Gendered Identities and Work Placement: Why Don’t Boys Care?

An article by Osgood, J., Francis, B. and Archer, L. Journal of Education Policy, 21(3), pp.305-321

This article examines the problem of persistent gender stereotyping of career roles and aspirations among young people, and the choices and educational experiences that shape this. It draws upon data from a study conducted in England for the EOC entitled ‘Gender Equality in Work Experience Placements for Young People’, which included 566 Year 11 pupil questionnaires and 32 interviews with young people.

The authors find that young people reproduce highly stereotypical and gendered constructions of the workplace at a crucial moment of adolescent development, when they are exploring and defining notions of ‘acceptable’ gender identity. They examine pupils’ choice of work experience placement as a reflection of gendered dispositions towards work, in particular the example of early childhood education and care (ECEC). Only 2 out of 45 pupils choosing such a work placement were boys, and the channelling of pupils into gender-stereotypical roles occurred despite their being misaligned with actual career aspirations- 43 girls chose ECEC placements yet only 29 listed it as their future chosen career. This gender divide is particularly concerning given that ECEC is a rapidly expanding workforce experiencing severe staff shortages and recruitment challenges yet composed of less than 1% men.

The authors draw on current sociological research in explaining boys’ reluctance to opt for stereotype-challenging roles, despite evidence in recent decades that girls are increasingly choosing non-traditional educational and career paths. Societal discourses of the ‘risk to children’ of men in childcare roles and ‘delicate’ constructions of masculinity repel them from entering a workforce that, despite ideas of equality of opportunity, is associated with essentialized notions of ‘motherhood’, ‘nurturing’, ‘responsibility for others’ and these being conflated with ideas of femininity so that certain occupations come to be seen as ‘naturally’ gendered. The low status and pay of child care contributes to the idea that such ‘women’s work’ is inferior to stereotypically male roles.

The authors criticise the neo-liberal ‘freedom of choice’ model that prevails in allowing students to identify and organise their own work experience placements; that this in fact exacerbates class and gender inequality: certain employers favour some pupils over others and some pupils have greater access to ‘social capital’- middle class parents often play a significant role in providing access and securing placements for their children, for instance through professional contacts. To broaden horizons and challenge structural inequalities and pupils’ taken-for-granted ideas about the kinds of work experience and future careers they may or may not choose, the authors suggest that interventions are needed: “pupils should be encouraged, directed and supported to experience a diversity of work experiences including those that are non-traditional.” This may also serve to ease staff shortages in occupational fields whose entry is currently highly classed and gendered.

Gendered identities and work placement: why don’t boys care? – full article