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Fixing the pipeline

Getting girls into top jobs by tackling confidence and unconscious bias was top of the agenda at GSA's annual conference

Posted by Stephanie Broad | November 25, 2015 | Events

There was a truly animated atmosphere at the Girls’ School’s Association (GSA) annual conference at Celtic Manor this week, as headteachers from across the UK gathered to catch up, share ideas and learn from top speakers on the theme of ‘Reach Further’.

Alun Jones, this year’s President, set the tone for the conference as he told delegates: “We are going to be inspired and challenged in equal measure.” He referenced the long journey of women’s fight for equality, acknowledging that there is still work to be done, whilst giving case studies of GSA students who have gone on to pursue successful STEM careers, demonstrating the value that GSA schools provide. 

Alun Jones addresses the conference

Alun also offered some important figures on the work that GSA has been doing. Last year, according to the ISC census, GSA gave away £66 million in bursaries, and a third of GSA students have help with their fees. GSA wants all children to have equal opportunities regardless of their backgrounds, as well as helping girls to ‘reach further’ by challenging gender stererotypes and participating in careers programmes. 

Our first speaker, trainer and author Andy Cope, gave the audience a well-needed boost on the chilly Monday morning. He says a head’s job is ‘not to inspire people – it’s to be inspired’ but the routine and ‘busy-ness’ of their job means inspiration and happiness is something that’s always being chased (a ‘destination addiction’). He asks delegates to discuss what brings them joy at work and what impact they want to have, encouraging a positive mindset throughout the week: “Mondays are good, Fridays are bad – what if they’re the same but Monday has bad PR?” 

Andy Cope's presentation, The Art of Being Brilliant

A highlight of the conference was the presentation of research undertaken by Oxford University’s Careers Service, which shows that girls are significantly less confident about their career prospects than boys. According to the survey of nearly 4,000 sixth formers, girls and boys have very different attitudes to what they seek in a career – attitudes that significantly affect the types of jobs they secure. 

Sixth-form boys are much more confident about their job prospects, while girls show greater anxiety about their ability to land a good job. On a scale of 1 to 6 (with 6 being most confident), girls averaged 3.7 and boys average d4.3 when asked to rate their personal job prospects after university. There was a significant benefit for boys in all-boys’ schools, who scored 4.5 compared with 4.2. Both genders already perceive the job world as one where men are paid better and face better prospects. Fifty-six per cent of boys and 75% of girls think men receive higher pay in their jobs after university. 

The research findings were presented by Jonathan Black, Director of the Oxford University Careers Service, at the conference on 24 November. The research follows on from a survey of university graduates last year that showed a ‘gender gap’ in the jobs male and female students attained after leaving university. The findings will be published in the Oxford Review of Education.

Jonathan said: “We surveyed sixth form students after identifying gender as the single biggest factor in whether graduates from top universities secured a graduate-level job. Having seen that women students were less confident, we extended the research to sixth form pupils to learn if they had the same attitudes and behaviours.

“Our latest research has confirmed that gender-based differences in career confidence start early. Sixth form girls have lower confidence about their career and, compared with boys, are more concerned about each aspect of job application, and are more interested in careers that offer job security, in a cause they ‘feel good about’. This has the knock-on effect that girls may be self-limiting their choice of careers, especially because the types of jobs they seek often have informal entry processes (via networking or low and unpaid internships, for example). We are exploring ways to intervene and equip school pupils to improve their career confidence and are piloting a new programme, Ignite, as one possible solution.”

The research was conducted through a survey of 3,698 students from 63 different schools and colleges across the UK, including 31 coeducational and 32 single-sex schools. 31 of the schools surveyed were state schools, while 32 were independent schools. 

Oxford’s Careers Service is developing a careers confidence programme, Ignite, which is being piloted in schools. The programme, developed with support from Newnham College, Cambridge, and the GSA, will help develop pupils’ assertiveness and confidence in academic, extra-curricular, family, social and eventual career activities and is currently in the second phase of being piloted in schools.

Karen Parker, a management consultant who works with independent schools, also presented at the conference on the ‘leaking female pipeline’ into senior business roles. She says girls are in face very confident and ambitious at school, but face an ‘unconscious bias’ in the workplace that prevents them from progressing.

She says: “Things happen at work, like they get overlooked for promotions, they can find it difficult to find a voice in meetings. [There is a] difference between the two genders in terms of the way they put forward their arguments, they way they talk about ‘I’ instead of ‘we’  - it all begins to contribute like a drip feed, and slowly the confidence levels begin to decrease.”


Delegates learn about 'unconscious bias' from Karen Parker

The Oxford University research found that sixth-form girls’ career ambitions are significantly more influenced by lifestyle factors and finding a job deemed 'worthwhile' than boys, whose main focus is salary.

Looking at students’ interest in university subject areas, the research suggests that girls’ preference for doing something ‘worthwhile’ translates into a strong interest in studying medicine among those who are scientifically inclined. Meanwhile, boys in all-male educational environments feel more able to pursue ‘arts’ degrees compared with boys in coeducational schools.

So why are girls less likely to take up highly-paid job? Karen says: “One of the main reasons is that many of the jobs with higher pay, when they look at the environments that surround those jobs, it’s not as attractive to them as some other areas. Quite often, that might be because it’s male-dominated, because it’s not a working environment that they’d like to be in. 

“I think that the salary is very important to men, I think women look [more broadly] than that at the careers that they’re going into.

“Traditionally, we’ve always looked to the man to be ‘the breadwinner’ and that’s now changing. That could be an underlying reason. It’s not all women – many women are driven by salary as well.” 

Parker’s work is mainly with sixth form girls, who are preparing to make important choices about their future: “The girls I work with know all about unconscious bias and they know all about gender difference…I imagine it would be quite challenging to have these conversations lower down the schools, I think it is a sixth form conversation.”

Should schools put this in their curriculum? “I’ve never been a teacher so I don’t know the right way of getting this message over,” Karen says. “But that could be one option. It could be that specific awareness sessions are run for the sixth form, but they need to be run with care because at the moment with the levels of confidence of girls being as high as they are, we’d need to make it a positive discussion. It’s not a negative discussion.“    

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