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5 March 2015

I’m sorry Tristram Hunt, but careers education won’t make girls more ambitious

Tristram Hunt's plans for careers education for girls won't make us more ambitious - and I should know.

By June Eric-Udorie

At the London Festival of Education,  the Shadow Education Secretary, Tristram Hunt made remarks about encouraging girls to be more ambitious with their career choices. He said, “Girls should start careers education from the age of seven to encourage them to become more ambitious”. He then went on to say that this could help them “broaden their horizons” so girls realize that “they can be architects, they can be engineers or they can be doctors”.

I’m sorry Tristram Hunt, but careers education from years three and four (age seven, eight or nine) is not going to solve the problem. The problem is not that girls don’t want to be ambitious. The problem is that girls live in a society where from a ridiculously young age they are bombarded with messages about what girls can or cannot do.

The messages are often detrimental and affect the decisions girls make. When a little girl holds a stethoscope, we assume that she wants to be the nurse, not the doctor. Walking down the aisles of toy shops, you have ‘boys toys’ and ‘girls toys’ and in most situations the boys toys are more adventurous and offer more opportunities for boys, whereas girls toys offer very limited opportunities.

Tristram Hunt is not wholly wrong about the lack of girls reaching the highest positions. Women make up only 17.7 per cent of FTSE 250 directors.  Out of the 650 MPs, in Parliament, only 147 of them are women. Only seven per cent of the engineering workforce are women. Studies have shown that nearly half (46per cent) of the state schools in Britain had no girls studying Physics at A-Level.  Boys make up four out of five entries for physics A-Level.  

And, at my school, there are no girls taking Computer Science for A Level. In one Further Maths class, there are only two girls. We still live in an 80-20 society, however, to suggest that the way to tackle this is to start educating girls from age seven is absurd. Not only because at that age you go through phases where you want to be everything and anything, but because this is an issue that is clearly to do with wider society and how we bring up our daughters.

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What Tristram Hunt should be focusing on is building the confidence and self-esteem of young girls. Instead of careers education, we should educate girls and boys about the dangers of gender stereotypes. From an early age, we should educate and encourage both girls and boys to dream big and discourage the idea that there are certain things you should or shouldn’t do based on your gender. We should stop using harmful and sexist language like “girl sport’ and ‘boy sport’. What exactly is a ‘boy sport’ anyway?

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This isn’t just to do with sexism and gender stereotyping.  Apart from the internalized barriers that means girls think, “girls don’t do that” this is an issue to do with representation. I’ve often felt that there were certain things I couldn’t do because I was a girl. My little sister is nine and loves football but questioned whether she could play football because she never saw any female footballers. A friend of mine wanted to be a scientist but felt this was impossible because she’d never seen any black female scientists. I always find it interesting that Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry and Physics, yet I hardly see her on display in schools. Or Dr. Maggie Aderin-Pocock, an amazing black female space scientist – where is she?

Careers education is not going to solve the root cause of the problem. Girls live in a society that tells them what matters is how you look and where doing something ‘like a girl’ is an insult. We are girls called slags and sluts and the worst thing a boy can be told is he is ‘acting like a girl’. You’re reminded that no matter how ambitious or brilliant you are, it doesn’t matter because you are a girl. At 16, I already have enough careers stress on my plate and that doesn’t need to start earlier. What needs to start earlier is changing the society we live in – so girls can have big ambitions and fulfill them.