Girls, School and Work



Malcolm Vick




Schools, we know, are implicated in the production and reproduction of social inequalities in a myriad of ways. Over the past twenty years or so there have been many attempts, from the action of individual teachers in classrooms to the formation of national policies, to contest the ways in which they reproduce gender. At the same time, the past few years have seen powerful counter-tendencies, tying education to the national economy and suppressing equity concerns in the process. Crucial to the 'success' of both moves is the way young women in schools understand the issues - understand what is at stake.

Some recent research at a high school in a provincial Queensland city suggests that the picture is really extremely complex. On the one hand, most of the young women interviewed saw their lives as developing along quite different lines to traditional gendered stereotypes. On the other, they showed little awareness of how the structures of a patriarchal capitalist society might still shape their lives, and a disturbing belief that hard work in school would get them a good career when they left.

Most of these young women talked about their post-school lives principally in terms of work rather than marriage and family. And they saw work in terms of a distinction between job and career, leaving no doubt that career was the way to go. Interestingly they talked about their future career as what they would 'be' - 'I'll be an engineer' - whereas 'jobs' or 'work' was simply something that someone 'did'.

The careers they had in mind included 'traditional' women's work, but ranged far more widely than that. The list of occupations they expressed interest in was quite varied - pilot, missionary, teacher, scientist (the single most popular choice!), civil engineer, secretary, nanny, and actress. Some, such as the young woman who indicated that she intended to work in the tourism industry, made it quite clear that she did not mean waitressing or room cleaning, but working at managerial level.

Finally, most of them showed a very realistic attitude to what work offered them: money. One or two, especially of those in their early years of secondary school, expressed more 'idealistic' views of work; they saw their careers in terms of 'helping people', or of personal growth through doing something 'interesting'.

The move away from the stereotyped notion that their lives would revolve around home and family, and the assumption that the only work they would pursue would be temporary and marginal is probably a good thing. So too, is the way they can imagine high level careers, or work in fields historically inaccessible to them. However, making work central is undoubtedly a double edged sword. It opens up the possibility of thinking in terms of economic independence, but assimilates easily with traditional male values of valuing work above else. In a society with high unemployment and where most jobs are still personally unsatisfying, this is unfortunate. And, while 'careers' remain more accessible to men than to women, it is doubly unfortunate to have such expectations.

While they were happy to talk about the sort of careers they intended to pursue, none of the young women had more than the haziest knowledge of the labour market. They were unable to name more than a small handful of occupations, and had little idea of the qualifications those jobs might demand, or of how to access them. Perhaps more importantly, they revealed little sense of the gender ordering of the labour market. What they did know, however, was that the labour market was extremely tight.

Each of the young women interviewed saw a fairly direct relation between school and work. First, school offered tangible benefits which would give them means of competing on the labour market - credentials, and specific, identifiable skills, notably in the area of language. The students saw such skills as being of value in so far as they sought work in fields for which the skills were directly relevant. Credentials, were different. They were 'something to show employers that you have done it...' and in this context what mattered was 'good marks' - -the evidence that they had not only 'done it' but done it well.

Importantly, the majority of the young women interviewed assumed that if possible, they would not move directly from school into the workforce, but attend University or at least TAFE first. Indeed, some strongly suggested that very few people these days could leave school and get work - at least the sort of work one might want.

The fact that work was central to their visions of adult life, meant to them that schooling, and post-secondary education should be work driven. Most importantly, they believed they should choose subjects that were solely calculated to further their career aspirations. Some subjects, of course, appeared to have more to offer in this respect than others. First, they saw particular subjects as supporting the specific career they wished to pursue, such as the choice of sciences, maths and even geography by those young women interested in a career in the sciences, and a couple of students suggested that Japanese was especially relevant to careers in tourism. Second, however, there was a shared view that some subjects were simply more relevant to any career they might wish to pursue, than others. The key subjects, they all seemed to agree, were Maths and Science. As one year 9 student put it, 'you'll ruin your chances later on' if you don't do well in Maths.

In fact, they saw the connection between school and work as mediated in practice in a number of ways. First, the capacity of school to secure any individual access to employment is shaped by a range of attributes of the individual herself: ability, hard work and determination, and interests, goal setting, the different dispositions or attitudes individuals adopt towards school work, and study habits. All these seemed to be summed up and represented in a single 'performance indicator': marks. Consequently, they seem to believe, if things don't turn out well, it's the individual's fault!

Again, this seems double edged. Their views of their futures are less fettered by gender stereotypes than their predecessors' almost certainly were. Their belief that school, through hard work, clear goal setting and rational planning will enable them to secure the future they want is what gives them the confidence to proceed. Yet their senses of what might be possible for them is, in many cases, almost certainly more rosy than is warranted, and their confidence in schooling and their own hard work is sadly misplaced. Their planning is, simply, based on an inadequate and misleading knowledge of the world they are looking forward to entering as school leavers.

Clearly there are lessons to be drawn here for schools regarding strategies to counter dominant gendering practices and effects, so that young women such as these are better equipped to take their place in the world from a position of strength. In particular, schools need to communicate more, and better, information about the gendered world the students inhabit. This includes information about the labour market; about the nature of work and of particular jobs; about the relations of school to work; and about the structuring processes which tend to shape the possibilities open to them,. This information should be designed not to daunt them, but to enable them more effectively to tackle their futures.

Some of this information should, certainly, be descriptive in character, directed towards instrumental concerns about how to take advantage of what is available. Much of it, however, should also be directed towards cultivating a greater understanding of their world's gendered character and how that, in itself, can be contested.

Malcolm Vick, School of Education, James Cook University of North Queensland.

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