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Gender and Subject Choice: Take-up of Technological Subjects in Second-Level Education


Gender and Subject Choice: Take-up of Technological Subjects in Second-Level Education

By Merike Darmody and Emer Smyth
Embargo: 3 p.m. Wednesday 9 November 2005

Members of the Media are invited to attend a Media Briefing on Wednesday 9 November at 11 a.m., in the ESRI.

Young women and men continue to take different subjects within second-level education. These gender differences are especially marked in the take-up of the three technological subjects, Materials Technology (Wood), Metalwork and Technical Graphics. This is a matter of concern since it affects young women’s learning experiences, the skills they acquire and the opportunities open to them on leaving school. This study looks at the factors shaping gender differences in the take-up of these traditionally ‘male’ subjects, drawing on the views of school principals, guidance counsellors, subject teachers and students themselves.

Key findings:

  • Access to the three technological subjects varies from school to school. These subjects are more commonly provided in larger schools along with vocational and community/comprehensive schools; they are only rarely provided in girls’ schools.
  • Even where girls attend schools providing technological subjects, they are much less likely to take these subjects than boys. This gender gap is slightly narrower in larger schools and schools in urban areas.
  • Second-level schools in Ireland vary in the timing and degree of subject choice for the Junior Certificate. This can make a difference to the kind of subjects students take.
  • Students are very reliant on their parents and friends in making their subject choices, especially in schools where they have to make their choices at the beginning of junior cycle. If parents do not have up-to-date information about what the different subjects involve, this may lead to greater gender stereotyping.
  • Schools can make a difference to the numbers of girls taking technological subjects, for example, through the way they timetable subjects. Some schools continue to timetable technological subjects against traditionally ‘female’ subjects, such as Home Economics, thus facilitating gender stereotyping.
  • Students, both girls and boys, tend to take technological subjects because they like working with their hands and like the more informal classroom atmosphere involved.
  • Strong gender stereotyping is evident in student attitudes to the technological subjects, even though recent changes in the curricula have made the subjects potentially more ‘girl-friendly’. Many girls are reluctant to take technological subjects because: they see them as ‘dirty’, ‘noisy’ and requiring physical strength; they do not intend to go on to craft jobs, such as mechanic or plumber; and they do not want to be the only girl in a class of boys.
  • However, many students, male and female, challenge such stereotyped views and feel technological subjects are suitable for everyone.
  • Greater gender equity in subject take-up could be achieved by: encouraging a wider range of schools to provide technological subjects; allowing students to try out their subjects before making a final choice; providing clear information to students and their parents on the content of subjects and the opportunities they offer; discouraging stereotyping in subject timetabling; and challenging gender stereotypes in school subjects.