Equity & Diversity

Advocates Call for Breakdown Of Gender Barriers in Voc. Ed.

By Sean Cavanagh — June 12, 2002 6 min read
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For years, vocational education programs have worked hard to overcome their stigma as a training ground for low-level workers relegated to lifetimes of greasy hands and dead-end jobs.

“Title IX and Equal Opportunity in Vocational and Technical Education: A Promise Still Owed to the Nation’s Young Women,” is available from the National Women’s Law Center. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.) A summary of the report’s findings is also available.

And for too long, teenage girls have been saddled with their own stereotype, a leading women’s rights organization says: that they belong in such traditional and often underpaid careers as nursing, cosmetology, and child care.

Shedding those myths should be a common goal, some business leaders and legal activists say. But while much of vocational education has acquired a high-tech glow in recent years, a new report alleges that gender bias still pervades the nation’s high school vocational programs—and says that the U.S. Department of Education has an obligation to help fix the problem.

In a study released last week, the Washington-based National Women’s Law Center argues that vocational education steers too many girls into courses that lead to low-paying occupations, rather than into trade and technology tracks, which remain male-dominated and pay better.

Because of biased counseling and misconceptions about the workforce, the report contends, female students avoid training for careers in carpentry, plumbing, automotive work, and some computer-related fields.

That interpretation, however, was disputed by at least one national scholar on women’s issues, who said vocational segregation is typically the result of independent choice, not official action.

Whether girls are funneled into such careers intentionally or not, the disparity amounts to a violation of the federal Title IX law barring sex discrimination in federally funded education programs, the National Women’s Law Center concludes in a broad review of the the 30-year-old statute.

“There’s a lack of information provided to students and parents, which results in rampant gender stereotyping,” said Leslie T. Annexstein, a senior counsel at the legal-advocacy organization. “When students are provided with information about the opportunities in a profession, that’s a very powerful influence.”

The center has petitioned the Education Department’s office for civil rights to launch an immediate review of vocational education programs at high schools in 12 states—one in each of the regions where the federal agency has a civil rights office.

In its study, called “Title IX and Equal Opportunity in Vocational and Technical Education: A Promise Still Owed to the Nation’s Young Women,” the women’s law center found:

  • Female students made up 96 percent of those enrolled in vocational cosmetology courses, 87 percent in child-care classes, and 86 percent in courses offering training to be health assistants, in the 12 states surveyed.
  • Male students, by contrast, made up 94 percent of plumbing and electricians’ classes, 93 percent of welding and carpentry courses, and 92 percent of automotive-technology programs.
  • There are financial consequences from the gender divide. The median hourly earnings for child-care workers is $7.43 an hour; for cosmetologists, $8.49; and for medical assistants, $11.06. Plumbers, by contrast, earn a median wage of $18.49; computer-support specialists, $17.53; and electricians, $19.29. Wages can top $30 an hour in those fields.

Natural Selections?

Christina Hoff Sommers, an author and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, dismissed many of the report’s findings, branding it “girl-crisis literature” that wrongly depicts women as unable to choose their own paths.

More young women than men enroll in four-year colleges, said Ms. Sommers, citing research by the National Center for Education Statistics—but few people describe that as bias, she said. Cultural and biological differences are central to career choice, she argues, and some women are drawn to fields such as nursing by an innate emotional connection.

“These advocacy groups do not have a good history of doing objective research,” said Ms. Sommers, who is also on the board of the Independent Women’s Forum. “They overstate how vulnerable girls are.”

Education Department officials, meanwhile, vowed to thoroughly evaluate the petitions filed by the National Women’s Law Center, though they declined to comment on the specifics of the report.

The agency “is committed to ensuring that girls and boys have equal access to the vocational programs that interest them,” C. Todd Jones, the deputy assistant secretary for enforcement in the office for civil rights, said in a statement. The office will “vigorously investigate each of the complaints,” he said.

Others say overhauling ideas about gender and vocational education needs to start at home, as well as in the guidance counselor’s office. A study put out by Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., earlier this year concluded that students’ closest advisers on career choice are parents.

“They’re hearing it from their parents and their teachers: ‘Women don’t do that kind of work,’” said Frank Giannelli, a director of workforce development at the AED Foundation in Oak Brook, Ill., which represents 1,200 distributors and manufacturers of equipment. “It’s entrenched in the American psyche.”

‘One of the Guys’

The paucity of female students in trade and technology programs disturbs some college and industry officials, who predict that a shortage of qualified women will hurt U.S. businesses in the long run.

“It really goes back to the broad societal image of these jobs,” said Dan Hurley, the acting co-director of a career institute at Ferris State, one of the nation’s largest providers of trade and technology training. “It will require a much more concerted effort to recruit women.”

Once young women leave high school, luring them into certain fields proves difficult, he said.

Forty-five percent of Ferris State’s overall enrollment of roughly 11,000 students in 2000 were women, he said. But in the school’s College of Technology, only 232 out of 2,356 students—fewer than 10 percent—were female. In sharp contrast, more than 90 percent of the 982 students enrolled in the school’s program for health professions, such as nursing, were women.

Progress, the women’s center argues, should come through better high school guidance counseling; appointing administrators to make sure Title IX is complied with at the local level; and preventing sexual harassment in vocational classes.

Legally, discrimination does not have to be intentional to be forbidden by law, Ms. Annexstein said. Sexual harassment in male- dominated classes would qualify as purposeful; poor counseling of students might not, she said.

For now, venturing into male-dominated vocational courses takes a strong will, said Brandi Clark, 17. A recent graduate of the East Valley Institute of Technology, a popular high-school-level vocational program in Mesa, Ariz., Ms. Clark signed up for as many automotive-repair class as possible, and even did an internship at a local Chevrolet dealership.

Most of the time, she was one of only two female students in classes with 20 male students. She learned to tolerate a couple of off-color comments from the boys every so often, but she said other girls might not find it so easy.

“It was a great experience for me,” Ms. Clark said. “But I’d see some girls go into the class and get really bothered by it. I went in there knowing what to expect.

“I knew I had to be careful what I did or said, or I’d be judged. I tried to be one of the guys.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2002 edition of Education Week as Advocates Call for Breakdown Of Gender Barriers in Voc. Ed.


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