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Heather Earnshaw is a Project Officer for Improving Gender Balance Scotland.

The former physics teacher works with pupils, teachers and the wider school community to challenge traditional subject and career choices.

To mark International Women’s Day and its theme of gender parity, she gives an update on the important work of the project in tackling unconscious bias.


'I am having a genuinely fantastic time working with my schools as part of Improving Gender Balance Scotland. The reception has been overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic.

Raising awareness of the stereotyped messages young people receive, and watching their reactions during our sessions, is definitely one of the most rewarding aspects of the job.

Equal opportunity

We don’t tend to stop and think about how many images and messages we receive about how we ‘ought’ to act as a boy or as a girl, but those messages are very powerful and have an enormous impact on the choices we all make.

I delivered an assembly to around 200 second year pupils yesterday, who were completely engaged throughout the session. I’d like to say this was all down to me, but I know it’s really because the examples we are showing them, and the messages those give, are so unavoidably powerful.

I ask them to think about how adults play with babies, or how they played as children. Do they know that research shows adults interact differently with babies dressed as boys compared to those dressed as girls? Adults tend to offer ‘girl’ babies dolls and hold them gently, whilst they are more likely to offer ‘boys’ toy cars and balls and tend to indulge in more rough and tumble play. 

We talk about how that could affect our perceptions of ourselves, our thoughts on subjects and job opportunities and I ask them to think of examples to show just how pervasive gender stereotyping is in our society and how we can mitigate against it.

Jobs for the boys

Starting conversations with pupils, either through focus groups or PSE lessons is eye-opening too.

One S2 pupil said: ‘I sometimes tell myself ‘it’s a boy’s job’, even though it really annoys me when other people say it’. She is aware of the issue, but still falls into the trap of feeling she doesn’t belong in certain subjects/careers. We all do.

Another group of pupils suddenly began listing all their favourite TV programmes and realised that they were all presented by men. They became quite indignant!

Teachers and parents, of course, also carry around their own unconscious biases.

All adults emphatically want the best for the children in their care. But the advice we give can, unconsciously, be biased. As one pupil said to me: ‘Even though our parents say we can do anything we want, they tell you to ‘think about it’ if you make an unusual choice. They make you doubt yourself.

Helping teachers

Research shows that teacher interactions tend to be unconsciously gendered, more questions tend to be directed towards boys, and teacher responses to a student struggling with a question vary according to the pupil’s gender.

When we monitor teacher interactions and highlight the gendering, teachers are genuinely horrified. These are dedicated professionals, doing their very best to support every child in their classes. No-one has ever talked to them about the potential impact of their unconscious biases.

The good news is that recognising the issue and accepting it as an issue is a significant first step, and we have developed classroom strategies for teachers to try out as well.

Hope for the future

Is change possible? Can raising awareness help people identify their biases and learn to work around them? I think so, and I believe this because of a conversation I had recently with my 11 year old daughter.

I was explaining the concept of a pub quiz to her. I referred to the hypothetical quizmaster as ‘he’. Quick as a flash my daughter interrupted with ‘or she’, then asking me ‘hasn’t your new job taught you anything, Mummy?’ before cheerfully listing all the reasons why I should be more careful what I say.

I was proud of her - while trying to hide my own embarrassment -  and the episode gives me hope.

We won’t eradicate gender stereotyping overnight, but we can all become much more aware, and we can remind each other of how easy it is to slip into old habits as we work towards a Scotland where girls and boys do have equal opportunities.

Happy International Women’s Day.'


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