Gender and assessment

by Tim Oates, 03 October 2016
Gender and assessment - surely everything's changed... but it's not clear that it has... 

Feminism has perhaps been the most successful international political movement. Why 'political'? Because it has sought to change power relations and entrenched aspects of society and economy. We of course have seen beneficial changes - women obtained the vote in Switzerland in 1971(!), globally, UNESCO data show us that female educational participation has increased significantly in the past 20 years. But our qualifications data in the UK continues to show significant gender differences. And the influence of the labour market, as well as deeper societal relations, continues to be extraordinarily strong. 

A Level biology continues to be split 60-40 girls to boys. Physics is the other way around: 80-20 boys to girls. And the figures have shifted little in the last 25 years. Ten years' ago, Cambridge Assessment published a chapter in Kate Myer's GenderWatch reprise volume, and this adopted an unusual 'life trajectory' analysis - noting the apparent improvement in girls' attainment in 5-18 education, but also the entrenched structures which mean that the majority of females do not carry the advantage they gain in education through into lifelong employment. Then, Kate Purcell's analysis showed that breaks in career cause the advantage to evaporate and go into reverse. Continued low female representation in higher level management across the economy suggests that this is still firmly in place. 

Some signs are good - occupations with high 'control factors' enable women to take career breaks and return on flexible arrangements. A recent study reported in the TES showed more young females aspiring to enter 'high control' occupations such as dentistry and medicine. But other occupations show strong stereotypical gender aspiration: 30-60 split female to male in pilot training, with precisely the reverse regarding cabin crew training. And 80-20 female to male in nursery training. 

Education can and should look at the way in which assessment and learning can challenge ill-founded gender stereotyping; schools should ensure that pupils get access to mentors and role models who cut through entrenched and illegitimate occupational identities. But the evidence shows a continued, powerful societal influence on young people, affecting the way they see themselves, determining the subjects on which they focus, and influencing strongly the qualification choices which they make. Schools should not ease up on gender issues; Higher Education should continue to do outreach work to break gendered assumptions about subjects and the occupations to which they lead. But a look back at the persistence of gender differences in qualifications suggest strongly that continued, deliberate, focused action and support will be needed for a considerable time yet... 

Tim Oates 
Group Director of Assessment Research and Development, Cambridge Assessment

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