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The recent Ofsted report on Girl’s career aspirations makes the assumption that because girls do better than boys at school, but are less successful in the workplace, there must be something wrong with girls’ choices of educational path and career.

The recent Ofsted report on Girl’s career aspirations makes the assumption that because girls do better than boys at school, but are less successful in the workplace, there must be something wrong with girls’ choices of educational path and career.

But are girls themselves the first place we should look for an answer as to why success at school does not translate to success in the workplace?

Of course there may be powerful factors influencing children' – boys' and girls' – choices of career that require addressing. Although having said that, as Becky Francis’ recent blog has argued, discourses of ‘aspiration poverty’ are problematic. Even if girls did assume that they would take top jobs in typically male-dominated industries, would all the men start quietly going into part time secretarial roles, or caring? Would senior managers erase all discriminatory assumptions, and would leaving work to have children stop having an effect on pay and status? In other words, is it the girls and their aspirations that are in fact the problem here?

Secondly, the unquestioned correlation of doing well at school with doing well at work that sits uneasily with me in this instance. The first sentence of the report reads “Young women achieve better educationally than boys at the age of 16. A higher proportion of girls than boys continue in education to degree level. Their early success, however, does not translate into similar advantages in terms of careers and pay in later life”.

Before focussing on the girls and their lack of ambition, do we not first need to question the assumption that success at school should beget success at work? It is far from obvious:  the behaviours and attitudes that are rewarded at school are not always the same as those rewarded in the workplace. Is what gets you good A Levels the same as what gets you promotions, the best jobs, or that pay rise, especially in the higher eschelons of the private sector? In other words, the assumption that if you do well at school means you should do well in life needs testing in light of the fact that for girls this clearly doesn't happen.

And is there not an important gendered element to this as well?

I’m no expert and I’d welcome readers’ views, but it strikes me that feminine (not necessarily female) characteristics such passivity and conscientiousness stand you in good stead in formal education institutions and passing standardised exams; whereas masculine (again, not necessarily male) characteristics of assertiveness and aggression are more likely to be rewarded in management and board rooms. On the other hand, the exposure of abuse at the Winterbourne Care home has raised important questions over what kinds of attitudes and behaviours we need to promote in a world where an ageing population means that caring of the vulnerable becomes ever more important.

The RSA has long been arguing that the formal education system does not necessarily provide young people with what they need for life and work. And we're not only talking about those young people who do not do very well within the education system, we're also talking about those who perform in exams yet do not do so well as others in the workplace. Rather than looking at the girls to be more ambitious (although we should), perhaps we should also look at the fitness of the system which could be measuring and rewarding the wrong things, as well as how we define and value what it is we think boys and girls should aspire to be?

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