Gender Equity in Vocational Education
Vocational education has historically been characterized by a high degree of sex segregation. Before Title IX of the Education Amendments in 1972 and the Vocational Education Act in 1976, access to nontraditional courses as well as to some vocational schools was legally denied to females. These barriers led male students to be concentrated in industrial and agricultural education and females in home economics and entry level clerical occupations.
The passage of the Vocational Education Act in 1976 specifically addressed sex equity programming in vocational education.1 Then, in 1984, the Carl Perkins Act gave equity work vital support by providing funds for program development to eliminate sex-role stereotyping in vocational education and to promote enrollments in nontraditional career programs.2
Researchers have found that these early efforts to eliminate sex-role stereotyping were somewhat successful in raising initial awareness of the problem.3 Female enrollments did increase. There was still, however, considerable lack of progress in the area of nontraditional enrollments.
From the "trenches"
In order to investigate if and how equity issues have shown themselves in vocational education, I went to a vocational school to interview students. The school I chose is a regional vocational technical high school, and is located in the New England region. A working class community, the area has suffered severe hardship from the economic recession, registering an unemployment rate the second highest in the nation. The school offers a range of programs, from appliance repair technology and carpentry to data processing and electronics.
There are currently 1,088 males (64 percent of all the total) and 601 females (36 percent of all the total) enrolled. Of this number, 41, or 2.4 percent of the students (all females) are considered to be in nontraditional shops, which is well below the national average (13 percent) of nontraditional student enrollment.4 I studied 103 students ranging from ages 14 to 17--34 females (33 percent) and 69 males (67 percent).
The students speak
The students in this school generally agreed that their school environment is equitable in a number of areas--in teachers expecting the same achievement from males and females (75 percent agreed); in encouragement to enroll based on one's abilities and interests (72 percent); in equal encouragement to participate in athletic activities (75 percent); and in students' right to enroll in any shop in the school (92 percent). Fewer students thought that teachers treat males and females the same (55 percent). Finally, few students felt that their junior high school guidance counselor helped students consider a wide range of career choices, including nontraditional (22 percent). The gender differences on these questions were not statistically significant.
In terms of knowledge or interest in nontraditional careers, there were both similarities and differences according to gender. While overall only 18 percent have a family member working in a nontraditional career, 56 percent know someone in a nontraditional career. However, 47 percent of the females and only 17 percent of the males were interested in learning more about a nontraditional career.
In opinions about the "working world", there was a general agreement among males and females that women work for the same reasons that men work (64 percent agreed). A large portion of the students felt that equal pay for equal work is not prevalent, showing they know at least one of the consequences of occupational segregation. Only 30 percent overall felt that men and women in the same job earn the same pay.
Despite the similarities in these results, there were striking differences in opinions about the roles of females and males in the workplace. While 64 percent of the students believed that sexual harassment is a serious problem for many women, 82 percent of the females felt this way compared with 55 percent of the males. Thirty-six percent overall thought that only men should work on construction sites because they are stronger, but this broke down to only 12 percent of the females, compared with 48 percent of the males. And although 44 percent of the students felt that there are some jobs only men should do, only 21 percent of the females held this view compared with 55 percent of the males.
While only 23 percent overall felt that women should not work when they have small children, 15 percent of the females felt this way, compared with 28 percent of the males.
Twenty-four percent of the males thought that more men should work in nursing, childcare, and clerical jobs, compared with 56 percent of the females (34 percent overall). Although only 21 percent considered the men the primary breadwinners "so women don't need to earn as much," only 9 percent of the females thought this, compared with 28 percent of the males.
There was general agreement among males and females concerning career plans. Eighty-nine percent planned to have a career, with 77 percent planning to combine this with a family. Seventy-eight percent viewed their career as a way to use and develop their skills and 79 percent felt their families would support them in whatever career they chose. However, when asked if their family encouraged them to explore different career possibilities, 62 percent overall said they did--but only 52 of the males reported this support, compared with 82 percent of the females.
A broader picture
Although the students in this school felt it equitable in terms of expectations, enrollment, and encouragement in athletic activities, one must carefully weigh these perceptions with other evidence. We have numerous studies that have indicated considerable differences in the ways in which males and females are treated in schools.5
I feel that the students are limited in their ability to make this assessment. Their youth, inexperience in critiquing their educational environment along gender lines, and lack of exposure to other models of vocational education are all factors that may have elicited these responses. Whether or not a student is in a nontraditional shop can also affect how these issues are perceived. In talking with the school's nontraditional support group - a group that meets weekly to share strategies and resources for increasing the girls' participation in nontraditional careers--I heard views that expressed a somewhat different experience, especially in terms of achievement expectations.
There is tremendous societal pressure against men doing what are considered "feminine" jobs. That there is a sizeable majority of males in the school and none in the nontraditional shops such as childcare, suggests subtle pressures not to violate the "norm". There was very mixed feeling among the students on whether men should even work in these areas. Often, in discussing nontraditional occupations, we place more emphasis on encouraging women rather than men, because these jobs pay better. But income is not the sole reason for advocating equity, and it is important to remember the benefits of promoting flexibility of sex-roles and reducing sex-role stereotyping on the whole.
I found that the female students feel strongly and positively that they have a significant role in the working world. They are not advocates of occupational segregation, despite many of them having chosen traditional shops in this school. This was, in some respects, a surprising finding for me. Although further study is needed to explain what motivates both males and females to attend a vocational high school, it may be that males and females have different reasons for obtaining the skills they are studying in vocational school. Without doubt, these students are aware that they are learning an employable skill.
Students generally felt that the hardest part of choosing to enroll in a nontraditional shop was the peer pressure one would have to endure. The most common comment was that other students would laugh. Though the nontraditional students I met did not mention this kind of treatment specifically, they did indicate that it was an isolating experience and that they did not feel generally accepted.
The issue of sexual harassment must also be dealt with. There were significant differences in whether males and females defined sexual harassment as a serious problem. In an open-ended question asking for "the best way to deal with sexual harassment," many students answered, "Tell someone" or "Report it." However, several males, but no females, answered with the comments such as "leave the job," "avoid it," or "don't bother with it," indicating a stronger belief that harassment is easy to eliminate or that leaving one's job is an option for most women.
In conducting this project, I had the support, openness, and interest of the superintendent, the head of guidance counseling, the head of academic instruction, and the nontraditional guidance counselor. They have also decided to have their first inservice on these issues. It is my hope that their interest will continue and expand.
The road ahead
Despite the fact that women workers make up 45 percent of the U.S. labor force, more than three-quarters of them are employed in traditionally female-dominated occupations.6 Our vocational schools begin to model this early.
This investigation provided useful information on students' perceptions of their environment and their choices. Much of the significant results, and where much research is still to be done, lie in those responses that showed substantial gender differences.
Rebecca Douglass has cited the lack of research in vocational education as a major obstacle to developing quality educational strategies. She has also pointed to the need to look beyond legal compliance when working to improve vocational education.7 With supporting legislation now in place, educators must continue to move programs toward their potential of promoting positive and empowering role models for both females and males.
A graduate of the masters program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Debra J. Robbin has been active in women's issues for the past 15 years.
Center for Equity and Cultural Diversity
The equity lens
The changing demographics of our citizenry are forcing us to examine how well our educational system serves those who are not white, middle-class males, as well as how changing workforce needs should be addressed within schools. Vocational education in particular has seen two decades of legislative efforts designed to increase access and expand the definition of vocational education.
This article will highlight some of equity issues being raised in the larger educational reform discussions, and note some of the implications of these issues within vocational education. By beginning to examine some of these critical issues, we can begin to develop new approaches to vocational education that benefit all of our students.
Role of the teacher
For over two decades we have known that teachers, like the rest of us, have learned well the biases present in our dominant culture. This fact has been reaffirmed in How Schools Shortchange Girls, a recent study by the American Association of University Women.1 Vocational teachers are subject to the same messages about who is most "able" and who has little promise.
Although most teachers don't consciously act on, or even hold, biases about students determined by their skin color or gender, students do pick up unconscious signals and perform according to teachers' expectations of them. Researchers Myra Sadker and David Sadker have found a hierarchy at work in the classroom, with white males receiving the most attention from teachers, and females of color receiving the least, and this while the teachers studied felt they treated their students equitably.2
Tracking and ability grouping
Tracking of students by academic ability, although widely used across the United States, has been criticized by reformers and equity advocates alike. Although this issue is larger than this article, some major criticisms have been that students of color are disproportionately placed in the lower tracks. The criticism of racial segregation within tracking is supported by the fact that the practice of tracking students gained favor widely only after 1954 desegregation order from the Supreme Court.3
Rather than helping students placed in lower tracks build skills, this approach relegates them to failure. In fact, the system does not improve performance of lower and average tracked students, and only improves performance of higher tracked students by a small fraction, in any.
While the standardized tests often used to separate students by "ability" are biased against females, males of color, and low-income students, these tests are one of the primary instruments used to determine tracking position. This, coupled with unconscious bias in teacher perceptions, means that placement in tracks cannot be free from the biases and prejudices of the dominant culture.
Historically vocational education has been part of this tracking system, with "high ability" students placed into the college preparatory track, and students who were assumed couldn't "make it" academically placed in vocational education or general education. Many vocational schools are still fighting the image that their students are less intelligent and that "smart" students can't benefit from vocational instruction. It's clear that the answer to addressing students' needs lies not in more extensive tracking systems as some educators propose,4 but in making our instruction equitable, accessible, and intellectually challenging to students with varying learning styles and abilities.
Much of the recent legislation affecting vocational education the Vocational Education Act of 1963, the Education Amendments of 1968, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, the Education Amendments of 1976, and the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act of 1984 has contained provisions for eliminating discrimination against certain populations of students, including females, low-income students, students with disabilities, and students of color. This legislation has been important for opening the doors for students not traditionally well served by vocational education (as it has been within the larger educational structure).
Much of the literature that focuses on vocational education and select populations looks at females and at students with disabilities. Research on females has highlighted a number of areas related to vocational education that require immediate and continuing attention, for example, sex-segregation of class enrollment, sex-biased assessments and counseling, sexual harassment within the school, and others. Several of these issues are discussed in other articles within this issue.
Other research looks at students with mental and physical disabilities. This attention is partially the result of federal legislative requirements, as well as the fact that many students with disabilities are tracked into vocational education. Studies have shown that vocational training helps to ease the transition between school and work for disabled students.
But female students with disabilities face hurdles both because of their gender and because of their disabilities. A recent study by researcher Mary Wagner found that young women with disabilities do not receive either the same quality or quantity of vocational education as male students with disabilities. For example, vocational training for female students with disabilities falls mainly in the low-paying service sectors, like food service and office work, while that for male students with disabilities falls mainly in skilled professions, like construction. This segregation may lock females with disabilities into a cycle of poverty and dependence. Indeed, the study found that only 1 percent of employed women with disabilities earned more than $6 an hour (compared to 11 percent of employed men with disabilities).5
Finally, recent studies have shown that students who speak languages other than English are increasing in number within the vocational education system, although these students are still under represented. The Carl Perkins Act stipulates that vocational schools must actively recruit, counsel, assess, and provide support services for students who have little or no English. While many new approaches are now being tested to meet this legislative requirement, many schools are still not in compliance.6
We also need to look beyond the formal curriculum, to the "informal" curriculum in our schools. This informal curriculum includes activities and benefits not in the formal, or "written down" curriculum, but that are available to and benefit some students. For instance, are African American females as likely to receive mentoring from teachers as white, male students? What about school assistance in job placements after graduation? Or access to after-school jobs through teachers connections with their field? In addition, are there other supports we can put in place that will both encourage and support racial and ethnic minorities? Would the formation of a support group for female students in nontraditional courses help encourage and support young women exploring these fields? Answers to these kinds of questions are vital as we consider how to make vocational education truly equitable.
While schools may still be working as if large groups of students are "special" students, they are, in fact, the majority of students in our schools. Hopefully, as we move to ensure that instruction, services, and benefits are equally available and accessed by all groups of students, we need no longer consider them as "special."
Counseling and assessment
Interest and skill assessment is part of every student's entry into vocational school. And, although it is now illegal to use the assessment materials that differ by gender, a practice which was popular prior to Title IX and the Vocational Education Act of 1976,7 assessment still depends on the assessor's interpretation of data and on the student's interests. Students respond to the many unconscious signals sent by assessors and through the materials they are shown. If the information they are given about courses shows only males in small engine repair and the assessor and/or materials use the pronoun "he" when discussing student requirements, most girls will be unwilling to even consider such a course.
In terms of counseling, research has shown that, compared to adolescent male, adolescent females were aware of many fewer occupations open to them, and they had lower expectations for their probability of succeeding in them.8 We must work very hard to ensure that all students are aware of the possibilities open to them, and that it is students' abilities and interests that decide their course of study rather than biases of the school and society. One of the ten policy recommendations in a report by the National Center for Research in Vocational Education is that "school counselors must . . . '[lean] over backward' to avoid being influenced by stereotypes that pervade the entire culture when they offer educational and labor market advice to young women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds."9
Although schools no longer have different requirements based on gender or race, vocational education remains one of the most segregated areas of education. Females make up more than 90 percent of the students in programs for training in nursing assistants, cosmetology, and secretarial training. Males make up over 90 percent of the students in electrical technology, electronics, appliance repair, auto mechanics, carpentry, welding, and small engine repair. The division concentrates females in training for fields with low pay, while males were in courses with more high-paying job opportunities.10
There is also a substantial difference when transferability and career ladders are examined. One of the discussions currently taking place within vocational education concerns the questions of whether vocational instruction should be training students for a specific job, or in broader job skills that are more readily transferable. This issue takes on particular significance when considered in terms of the segregation now in place. A student trained in electronics has more chance for transferring skills to another job, as well as advancement in the workplace, than someone who is trained in cosmetology.
Although on the surface students are, for the most part, selecting the areas they are interested in, students do not operate in a vacuum. For many of the same reasons female students self-select out of math and science courses, students often pick programs that place them in traditional, sex-segregated classes. The reasons females tend to select female-dominated courses span the range from wanting to be with their friends to experiencing sexual harassment when trying nontraditional classes. Additionally, students seem to self-segregate in response to issues already raised here-teacher expectations, tracking, and counseling.
Another key reason is lack of female teachers as role models for young women. Female instructors are concentrated in traditionally female job areas, while making up less than 10 percent of all the teachers in industrial arts, agriculture, trade and industry, and technical occupations. And teachers of color are significantly under represented among vocational school faculty.11 While the lack of role models for students of color overall, and for females in nontraditional courses, does not automatically exclude them, many students feel more enthusiasm for trying something new when they see "someone like me" as a classroom leader.
Educators need to actively encourage students to explore new areas and support students who try nontraditional programs. Educators concerned with the gender distribution among courses have found that by talking to girls realistically about job opportunities, advancement, and salaries, girls become much more interested in exploring nontraditional areas. At the same time, however, we need to create a supportive, accepting behavior on the part of male students. Without focusing on this, many classrooms may remain unfriendly to female students.
Making vocational education equitable
Educational administrators and teachers can do much to change the inequities that now exist. By placing equitable education as a priority within schools and school systems, the visibility of this problem will be raised. Training programs that have proven effectiveness are already available to help change this pattern (GESA-Gender/Ethnic Expectations and Student Achievement-is but one).12 And individual teachers who seek additional training on their own should not only be supported, but rewarded for making a positive contribution to school climate.
Vocational education is entering a challenging and exciting period, when big questions are being asked, and new approaches proposed. As vocational educators discuss and evaluate the directions to go looking at issues such as the relationship they have with traditional schools, whether or not students should be encouraged to mix vocational and academic courses, how to prepare and support teachers-the equity issue must remain central to the discussion. Many of these issues take on new light, and sometimes new urgency, when considered in terms of how they affect different kinds of students.
a New Decade:
by Susan Eisenberg