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Heather Earnshaw leads Education Scotland’s Improving Gender Balance and Equalities programme. The programme works with schools and ELCs to tackle unconscious bias with the aim of supporting a gender balance in subject and career choices:

There I was, relaxing over half-term, when the headlines from a recent OECD report showing that by age 7, children are already facing limits to their career ambitions, started filling my timeline.

The study finds that young people are most likely to be influenced into thinking about what they want to do by what their family does, jobs they see in the media and types of work they see as ‘most likely’ for their gender or background.

The figures are striking, yet not a surprise for those of us working in this field.

But despite the conclusion, I am positive about prospects for our young people in Scotland.

The report suggests to me two key strands we need to look at to prevent children’s choices being limited so early on. Educating around what jobs exist - and challenging perceptions of who is ‘right’ for which jobs.

Bringing the employers and education together is something that Scotland is well ahead in.

Developing the Young Workforce (DYW) has been addressing just this issue. The flagship youth employment policy was recently recognised by the World Future Council with a Silver Future Policy Award, a policy ‘Oscar’, from among 67 nominated policies from 36 countries.

Its work to bring education and employers closer together is reaping dividends across Scotland, from events to visits and mentoring. Central to this are the jointly agreed Career Education and Work Placements Standards which are explicit in the need to address inequalities.

The DYW and Skills Development Scotland Marketplace is going from strength to strength. Marketplace bring schools and colleges together with businesses. Educators can search for opportunities – such as skills sessions and inspiration events – in their local area or use Founders4Schools to find and invite business leaders to an event.

Alongside all of this, I am seeing an increasing awareness across all stakeholders in Scotland of the need to explicitly address stereotypically held expectations of who can do which jobs.

In our experience working with children and young people of all ages, if we ask explicitly: ‘are there jobs that only women or only men can do?’ they tell us confidently that, no, anyone can do anything. There seems to be a real shift towards allowing people to ‘be who you want to be’.

But, if we dig a bit deeper it is generally all too easy to unearth more implicitly held gendered thinking.

There is work to be done to make explicit those implicitly held beliefs – so that thinking can be discussed, assumptions challenged and so that those deeper beliefs become as accepting as the consciously held ones are.

Teachers and early learning practitioners we work with have consistently responded positively to the Improving Gender Balance programme.

I’ve seen a class of 7 and 8 year olds discussing gender stereotypes, explaining their thinking and (appropriately) challenging one another.

As the new Improving Gender Balance and Equalities team at Education Scotland are establishing ourselves regionally, we are seeing this grow in nurseries and classrooms across Scotland.

There is, of course, still much to be done to mitigate the impacts that gender stereotypes and unconscious bias have on learners’ emerging sense of self, from an early age.

All the gendered messaging that young people are exposed to – from books, toy marketing, media, but also unintentionally from the adults around them – shape at a very deep level their sense of who they are, what they enjoy doing, what they are good at.

It’s one thing to support those who want to go into a non-stereotypical occupation to do so – it’s a bigger job again to expand the perceptions of what someone might want to do, to ensure that individuals have genuine opportunities to develop skills and confidence across the whole breadth of the curriculum.

This is not to compel anyone to do anything they don’t want to do. But to work towards a genuine equality of opportunity where boys as well as girls grow up feeling they might be caring and nurturing and girls as well as boys grow up feeling confidence in their STEM skills.

There is a long way to go but the genuine willingness, and real enthusiasm, from a range of stakeholders to work together on this gives me a real hope for the future that is helping me see beyond these reports and headlines.

By continuing this work we will ensure that our 7 year olds will have broader dreams.


For more information on Improving Gender Balance & Equalities and resources visit , read about news and events or follow  @EdScotIGBE on Twitter.

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