how gender norms influence what young people choose to study at school

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how gender norms influence what young people choose to study at school

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There is a gender divide in the subjects teenagers choose to study. In 2022, 63% of UK GCSE candidates taking a full GCSE Physical Education (PE) course are male. For art and design subjects, however, boys make up only 35% of students studying the subject.

The subjects students choose to study are gendered. Research on boys and education shows that Stem subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) and PE are understood as masculine.

Research shows that children associate science with men and masculine traits from an early age. One study found that boys were more likely to express gender stereotypes about scientists.

On the other hand, subjects such as English can be considered less masculine due to their perceived irrelevance to traditional ‘male work’, lack of clear answers and emphasis on emotions.

The choice of subject then becomes what is known as an “identity resource”: something that people can use to construct their self-image. Boys can draw on these identity resources to establish their masculine credibility with their peers.

These stereotypes influence students’ career aspirations in secondary school and their choice of higher education when self-image and the image of an academic subject as masculine or feminine do not match.

Research shows that when young people strictly adhere to traditional gender roles, they are less likely to achieve their academic potential because these gender roles influence the subjects they continue to study. In this study, the strong masculine image of maths and science significantly reduced the likelihood of female students choosing a Stem major at university.

Constructing identities

Religious Education (RE) is an example of such a gendered subject. I conducted research, published in 2014, into boys’ views of RE in three secondary schools in North West England. I conducted group and individual interviews with 35 boys aged 14-16.

My research showed that for many of the boys, RE was not on their agenda because it was not an identity resource they wanted to use. I have found that there is a correlation between what boys think about RE and their ideas of masculinity.

Although RE at Key Stage Four is a statutory requirement in England, meaning that many schools will require students to take it at GCSE, it is not compulsory to take the GCSE exam course. In some schools it will be offered as an option.

One of the boys I spoke to had chosen to study GCSE Religious Studies, but told me that his male friends had chosen PE and sustainable materials. Boys who liked RE and chose it when it was offered as an option bucked the gender trend.

Boys who chose to study RE bucked the gendered trend.
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

One told me he didn’t lose his “reputation” by choosing Religious Studies GCSE over PE. The boys I spoke to who had chosen to study Religious Studies for GCSE identified themselves as the ‘mature people’ because of their interest in what they called the ‘big questions’. They distinguished themselves from the guys who would just “mess around”.

Bucking the trend

Studying subjects such as religious education provides an opportunity to discuss matters of faith and spirituality. Gender roles that lead boys to choose not to study such subjects can lead to disengagement from subjects that touch on questions of meaning, purpose and value.

In my experience as a secondary school teacher and researcher, I have found that boys will engage with subjects like RE when teachers make connections between RE and real-life problems clear. The way to find out what these problems are is to talk to young people and learn to listen to their concerns.

Gender stereotypes related to subject choice affect the life chances of both boys and girls. Recent research shows that both boys and girls who challenge restrictive gender roles do better in school.

Schools can take steps to create a more gender-equitable environment. This can include lessons that debunk myths about subject choice and gender and that allow both boys and girls to question gender norms – creating a more equal environment that offers them greater opportunities.

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