The “Gender Factory”

The “Gender Factory”

How the Swiss education system (re)produces inequalities between women and men

Author(s): Farinaz Fassa, Pascal Maeder

Key messages:
  • In the Swiss education and training system, entering lower secondary school often goes hand in hand with the orientation towards specific course programmes leading to future ca-reers that for a majority of girls are not equivalent to that of boys
  • At the end of compulsory schooling, vocational and general education programmes lead girls into employment profiles and professions that are fewer in numbers, paid less and offer fewer opportunities for career advancement
  • As a result, the Swiss education system increases the risk of poverty among women, espe-cially if they become heads of households and do not have any education beyond compulso-ry schooling

Farinaz Fassa’s recent publication provides important insights into the place of girls and boys in Switzerland’s education system. Although equality between men and women is guaranteed by the Swiss Constitution, particularly in terms of education, it appears that the Swiss education system persists in constructing deep and lasting inequalities between the sexes. Based on a tracking system with two or three levels, the Swiss school system is very selective and directs pupils into different streams. Once they reach the end of their education and training, boys and girls begin their career in a labour market which does not confer the same recognition to girls for the skills they have acquired despite equal qualification. Theoretically based on merit, this selection process proves to be not only socially unjust but also gendered since the Swiss school system sets the stage for life courses which disadvantages the majority of women and reproduces gender and class inequalities. Moreover, this school system does not pursue any systematic policy for gender equality. It plays little part in questioning the ways conciliation between work and family is perceived, letting this burden to lay on women’s shoulders only. This absence of systematic and sustainable policy has girls endorse very traditional gender norms so that they see their professional future as complementary to family-related and child-rearing tasks. Such a horizon limits educational “choices” to working part-time often in professions related to people, health and social care, education and communication. Yet, these “choices” made in childhood and adolescence have long lasting consequences. They can, especially when couples split, increase women’s vulnerability; the parenting conditions in Switzerland making it difficult for mothers to obtain full access to the labour market. Consequently, the author proposes that equality become an aim in itself within the Swiss education system.

Selective and gender-biased orientation

In most cantons, the selection process between higher and lower-level curricula occurs during compulsory schooling often around the age of 12. Based on their performance, a minority of children will be able to attend the academic stream of lower secondary school and gradually specialise. If successful, this group of children will later have access to upper secondary schooling (e.g. high school) and university studies. The other children will continue their education with a less demanding curricula aimed at preparing them for the labour market at the end of compulsory schooling (15 years of age) and initial vocational education and training (approximately 65% of the age group, as a national average).

Such an early selection process has long lasting consequences for the educational future of children of both sexes. It decreases drastically – if not totally – access to university studies for children directed towards a more vocational course programme. Therefore, this type of tracking at a very young age limits the range of careers they may have wanted to pursue in the future. Faced with these early choices, boys are more often directed towards technical activities than girls who tend to opt for subjects linked to occupations in communication and care which are less valued and less rewarded on the labour market.

“Choices” that lead to vulnerability

By selecting an option or a course programme, girls and boys do not appropriate the same knowledge or competences. Recent work on career aspirations, such as the study by Guilley et al., shows that from the age of 13 girls and boys anticipate their future social and professional integration in very different ways. While boys focus on technical occupations which are commonly practised full-time, girls anticipate their subsequent family involvement and move towards employment profiles and occupations which appear to make it possible to work part-time and combine employment and family life. From a relatively young age onwards, not only skills and competences but also representations of the future guide girls’ and boys’ choices in education: girls integrate family obligations and boys see themselves as main breadwinners. These representations obviously have consequences on careers and employment. For instance, despite equality policies in academia, women in science remain a minority at the top of academic hierarchies as shown in the subsequent diagram.

In terms of remuneration and professional development, perceived future occupations are clearly not neutral as they are embedded in strong gender and class hierarchies. Boys will most likely be opting for occupations with wages higher than in predominantly female occupations (i.e. employment sectors where they represent more than 70% of the work force). Moreover, so-called “female” occupations offer fewer opportunities for career advancement and continued education (e.g. federal certifications, brevet federal). Opportunities for self-employment in traditionally “feminine” jobs and occupations are equally few for except in occupations in the beauty or art industries (hair stylist, dancers etc.), women work primarily in the public sector: the service industry, teaching, social work and healthcare. Given the lower salaries and the more limited career prospects, taken all together these factors suggest that already very early on in compulsory schooling girls anticipate employment which exposes them as adults to a greater risk of vulnerability whereas boys will be able to take advantage of the higher value that the labour market bestows upon their skills and competencies.

Post-compulsory education that seals the professional pathway

These highly gendered “choices” are confirmed at the end of compulsory schooling when it comes to picking an occupation. As data from the Federal Statistical Office (FSO) perfectly illustrates: from the 33 areas of activity identified by the FSO, five areas generate more than 50% of the graduates, including nursing among which more than 90% are women (whereas “mechanics and metal working” and “building and civil engineering” have more than 90% male graduates). Other occupations with more than 85% female participation include social work and counselling, medical services, hairstyling and beauty care, dental studies, textile crafts (clothing, shoes, leather), healthcare and veterinary science.

As these figures clearly show, for boys and girls learning has neither the same meaning nor does it imply the same experience: young women very much enter professional pathways where upward social mobility is difficult to achieve and access to a professional future equal to that of men scarcely exists.

The same holds true for intermediate upper secondary education (école de culture générale, i.e. vocational college) where three quarters of the graduates are women. Their diplomas provide little alternative to entry into a higher education system which prepares the majority of them for work in care, health or education. These overwhelmingly female-dominated areas offer lower wages for positions requiring the same length and level of training as occupations in heavily male-dominated and yet much better paid engineering.

At upper secondary schools (e.g. high schools), the situation is similar. Among the many specific options offered to pupils at this level of the Swiss education system, boys are channelled into three different streams bound for career opportunities in the hard sciences, economics and law. As for girls, they primarily opt for modern languages, as well as biology and chemistry, philosophy, psychology and teaching, in addition to visual arts and music. However, only around one out of two pupils will make a direct transition into upper secondary schooling. Those who do not (or cannot) pursue this level of education requiring the highest academic standards will find themselves in the same situation as those young people who move straight away into the apprenticeship market, facing the same choices and constraints dictated by the prevailing gender order.

Combining equality and education

In the 1970s, Switzerland’s education system dropped all restrictions and gave girls access to education similar to that of boys. However, linked in part to a half-hearted implementation of gender equality policies, the Swiss education system continues to reproduce gendered social structures. Although events such as “future en tous genres” [“ungendered futures”] attempt to broaden girls’ and boys’ professional horizons, women and men remain to this day still unequal on the labour market.

Targeting children of both sexes between 10 to 12 years, “futures for all” offers children the chance to spend a day discovering a “man’s job” for girls or a “woman’s job” for boys. Even though their success is notable with some real openings, a single day has little impact on the life of these young pupils, especially as school activities aimed at fostering equality often come down to one-off actions. A survey conducted by Fassa between 2011 and 2013 with teachers in French-speaking Switzerland confirms that, in general, the gender aspects of education are neglected: only 16.5% of the respondents said they had used an educational guide to teach equality (Ecole de l’égalité [School of Equality]).

As it seems, more needs to be done to ensure equality policies have a real impact and in the long run bear concrete results. For women and men to live lives which offer equal opportunities, new and innovative “choices” must be offered to pupils in secondary schools allowing for orientations and career options which are not directly linked to the constitution of their gender identities. Interests and skills should be the only criteria for educational pathways. Education authorities at both cantonal and federal levels should therefore explicitly assert that equality between the sexes, included in both the Federal Constitution and the law, is also implemented in the education system. Transforming equality into one of the goals of the education and training system would indeed promote the democratic and equitable functioning of our society.

References / links:

Farinaz Fassa, full professor in sociology of education at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, co-director of the Observatory on education and training (OBSEF) at the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences.

Pascal Maeder, PhD, scientific project manager HES-SO, head of knowledge transfer NCCR LIVES.

LIVES Impact (ISSN: 2297-6124) publishes regularly briefs with policy-relevant research findings from studies  conducted at the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES “Overcoming Vulnerability: Life-course perspectives” (NCCR LIVES). It is aimed at professionals, public officials and representatives active in social policy and related fields.

Series Editor: Pascal Maeder, KTT Officer, pascal.maeder@hes-so.ch

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