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My passion is learning – I’ve always said that learning is a passport to life and I feel that we should all strive to continue learning and to support others to learn too.

My career in education has focused on specialising around learning in the early years – birth to early primary school age – and it’s my absolute belief that if we want to tackle any sort of inequality, we should always start at the earliest possible time in children’s lives.  

That’s why I am proud to be part of the Scottish Apprenticeship Advisory Board’s (SAAB) new Gender Commission in Scotland.

It’s a group of leaders from business and education who have been set the task of offering practical advice to help employers tackle barriers which prevent gender diversity in their workforce.

Crucially, we are doing this through the lens of apprenticeships in Scotland which I hope will provide a different angle to the debate, through the fact it’s employer led but with collaboration from other groups. 

I am especially pleased to be part of the Commission because it means that there is recognition, at the very start, of the importance of early years learning to the whole issue of genderisation and stereotypes.  

Development in the early years 

The early years are crucial. It’s where the foundations are built. Children establish lots of patterns and habits very early on – it’s about the ‘wiring and firing’ of the brain and cognitive development - with 90% of the brain formed by the time a child reaches the age of four. You don’t want to miss this window of opportunity as, although not impossible, it is difficult to correct this balance later. 

Attitudes to health, relationships, physical wellbeing, diet and sexuality are formed to varying extents in the early years – gender and occupations are no different. Children will see themselves in a role if they have this presented to them – and this can limit or open up their choices. So, if people make their world a gendered place, then you may place limits on your life. This translates to the workplace – limiting roles only inhibits your talent pool. It’s better to be open to the array of possibilities. 

Tackling gender inequality through apprenticeships 

I am keen to see how the SAAB Gender Commission can look at the issue of gender balance in the workplace from a different angle. One of the key things that makes the Commission unique is the fact that it is set to tackle gender inequality through examining apprenticeships. Apprenticeships are important – people remember and understand better while doing and learning 

Apprenticeships are also particularly revealing in terms of people’s perceptions...quite often people hear the word ‘apprenticeship’ and think hairdresser or mechanic – both of these often thought about as gendered occupations. 

What, I think, gives the commission its strength, is its membership – with strong representation from education, and critically, led by employers, this will be key to ensure that whatever solutions are offered, they can be applied practically in the workplace.  

Going forward, I think that a key area for us to consider as part of the Commission is the recruitment of apprentices. As a society, we don’t talk to children about the workplace early enough. We leave it too long and then for example, boys already have a sense of what is considered a ‘manly’ job. I think we need to start highlighting and discussing the world of work at nursery – ‘get in early’, is my motto. Work is, after all, part of our everyday world. 

 

I hear my daughters talk about people, just as people, personalities, and neither their gender, sexuality or any other characteristic comes into play. It’s almost irrelevant and I think this would be great translated into apprenticeships and the workplace

Jean Carwood Edwards, Early Years Scotland

Societal changes 

However, we still live in a world where, in some contexts, being called a girl, can be seen as an insult. I remember reading about a study while at university, called ‘Beyond the Wendy House’ and it’s something that has always stayed with me.  An experiment was done with one baby sometimes dressed in blue, and sometimes in pink, and there was no reference to the baby’s gender, or names given. The study just observed how people interacted with the baby. The difference was striking with people talking to and acting in different ways, even right down to how they held the baby, with the pink baby cradled and told how beautiful she was, while the ‘male’, or baby dressed in blue, was handled less delicately and told how ‘big and strong’ he was. 

But when I think back to the start of my career, and compare things to how they are now, I can see lots of progress. I have three grown up daughters whose experiences of genderisation are very different from mine. They have groups of friends who happen to be female and male. That didn’t happen when I was young, when socially we were still very divided by gender. These days I hear my daughters talk about people, just as people, personalities, and neither their gender, sexuality or any other characteristic comes into play. It’s almost irrelevant and I think this would be great translated into apprenticeships and the workplace – simply the best person for the job. 

My hopes for the Gender Commission 

There are some key questions that I would like to see the Commission explore – to open up those conversations that people quite often don’t have: to place a spotlight on the roles where imbalances are identified. But also, to understand if this is all about bias? What would we like roles to look like – does it make sense to have an equal split for every job role or is that an unrealistic or even damaging target to have? If numbers are key and equal representation is the objective, we also have to ask ourselves what the benefits of this would be. Is this honestly what we want, or is it that we want people to be able to choose the job that they want to do without gender barriers limiting and shaping that decision?  

It’s impossible to say, at this point in time, ‘I hope that the Gender Commission will find this or recommend that’...because the whole purpose of the exercise is to let it take its natural journey of discovery and be absolutely empirical in its approach. I suppose what I’m saying is that, the life span of the commission will unravel findings through different themes along the way and be evidence based - it’s therefore important to set out on this exercise without assumptions or agenda. 

I look forward to developing recommendations and new solutions along with an impressive membership of key influencers and employers. With gender roles being formed in children long before they even start school, I think early years analysis is a good place – and the ideal place – for the Gender Commission to kick start its important discussions.  

  • The Gender Commission was set up in response to findings by the Scottish Apprenticeship Advisory Board (SAAB) Group Board. It recently looked at current trends within apprenticeships and identified a need to provide visible, industry leadership by setting up a commission to address gender imbalance. 

  • The Scottish Apprenticeship Advisory Board is facilitated by Skills Development Scotland. 
  • Jean Carwood Edwards is Chief Executive of Early Years Scotland, a national organisation which invests in ansupports our youngest children 0-5 years. Through its own work with children and families, and through membership with individual nurseries and groups, and partnership agreements with local authorities, EYS provides support for early learning and childcare settings in the voluntary, local authority and private sectors. 

 

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