Why achieving gender equality at work starts at school

Two young girls sitting on steps


Gender inequality and the disparity between men and women in the workplace has received a lot of deserved attention over the past few years. We all know that women often earn less, are given fewer opportunities for promotion and are subject to sexism on a regular basis. However, new research has suggested that the way to go about achieving gender equality at work starts at school. 

Much has been done to try to fix this problem in the workplace, but there is evidence that these biases set in at a much earlier age.  A recent study showed that girls as young as six were found to believe that brilliance or giftedness was a male trait. If these ideas are present at such an early age these entrenched concepts will be much more difficult to reverse in adulthood. To really achieve equality in the boardroom perhaps there should be a much greater focus on preventing sexist behaviours from taking root in the classroom.

Primary school sexism

A 2013 report by Girlguiding UK revealed that 75% of girls aged 11-21 say sexism affects their confidence and future aspirations. Many felt that their physical appearance was valued more than their academic achievements and more than a third of girls over seven reported that they had been made to feel stupid because of their gender.

These alarming statistics show just how early harmful gender stereotypes start to take hold and since there is no formal education on gender equality most children learn sexist behaviours from those around them. Aside from parents, teachers have the most contact time with children and therefore are important role models, but one in four primary schools do not have a single male teacher. This severe shortage of quality male role models can have a huge impact on the formative years of boys’ education and their awareness of gender stereotypes.
Clinical psychologist Dr Tanya Byron confirms that male teachers can often inspire boys to behave better. Having a more gender balanced staff who are well trained to inspire and uphold gender equality would be of great benefit to the education system and would ensure that men as well as women are fighting for gender equality.

Tough on teachers

Studies show that sexism is so ingrained in the minds of students that even at university undergraduates consistently rate their male lecturers higher than their female counterparts. Despite continuing onto higher levels of education many university students cannot shake the years of institutionalised sexism that the current education system subjects them to, and as such, are likely to continue to hold such attitudes as they enter the world of work. This reinforces just how important the early years of education are to ensuring that gender equality stands a chance in the workplace.

Adelle Kehoe, head researcher at Expert Market, says: “If universities focused more on highlighting gender imbalances and our warped perceptions of the sexes, this could further prepare both men and women for the gender politics in the workplace and help them make fairer decisions.”

Government goals

The Mervyn Davies gender equality report and the European Commission have pushed to increase the representation of women on boards, and have been influential in improving gender equality at work. However, it’s clear that everyday sexism will not be completely eradicated until a better effort is made to prevent it from taking root in schools.

Businesses have a vested interest in helping to educate children on equal opportunity, widening their talent pool to include children that may not have taken certain subjects considered atypical for their gender. Raising awareness of the issue, reporting daily instances of sexismand actively encouraging a system where children are educated about gender equality from a young age and throughout their schooling are just some of the ways in which women can help to ensure that real gender equality is achieved.

*Sophia Patsikas is a writer for business resource site Expert Market.

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