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Attracting girls and women students to non-traditional areas

J. Joy Cumming
Faculty of Education
Griffith University
The focus of this paper is to explore means through which the subject and career choices of girls and women might be influenced. Despite campaigns in a number of countries, women and girls still tend to be undertaking stereotypical occupations and training. Underlying the paper is an assumption that it is in both women's and the world's interests for women to participate in the work force equally with men, both in the types of work undertaken and the power levels of positions. The paper briefly reflects on previous research looking at gender stereotyping and work values, research findings which have been confirmed by the author through personal interviews with girls and women during a number of research projects. The discussion leads to a suggested approach through which women and girls might be attracted to non-stereotypical areas, exemplified here by engineering.


Throughout the world research continues to focus on gender differences in education and work, including analyses of interactions within classrooms, curriculum appropriateness, equality of opportunity, equality of outcomes and choices made by different genders at varying stages of schooling in terms of subjects and vocational directions. Campaigns have been developed over the last twenty years to encourage girls and women in particular to broaden their horizons with regard to work opportunities and to consider a broader range of subjects at various stages of schooling than they have traditionally. In other words, there have been serious attempts to overcome gender stereotyping which limits job opportunities of both girls and boys. In addition to the development of campaigns by educational authorities and universities, the last decades have also seen affirmative action policies implemented in many countries to increase the employment in non-traditional sectors and senior management positions of both women and racial minorities.

It is necessary now to consider how successful these approaches have been. World statistics indicate that the proportion of women in areas such as engineering, while increasing, is still not nearly equivalent to that of men, despite these campaigns. At the same time, enrolments in subjects which facilitate enrolment in non-traditional areas, such as mathematics and sciences, are declining, both for boys and girls, and professions in the 'hard' sciences and engineering are being seen as less attractive by many school-leavers. Yet it is apparent that the technological age is well and truly upon us, with scientific and computing advances changing lives quite dramatically each year.

THE NATURE OF INTERVENTIONS IN THE PAST

In general, the nature of actions undertaken to widen subject and vocational choices can be broadly grouped into five areas. Firstly, there have been 'homogeneity' projects to minimise gender differences in schooling such as through play opportunities in kindergarten, compulsory enrolments for both boys and girls in subjects such as home economics and woodworking, teaming in school projects and so on. Sweden, for example, has had a proactive school education system for some time whereby both girls and boys undertake compulsory studies in subjects such as woodworking, home economics and the sciences. Secondly, there have been 'segregation' projects which have sought to address directly perceived differences for or disadvantages to girls, based on research about the nature of classroom interactions such as the direction of teacher attention in coeducational schools. Such projects include mentoring and role model projects as well as segregation of classes or schools. Thirdly, there have been 'feminisation' projects which have examined curriculum and school experiences from a female perspective, arguing that much of what is contained in school texts or curriculum is designed by men for men, is not relevant to female life experiences, those of young girls in particular, and hence inhibits learning potential, and may even be seen to deliberately exclude or control girls. Fourthly, there have been 'mechanistic' or top-down legal implementations which have tried to enforce the proportion of women (and minority groups) in various positions, without addressing the availability of applicants or perhaps working on the principle that supply will follow demand. Finally, there have been approaches by universities and further education institutions to increase enrolments in non-traditional areas, particularly girls into the mechanical, electrical and engineering trades and physical sciences.

These last approaches usually have two-fold activities: an advertising campaign to attract students and bridging programs to introduce girls to such areas and overcome lack of appropriate background. These campaigns, however, often take a deficit theme. They suggest to girls that the reason they are not enrolling in such areas is because they lack the background and ambitions of the boys.

THE SUCCESS OF PAST INTERVENTIONS

All in all, if we reflect on the last two decades we can see considerable efforts in all of these directions. But again, how productive have they been? I would hazard a statement here that in proportion to the efforts involved and the nature of good intentions, the outcomes are in general very disappointing. U.S.A. statistics (National Center for Education Statistics, 1994) for the period 1985 to 1990 show that for associate degrees in engineering women constituted approximately 12.5 per cent of graduates in 1985-6 and 12.0 per cent in 1989-90. (At the same time the total number of such graduates declined from 5256 to 2345.) Using a broader framework of engineering-related technologies the proportion of women graduates was closer to 10 per cent for the period. The proportion of women graduating with full degrees in engineering was higher, nearly 15.5 per cent.

Results for other countries are, in general, even less successful and have remained relatively constant over time. Statistics for proportions of total degree graduates who were women in all fields of engineering were: United Kingdom, 12 per cent (1987 figures); Australia, 9 percent (1989); Japan, just over 3 per cent (1989). Countries with a history of compulsory science and technology studies for girls during schooling and/or a highly technological workforce do have higher proportions of women graduates but are still far from reaching equivalence to men: Germany, nearly 27 per cent (1988 figures); Sweden, approximately 20.5 per cent (1989). (All statistics quoted from UNESCO Statistical Yearbook, 1991).

It is also important to remember that even where institutions and employers have been successful in attracting female students into such courses or jobs, little has been done in many institution s to ensure the progress of these female students. Even in the most respectable institutions a dominant body of stereotypical men can still make life difficult for the female students and workers in non-typical areas.

REASONS FOR LIMITED SUCCESS

Why is it that recruitment campaigns have not in general been successful. Firstly, it may be too early to examine the effects of many of the campaigns addressing the early years of schooling. These students are only now progressing through the system. It is becoming apparent that in many affluent countries the educational opportunities being offered to girls appear to be making a small proportion or elite far more deliberate in their choice of work options and plans. This does not, however, apply across the full spectrum of students and young girls. The further one investigates those classified as disadvantaged by a schema such as socio-economic status the more one tends to find a continuation of traditional and limiting work choices. After many years involvement in a number of projects looking at gender stereotyping or employment training in general, I have concluded that the impact of schooling is insignificant in comparison to the strong socialising influences which exist in young people's lives - their home backgrounds, parents' expectations, peer influences and so on. Although the desire of educators and government policy makers might be to provide individuals with a full range of vocational opportunities, both for the individual's own good and the good of a nation, through the capture of the best intellects available, the individual young girl does not necessarily appreciate these opportunities. She does not necessarily see a match between what others want for her and what she believes she wants for herself.

Given this situation, it seems reasonable to conclude that to make an impact in the short term on vocational choices of girls and young women, while we await the possible long-term effects of feminist social initiatives and school programs, we need to address the vocational ideals and perceptions of the young girls as they are today. If science and technology are to be made appealing, they must be related to the young women of now, not as we think they should be and not through suggesting what they are not.

GIRLS' PERCEPTIONS OF DESIRABLE OCCUPATIONS

The conclusion reached in the previous discussion suggests that a successful approach to attracting girls and women to different areas could result from analysing what girls and women perceive as desirable characteristics of a job, and then analysing non-traditional areas to see what features could be emphasised as matching those desirable characteristics. This indicates a need to examine how jobs are perceived and valued by women and men. Some of the research which informs this issue was the earliest research on the occupational status of different jobs and the development of scales to measure such status.

Most such scales can be traced back to two scales: the North-Hatt scale (North & Hatt, 1947) and the Duncan Socio-Economic Index (SEI) (Duncan, 1961). The North-Hatt scale was originally developed by choosing 88 occupations and asking a large sample of respondents, both male and female, to rate these occupations on a five point scale of 'general standing'. Average ratings were taken to indicate the perceived status of the occupation. However, in doing the study a number of confounding issues was removed or 'clarified'. Some 'women's' occupations were removed from the list. The instructions to raters asked each rater's perception of the best occupation for an 'outstanding young man' and what a 'young man' should consider when choosing 'his life's work'. This is the first indication in research that there could be differences in prestige of women's and men's work, and more importantly, that in considering jobs for their own gender, there is the possibility that men and women might differ in perceptions of value and prestige. Not surprisingly, men and women were in high agreement about the ratings of the occupations for men but differences in values did occur, as discussed later.

Duncan (1961) used a different approach to devise an occupational status index by incorporating education levels and income as predictors of occupational status. This mechanism was considered flexible as it could be possible to obtain census data on these variables for emerging occupations and hence to estimate their occupational prestige. In order to develop this prediction equation for occupations, however, Duncan took the North-Hatt ratings for 45 occupations as the values to be predicted. Thus all the status estimates for the Duncan SEI are tied to the occupational prestige values obtained for those 45 occupations for male incumbents in 1947. Even today, you will find educational and sociological research studies which look at female aspirations in terms of Duncan SEI, and which rate parental job status, usually father and occasionally mother, on the same scale.

More recent status measures have been developed. However these are usually modifications of the North-Hatt scale and the Duncan SEI (see, for example, Goldthorpe & Hope, 1974; Treiman, 1977; Stevens & Featherman, 1981; Guppy & Goyder, 1984; Stevens & Cho, 1985). Thus most measures of occupational prestige and desirability unwittingly perpetuate male biases from a 1947 scale.

Of course, this is only of significance if it can be established that an occupational prestige scale based on ratings of women incumbents and by women, or combined, would be different. If this were found to be so, it might provide insight into how women are perceiving the quality of jobs and hence provide useful information with which to affect career choices. Unfortunately, much of the research in this area is of poor quality, with very limited sampling techniques, and often it is not clear that a non-male perspective is to be considered. Nevertheless, a small selection of such studies can be used to show the nature of gender differences in perceiving the value of occupations.

Some studies have looked at the prestige ratings accorded an occupation when data on the proportion of male and female workers in the occupation are manipulated. For example, Meyer (1978) found that occupations with a high proportion of female incumbents were given higher prestige ratings by females than by males, although the rank orderings were almost identical. Bose (1973) found loss of prestige for both men and women for sex-atypical occupations and actually recommended the use of different prestige scales for men and women in occupational research. White, Crino and De Sanctis (1981) found no evidence for changes in prestige according to sex of incumbent but used only a very restricted range of occupations of banker, accountant, engineer and veterinarian and a sample consisting of undergraduate management students. However, even within this limited study they did find statistically significant differences in rating by gender for prestige, desirability and composite scales of perceptions of the occupations. These results were presented in a table which the authors did not discuss.

Thus, there appears to be some evidence that there are gender differences in the perceptions of occupational prestige. An occupation's prestige for an individual reflects strongly its desirability to an individual. A previous paper which focused on how to measure occupational status in terms of gender differences has summarised the research in this area (Maxwell & Cumming, 1988). It demonstrates that one factor likely to influence perceptions of desirability concerns the person's own work values. Even back in the North-Hatt scale, gender differences were found in the qualities of those occupations which were considered most desirable for the young men. More men than women said that an occupation should pay well for it to be rated excellent, while more women than men felt that service to humanity was essential.

Briefly, the following differences have emerged from a number of different studies over time: men have been foun d to value advancement and security, women to value job challenge, physical environment, and fringe benefits. Differences have been found for school children also: in studies with high-school students, girls were found to place more value on interpersonal and altruistic values than did boys, and to be more 'person-helping' oriented. One study found that these values persisted over the five years of high school.

Another study found differences in primary school. Students had to rate four traditionally male and four traditionally female occupations on four dimensions: respect in the community, earnings, education needed and importance of service to the community. Girls in general gave higher overall ratings for 'respect' than did boys, boys gave higher 'respect' ratings to traditionally male jobs and girls gave higher 'respect' ratings to traditionally female jobs. A similar result occurred for the rating 'service to the community'.

Since the Maxwell and Cumming (1988) review, perceptions do not seem to have changed greatly. Astin (1990) analysed data collected by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) from 300,000 students entering colleges and universities in the U.S.A. over the period 1966 to 1988. Amongst questions answered by students were reasons for going to college and values and life goals. While Astin noted trends to change in women's attitudes over the period, there were still a number of areas indicating gender differences. By 1988, women's reasons for going to college were both intellectual and occupational with more women (66%) than men (54%) rating as important 'to gain a general education and appreciation of ideas' (p. 485). More men (76%) than women (69%) rated as important 'to be able to make more money'. Women still tended to rate humanitarian aspects of work as more important than did men. More women consistently rated 'to help others in difficulty' as important than did men from 1975 (men, 58%; women, 74%) through 1980 (men, 56%; women, 73%) to 1988 (men, 46%; women, 65%).

Most interestingly, Staberg (1994) in a research study in Sweden has investigated how girls and boys 'meet' compulsory chemistry, physics and technology subjects in Grades 8 and 9. Her study provides more detailed accounts of the many different ways in which girls construct themselves and their relationships to science learning and understanding. Staberg (1994, p. 42) reports:

Girls reject technology. Their reasons are based on bad experiences in school, both in the classroom and in career guidance, and on the notions of technology as a masculine world. The girls are aware of the propaganda for 'more girls in technology', and they interpret this as if 'they' want us to become car mechanics. ... girls ... do not regard technology as a means to get high-status jobs. They are prejudiced against technology and convinced that the subject does not interest them. They laugh at the brochures they get. 'There are girls in perfectly done hair, newly combed and sprayed ... with make up ... pink overalls, not a spot of oil ... not a spot of fat'.
Staberg (1994, p. 42) goes on to say that girls report 'I don't like technology, I want to work with people'. And these results have been found in Sweden!

Overall, then, the consistency and the continuity of results of studies are not surprising. There is still a tendency for boys to prefer traditional male occupations which will provide financial security and advancement and for girls to prefer traditional female occupations which have an image of 'nurturing' and working with people. Every guidance officer in a school will identify with a statement that girls tend to express interest in working with people, preferably children or babies, and animals.

This brief summary of the literature is provided to show that when considering occupations, men and women, and boys and girls, are not perceiving the desirability of occupations from the same social construct of reality. Yet most attempts to influence subject and vocational selection are either trying to institute homogeneous experiences within the school setting, independent of the society within which individuals are living, or are trying to tell girls they should have the same aspirations as boys, 'the girls are wrong, boys are right' syndrome, or are trying to tell girls they could do as well as the boys if they enrolled for some extra training.

DIRECTIONS FOR FUTURE CAMPAIGNS TO ATTRACT WOMEN TO NON-TRADITIONAL AREAS

If we consider the previous research discussion, what does this tell us about broadening career choices? First of all, it is apparent that one of the main reasons women do not enrol in programs such as engineering is not because they believe they are not academically capable, not because they do not have the prerequisite studies, but because they perceive the job as devoid of the qualities they associate with a desirable occupation. In my own institution, Griffith University, there has been a very high proportion of women enrolling in a particular engineering degree, in the field of Environmental Engineering. In the U.S.A. statistics already cited for engineering degree graduates, the highest proportion of women, approximately 35.5 per cent, were in the bioengineering or biomedical engineering fields. These occupational titles and orientations might be seen to fit within the job qualities perceived by women as desirable.

This then could provide the key to influencing women's subject and career choices beyond a limiting and stereotyped band. The key lies in the perceptions of the qualities and work values of different occupations. I stress the word 'perceptions' because I do suspect that these are stereotyped views which are not necessarily based on realisation. I do not think that young girls and women want to work only in 'nurturing' occupations, that it is a genetic behaviour which is manifesting itself or that they immediately find such work to be more rewarding than other jobs might have been. However if we are to attract women to atypical areas, then it is these perceptions and currently held values which should be targeted. One institution ran a long advertising campaign to enrol women in engineering by saying 'the hard hat suits women too', similar to the pink overalls rejected by the girls. While this campaign was genuine and to a limited extent successful, it could be regarded as patronising. While failing to address the fundamental issues, it reinforced, as did the pink overall campaign, stereotypes of vanity among women, unwillingness to get dirty, and of engineers as people only on construction sites wearing hard hats.

It is therefore proposed that a campaign which directly addresses and tries to match the perceived work values of women and the qualities of a job is more likely to be successful. If young girls express desires to work with children or the sick, why not show a female electrical or design engineer beside a humidicrib, with a catch phrase to show the magnitude of the impact of this work on humanity. Let us analyse occupations for how they fulfil the different expectations of men and women, and show that there is a match. Then we will be able to have an impact on enrolment patterns. Finally, once the female students are enrolled, there is still much work to be done in maintaining their engagement with the area. It is even more important that students should continue, graduate and want to work in and undertake further studies in non-traditional areas until we reach the point that we can no longer identify what are non-traditional areas.

REFERENCES

Astin, H. S. (1990), Educating women: A promise and vision for the future. American Journal of Education, 98, 479-493.

Bose, C. E. (1973). Jobs and gender: Sex and occupational prestige. Baltimore: John Hopkins University, Center for Metropolitan Planning and Research.

Duncan, O. D. (1961), A socio-economic index for all occupations. In A. J. Reiss, O. D. Duncan, P. K. Hatt, & C. C. North (Eds.), Occupations and social status (Chapter 6). Glencoe, Illinois: Free Press .

Featherman, D.L. & Stevens, G. (1982). A revised socioeconomic index of occupational status: Application in analysis of sex differences in attainment. In M.G. Powers (Ed.), Measures of socio-economic status: Current issues (pp. 83-127). Boulder, Colorado: Westview.

Goldthorpe, J. H. & Hope, K. (1974). The social grading of occupations: A new approach and scale. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Clarendon.

Guppy, L. N. & Goyder, J. C. (1984). Consensus on occupational prestige: A reassessment of the evidence. Social Forces, 62, 709-725.

Maxwell, G. S. & Cumming, J. J. (1988). Measuring occupational aspiration in research on sex differences: An overview and analysis of issues. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 32, 60-73.

Meyer, G. S. (1978). Sex and marriage of raters in the evaluation of occupations. Social Science Research, 7, 366-388.

National Center for Education Statistics. (1994). Digest of education statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

North, C.C. & Hatt, P. K. (1947). Jobs and occupations: A popular evaluation. Opinion News, 9, 3-13.

Staberg, E.-M. (1994). Gender and science in the Swedish compulsory school. Gender and Education, 6(1), 35-45.

Stevens, G. & Cho, J. J. (1985). Socioeconomic indexes and the new 1980 census occupational classification scheme. Social Science Research, 14, 142 - 168.

Stevens, G. & Featherman, D. L. (1981), A revised socioeconomic index of occupational status. Social Science Research, 10, 364-395.

Treiman, D. J. (1977). Occupational prestige in comparative perspective. New York: Academic Press.

UNESCO (1991). Statistical yearbook. Paris: UNESCO.

White, M. C., Crino, M. D. & DeSanctis, G. L. (1981). Ratings of prestige and desirability: Effects of additional women entering selected business occupations. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 7, 588-592.

Author details: Joy Cumming is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education, Griffith University, Brisbane, where she is currently Head of the School of Cognition, Language and Special Education. She is a national leader on research into adult literacy and numeracy and has had extensive involvement in many areas of educational research for which she is recognised nationally and internationally. She is currently President of the Queensland Institute for Educational Research.

Please cite as: Cumming, J. J. (1997). Attracting girls and women students to non-traditional areas. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 13(1), 6-16. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer13/cumming.html


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