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Gender inequality begins at 16

May 15 2006 - A report by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) shows that gender inequality in education and work begins at sixteen. Girls and boys study most subjects in roughly equal numbers for GCSE. Girls do very well but once their examinations are over the genders rapidly move towards traditionally 'male' or 'female' subjects.

The EOC's earlier investigation into occupational segregation at work, 'Free to Choose - Tackling gender barriers to better jobs' reported in March 2005 that many girls and boys were interested in non-traditional choices but were not supported by information and help. The EOC describes this as the start of a gender split that widens throughout their lives, with women often ending up in lower paid work at lower levels. The EOC cites as examples:

  • Just under half of students taking design and technology at GCSE are girls, but only 1 per cent of electro-technical or construction apprentices, and 3 per cent of engineering apprentices. In engineering and technology subjects 87 per cent of students in further education and 86 per cent in higher education are male.
  • Just over 40 per cent of students taking information technology at GCSE are girls. In computer studies at A-level 27 per cent are girls. Around 20 per cent of higher education computer studies students are female, and they make up the same proportion of ICT managers.
  • In maths GCSE the gender split is exactly 50/50, which tips to 60/40 in favour of male students at A-level and university.
  • The subject of social studies is taken by 69 per cent girls at A-level, and 59 per cent of women at degree level. Girls make up 87 per cent of health and social care apprentices, and 79 per cent of workers in the health and social work sector are women. Despite this huge majority, women in full-time work in this sector are paid on average 32 per cent less per hour than men.

Occupational segregation begins at sixteen, but the gap widens later in life. Thirty years after the Sex Discrimination Act came into force, the EOC's annual statistical review 'Facts About Women and Men in Great Britain, 2006' provides a snapshot of a workforce divided by gender:

  • 66 per cent of managers and senior officials are men, while women hold 81 per cent of administrative and secretarial jobs.
  • 83 per cent of directors and chief executives of major organizations are men, while 95 per cent of receptionists are women.
  • In the finance sector women are just over half the workforce, yet the average hourly pay for a woman working full-time in finance is 41 per cent lower than for a man.

Jenny Watson, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, said:

"We run the risk of short-changing the next generation by failing to tackle the inequality that takes root after GCSE. The EOC's investigation into occupational segregation found that 80 per cent of girls and 55 per cent of boys said that they were or might be interested in pursuing a non-traditional career, but without the right information and support they will never get the chance.

"Although women have made great strides in education, from making up a third of higher education students 35 years ago to nearly two-thirds today, this doesn't tell the whole story. Jobs traditionally seen as 'women's work', such as early years care and education, are undervalued and underpaid, and later in life many women are forced to take a pay cut for the flexibility they need to raise their own children.

"Tackling the challenge posed by occupational segregation will provide huge economic gains, helping us meet skills shortages in highly-segregated areas such as construction and childcare. It will also go a long way to closing the gender pay gap, which the Women and Work Commission estimates, could add as much as £23 billion to the UK economy.

"The Gender Equality Duty, which comes into force in April 2007, will give a major boost to the Women and Work Commission's recommendations by placing a requirement on all public bodies to promote gender equality. By taking action now we can transform the workplace into somewhere that the young people taking their exams today can fulfil their potential."

Ruth Kelly, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and Minister for Women, said:

"This informative and helpful report highlights yet again that occupational segregation begins early.

"The Women and Work Commission suggested improvements to careers advice and work experience to ensure all pupils have the necessary information to make informed choices about their education and ultimately their careers. We've started to tackle this; while I was at the DfES we announced important changes to the careers advice and guidance pupils receive. We must avoid lazy stereotypes, particularly as pupils enter the crucial 14-19 phase.

"But if women are to have the same opportunity as men to have a satisfying and well-paid career, then we must do much more. In my new role as Minister for Women I'm determined to help make this happen. We will be producing an exciting action plan to ensure a cross-Government approach tackling this major issue."

  • More diversity articles
  • Managing Diversity - Theory & Practice
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