The leaky pipeline of education policy – a look at the DYW strategy

The COVID-19 crisis has changed society immeasurably. The closure of nurseries, schools, colleges and universities means a generation of children and young people are thrust into completely new learning environments and expectations, with teachers, lecturers and other education practitioners delivering learning support in new and challenging ways.

Close the Gap has been working on education and skills policy for many years and we are keenly aware of the impact of this crisis. We are aware that the rapidly changing labour market will mean that those young people emerging from further and higher education to seek employment will face a significant challenge. Young people bore the brunt of the Great Recession. With young women facing inequality from the moment they enter the labour market the impact of the expected post-coronavirus recession is likely to have a chilling effect on their ability to enter and progress in good-quality work.

We know the COVID-19 crisis is already disproportionately impacting women, from their over-representation in key worker roles, the majority of which are low-paid and undervalued, to the challenges of balancing working with delivering unpaid care to children and older or sick relatives. Our recent report Disproportionate Disruption: The impact of COVID-19 on women’s labour market inequality identified that young women are more likely to work in sectors which have shut down and in low-paid roles, placing them at an increased risk of poverty. These inequalities did not arrive with the coronavirus; gender inequality has been stubbornly entrenched in our society for generations.

It's time to focus on gender inequality

Deprioritising women’s and girls’ inequality at this time is not an option. The need for a sharper focus on its causes and solutions has never been greater. Despite policy aims of tackling gender inequality, progress remains out of reach. But why is this? Why, when we have the evidence, when we know what action is needed, are we still so far from real equality for women and girls?

Gender experts have long talked about the cyclical nature of gender inequality and its presence and impact at every stage of life for girls and women. This is why, in 2014, we welcomed the launch of the Developing the Young Workforce Strategy, which was framed as taking a ‘pipeline approach’ and set out equality as one of its five key focus areas. The strategy came with a series of recommendations for stakeholders covering the journey of children and young people from school through to employment, to be implemented over the course of seven years.

In 2019, five years into the DYW implementation plan we undertook a review of the strategy to examine its action on gender inequality in education, skills and careers guidance, and to identify positive outcomes for girls and young women. This review extended to over 200 documents connected to the work of strategy partners and resulted in over 20,000 words of gender analysis. We have recently published a summary of the review and its findings in a more digestible 12 pages.

Commitments to action from Scottish Government

We used the findings from the review to advocate that Scottish Government and other delivery agencies take a gendered approach in DYW implementation. We’ve worked with Scottish Government officials leading the practice and improvement evaluation of the equality outcomes of DYW, one of the actions in A Fairer Scotland for Women, to share learning from our gender review.

We’re very pleased to say this has resulted in strong commitments to accelerate action in the final years of the strategy’s work. The most recent progress update from Scottish Government commits to work with Close the Gap to:

  • Develop a strategic approach to building gender competence in teachers and other education practitioners;
  • Ensure the DYW Regional Groups review is informed by gender expertise;
  • Develop guidance for employers engaged with DYW on tackling gendered occupational segregation, and build capacity on the importance of gender equality at work in realising the ambitions of DYW; and
  • Ensure any new resources developed for teachers and careers practitioners are gender-sensitive and include guidance on tackling gender stereotyping and segregation.

We also recognise that the COVID-19 crisis will have a significant impact on girls and young women currently in or about to leave education. It is essential that future work under the DYW strategy, and on Scotland’s economic recovery planning, responds to this gendered challenge. We will be working with Scottish Government to ensure this is considered as part of its work on COVID-19.

We also welcome the commitment from Skill Development Scotland in its new Career Information Advice and Guidance Action Plan to roll out mandatory training for career practitioners to build their gender competence and to undertake focused work on gender stereotyping with school pupils and parents. Close the Gap has been calling for this for a long time.

Why we need this action

Our review highlights real and pressing concerns regarding the lack of positive outcomes delivered for girls and young women thus far. We found that there has been no substantive action on gender under the strategy, with the majority of activity limited to generic ‘equalities’ focused work which is unlikely to create change. The evidence suggests that work to address gender stereotyping and segregation is inconsistent and not being prioritised. This indicates the strategy’s commitment to embed equality throughout its work has not been realised.

The reporting of work under the strategy can accurately be described as ‘labyrinthine’, with the large number of stakeholders and inconsistent reporting format making it extremely difficult to identify examples of action on gender inequality. This unclear reporting was further exacerbated by the inappropriate progress indicators set at the strategy’s outset. These issues have combined to create a lack of accountability for stakeholders on gender equality.

The two strongest areas of the strategy relate to colleges and apprenticeships. Each of these areas have action plans which focus on gender and equality more broadly, but this has not translated into meaningful progress for girls and young women. In colleges a lack of focus on infrastructure and the culture change needed in organisations remains and in apprenticeships there has been no progress on gender segregation.

We feel that progress has been critically impeded by a lack of actions for schools and employers. In schools we identified that resources developed for teachers and careers practitioners are gender-blind and are unlikely to provide an impetus for action. This is a significant concern as teachers and careers practitioners have told us that they need support to build their gender competence if they are to challenge gender inequality in their work.

At the other end of the pipeline, the recommendations for employers do not engage with gender or equalities at all. This lack of focus on the employer role in tackling gender inequality means that whatever progress is made throughout the education pipeline, young women will still be entering an unchallenged and unchanged labour market and workplace culture.

Moving forward

While the strategy’s pipeline approach provides a range of opportunities for targeted action to tackle the barriers which hold back young women and girls from benefitting from their full potential, it is unsustainable if each stage of the pipeline does not include concerted action to tackle gender segregation. We know that gender stereotyping begins from birth and is further embedded at each stage of the life cycle. If we continue to take a gender-blind approach and fail to build gender competence in those who are in a position to create change, then change will remain elusive for girls and young women.

We strongly welcome the engagement of Scottish Government and other agencies with the findings of our review. We’re looking forward to working with Scottish Government and Skills Development Scotland to drive real change for girls and young women. These commitments are more important than ever if we are to move the needle on gender inequality in education and skills, and to look forwards to advocate for a gendered response to the emerging challenges of the current crisis.

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