We have to encourage young girls to aim high

A new study has found that young girls' career aspirations are more confined by gender than ever. We all have a responsibility to change this, says Stephanie Merritt

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By Stephanie Merritt on

When I was five, I wanted to be a dinosaur scientist. A couple of years later I’d moved on and decided to become a detective or a spy. Subsequent career aspirations as I grew older included jockey (too tall, sadly), archaeologist, actress, academic and, eventually, writer, where I ended up. Looking back, it occurs to me that in almost all of those cases my role models were men, at least three of whom (Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and Indiana Jones) were fictional and completely implausible. But, perhaps more oddly, I don’t recall ever thinking that this was unusual or a problem. They could do it; so could I. Certainly I don’t remember anyone telling me, in the 1980s or 1990s, that any of those were “boys’ jobs” and therefore not for me.

But a new poll by the Young Women’s Trust, a charity that campaigns to improve opportunities for disadvantaged young women, suggests that attitudes towards equal opportunities are regressing, despite the progress we might believe we’ve made in the workplace, and that women under 31 are far more likely than their mothers’ generation to believe that certain professions are out of their reach because they are female. Eighty-nine per cent of women over 31 thought that IT was a job for a man or a woman, compared to 65 per cent of younger women (the remaining third considered it a male career). Over 30 per cent of young women thought that nursing or caring professions were for women, while only 13 per cent of the older women agreed. Perhaps most shockingly, nearly a third of the young women polled thought it was irresponsible for a woman to work if she had small children, compared with 17 per cent of the older women.

Those of us fortunate enough to have grown up in an age when dinosaurs were for everyone need to make sure we’re telling the next generation that they too can aim just as high as the boys

What has happened to a generation of girls to have turned the clock back so dramatically when it comes to their perception of traditional gender roles? There’s no question that the current state of the economy has played a part. Many young women feel that the rise in tuition fees and student debt has put higher education beyond their reach, particularly if they’re from backgrounds where it’s not taken for granted, and when it comes to other types of vocational training, the gender imbalance suggests that girls are not getting the advice or encouragement that would give them the confidence to go into more male-dominated professions: 2.7 per cent of the intake in construction and engineering apprenticeships are women, compared to 86 per cent in health, social services and children’s care. This might also be to do with the lack of visible role models in those professions.

While women continue to be underrepresented in the “serious” media – especially in science, politics, economics and tech – and over-represented in gossip magazines and reality TV (often because of who they’ve married), and the few women in public life get more attention for their clothes or hair than their policies or expertise, it’s perhaps not surprising that a generation of young women have grown up believing certain doors are closed to them. Another recent survey by City and Guilds asked 3,000 14-19 year olds to estimate what they’d be earning in ten years’ time; on average the girls predicted £7,000 less than the boys.

It would be easy to feel gloomy about the way these young women see their futures, but – as is so often the case – education will be the key to change, from as early as possible, and small steps will add up to a shift in attitudes. The successful campaign this year to make Marks & Spencer extend their range of dinosaur-based Natural History Museum clothes to girls as well as boys is a case in point). Campaigning organisations such as the Young Women’s Trust and WISE (Women in Science, Technology and Engineering) do sterling work in schools, inspiring girls to study the more traditionally “male” subjects. But there’s a long way to go; a lack of flexible hours and affordable childcare still deters young women from certain professions or courses of study, and those battles need to be fought relentlessly if we are to see change.

Most importantly, though, those of us fortunate enough to have grown up in an age when dinosaurs were for everyone need to make sure we’re telling the next generation that they too can aim just as high as the boys.


Tagged in:
young women and girls
gender equality

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