact on youngsters’ future subject choices and career prospects.

It’s true that girls are outperforming boys at GCSE and AS/A-level, but the problem remains with the curriculum which is ‘highly gendered’ as noted earlier.

Boys are pushed into a world of action as well as technology, and their play is designed to be exciting and stimulating.

Like Chi, Francis observed that Hamleys toy shop in central London was coloured- coded when it came to toys – floor 3, highlighted in pink, was for girls, while the top floor was designated blue for boys.

Her findings are backed up by Sue Palmer’s book, ‘Toxic Childhood’.

She maintains that toy makers are cornering children into gender roles from a very early stage. “Pink is endemic for girls”, she argues in her book.

Big toy manufacturers are sending out a clear message to girls and boys about how they should behave and parents are subtly colluding with them.

However, can the gender divide in school, college, apprenticeships and in employment be simply blamed on choice of toys and the nature of play in the early stages of childhood.

Some writers believe there are other factors to consider. According to the equal rights watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, subject and careers advice in schools and outside, may be to blame.

In providing this type of guidance, teachers and Careers Officers, may be reflecting their own upbringings and expectations, and reinforcing the different subject options, according to their own gender stereotypes of appropriate subjects, particularly when it comes to the age of 16 to 19.

Other experts focus more on the classroom itself. Science labs are still seen as mainly ‘masculine’. It’s been found that boys tend to monopolise science classrooms – grapping equipment first, answering oral questions directed at girls, which all helps to undermine girls’ confidence and intimidate them from taking up these subjects at A-level and beyond at degree level.

It’s still the case that gender stereotyping is still found in the delivery of these disciplines, with the invisibility of women in maths and science textbooks. This consolidates the misplaced view that these are ‘male’ subjects.

To breakdown gender stereotypes more needs to be done. Toy producers need to scrap sexist toys, teachers need to be more aware of gender related equality issues, book publishers need to be more ‘gender-neutral’, and more needs to be done by government agencies to encourage more women into technology and science careers and more men into the female dominated caring professions.

Primo Toys is one toy producer that is on a mission to inspire the world to give girls the power and confidence to aspire to jobs in the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) sector in a bid to bridge the gender gap.

They want to highlight just how important this can be and inspire more girls to get into coding with their #CodingGirls campaign.

Valeria Leonardi, COO at Primo Toys is a mother with a strong passion for ed tech, she comments:

“It was through my daughter Olivia that I was involved in co-founding Primo, and she is still a constant inspiration to me. She reminds me of how important it is to support young girls and boys in learning how to become self-confident, aware and free of prejudice when it comes to deciding who we want to be, and what we want to do to make a difference to the world.

“I come from a family of female pioneers, and am proud to have been influenced by two grandmothers with university degrees and long careers, an aunt who is a leading scientist and a mother who worked as a Waldorf teacher. With this #CodingGirls campaign, we want to amplify the message and encourage parents to think about how their daughters can get ahead in STEM subjects. As Randi Zuckerberg once said, ‘We have to make technology accessible to all genders, languages and cultures, and is starts young.’”

One of Primo’s founding principles is to create toys that are equally as appealing to girls and boys. Their friendly wooden robot, Cubetto is one early-age solution for the gender gap in STEM.

Introducing coding through open-ended play makes it gender neutral, and promotes creativity and critical thinking alongside 21st century skills.   

Stephen Lambert, Newcastle City Councillor.

Stephen writes in a personal capacity.

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