London Metropolitan University Research Institutes


Gender equality in work experience placements for young people

Funded by:

the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC)


January 2004 - June 2004


Work experience is seen as an important opportunity for pupils to enage with the world of work. Gender stereotyping continues to be stongly evident in young peopleís occupational choices, with negative consequences in terms of sector skill shortages, inequality of opportunity and inequality of work conditions and reward. Work experience has a potentially important role in disrupting such trends by providing young people with broader, diverse and/or non-gender traditional experiences and ideas about the adult workplace. Yet evidence has suggested that uptake of work experience placements reflects gender stereotyping.
The Equal Opportunities Commission, in collaboration with JIVE and the DfES, commissioned an IPSE team to undertake this project in order to:

  • establish the extent to which young people are undertaking stereotypical work experience placements;
  • understand the reasons and processes behind this;
  • highlight good practice; and
  • explore what might be done to facilitate change.


Interviews were carried out with Education Business Partnership (EBP) managers, and questionnaires completed by 16 work experience coordinators in schools, and by 566 pupils (across 20 different schools) who had carried out work experience placements. Further, in order to look more closely at processes and explanations, case studies were undertaken at four different schools in diverse locations involving interviews with pupils and key personnel.

Key Findings:

The Organisation of Work Experience Placement Coordination, and Organisers’ Views on Gender Stereotyping

  • EBP managers and (teacher) work experience coordinators recognise the uptake of work experience placements to be overwhelmingly gender-stereotypical. The uptake of non-gender traditional placements by pupils was reported to be rare.
  • However, in spite of this, challenging gender stereotyping was not a priority. Gender issues generally appear to have fallen off the agenda. EBP managers and work experience coordinators tended to see their priority in provision of work experience as freedom of choice for pupils, rather than extending opportunities or addressing workforce issues. Many felt gender stereotypical uptake of placements to be inevitable, or beyond their remit to address. Others felt that any attempts to challenge such patterns would be inappropriate, given their prioritisation of freedom of choice for pupils.
  • The continuing gender stereotypical patterns in uptake of work experience placement were largely attributed to pupilsí stereotypical perceptions. Some EBP managers and work experience coordinators talked about sexist workplace environments as deterring uptake of non-traditional placements in male-dominated sectors, but there were no attempts to challenge such employers.
  • Activities undertaken at EBP or school level to reduce gender stereotyping in work experience and careers were fairly scant, due to a lack of prioritisation in resourcing. Activities and interventions used tended to be short-lived and small-scale, usually targetted exclusively at girls (overlooking boys) and often involving small numbers of pupils.
  • Methods of identification/allocation of placements reflected the ’freedom of choice‘ ethos, with pupils positively encouraged to identify and arrange their own placements. Over half the coordinators at the various schools said that the majority of pupils in their school self-identify work experience placements. This approach was celebrated as ’entrepreneurial‘, and as reflecting freedom of choice.

Pupils’ Uptake of Work Experience Placement:

The uptake of work experience placement in our sample was highly gender stereotypical. For example, examining work areas where there is a skills gap:

  • no girls undertook engineering placements (compared to 31 boys);
  • only one girl undertook a placement in semi/unskilled manual labour (compared to 26 boys);
  • only one girl undertook a placement in IT (compared to 18 boys);
  • no girls undertook semi/skilled trade areas such as plumbing (although only 6 boys were involved here, probably indicating a scarcity of placements in these areas); and
  • only two boys undertook placements in childcare (compared to 43 girls).

There were also some surprises, for example substantially more boys undertook placements in retail (a traditionally feminine area) than did girls (Although few boys chose retail as a future occupation, suggesting that many of these placements may have been directed due to availability, or expedient choices). Our findings of generally stereotypical trends in work experience placement area according to gender are supported by LSC data on 91,288 placements.

  • There are more male-dominated (and stereotypically masculine) work placement areas than there are female-dominated (and traditionally feminine) areas, indicating that gender stereotyping may have particularly restrictive effects for girls as an overall group. And some placements are far more available than others - ironically shortages of placement are often evident in areas experiencing skills shortages.
  • Placements are strongly ‘classed’ - placements in some areas of work were not undertaken by any pupils who did not expect to go to university. These included IT, legal, media production, science, and medical and para medical professions. These indicatively working class pupils were also far less likely to undertake office and education placements, and more likely than other pupils to take placements in hair and beauty, engineering and semi/unskilled manual work.
  • The patterns in uptake according to gender and social class hint at the problems created by the ëfreedom of choiceí model in perpetuating inequalities, as different pupils have different levels of knowledge of, and access to, occupations. These issues and processes were clearly illustrated by the case study data.
  • There were clear differences between the range of work placements undertaken and the range of pupilsí occupational aspirations, calling into question the link between the two. The range of work placements was narrower. There is a clear shortage of placements in particular areas to which pupils aspire (including areas experiencing skills shortages). And there was little evidence that non-traditional placements were being prioritised in these areas.
  • In some work areas the over-representation of placements to which few pupils aspire as future occupations was leading pupils to experience broadly non-traditional areas (such as boys in retail), but in others was channelling pupils into stereotypical areas. For example:
  • 43 girls undertook placements in childcare compared to only 29 who listed it as their choice of future occupation. This placement steer did not apply to boys in childcare, as only 2 boys undertook childcare placements.
  • More than twice as many boys undertook placements in semi/unskilled manual labour as those who sought this for their career (26 boys, compared to only 12 who listed it as their choice of occupation). Again, only one girl undertook such a placement. This evidence suggests that work experience placements are constraining occupational trajectories and extending stereotyping.
  • Asked whether they would like to try a non-traditional placement, 36% of girls said that they would, and a further 33% were undecided. Far fewer boys agreed.
  • Pupils who had purposefully undertaken anti-stereotypical placements constituted a tiny minority. Those interviewed in the case studies appeared to have been motivated/enabled to undertake such placements by a combination of their individual interests, ideological perspectives, and strength of character, rather than due to the influence of the school or employers.

Pupils’ experiences of work experience placement:

  • Pupils overwhelmingly enjoyed and valued their placements. The social aspects of the placements were rated somewhat more highly by pupils than the actual work involved, but pupils saw placements as beneficial in a range of ways.
  • There was evidence that placements had a potential impact in both challenging or exacerbating gender stereotyping
  • In the case of some apparently non-gender traditional placements it appeared that in spite of the work area pupils had been given gender-traditional tasks to perform - hence opportunities to facilitate non-traditional routes were being lost and even impeded.
  • Similar proportions of pupils said that their placement had encouraged them to choose such work in future, or had no effect on their decisions about work. A smaller proportion said that placements had discouraged them from pursuing such work.

Pupils’ Constructions of Gender and Work:

  • Pupils choices of future occupation were highly gender stereotypical, with an over-whelming tendency for girls to choose caring/creative jobs, and boys to choose scientific, technical and business-type jobs.
  • Boys tended to hold more strongly stereotypical views than girls, and pupils had impressions of particular jobs as particularly gendered. A majority of pupils who said they would not want to do a job traditionally performed by the opposite sex explained their reasoning as due to a belief that the sexes are simply better at different jobs.
  • Teachers and pupils provided a range of explanations for the gender-stereotypical patterns in uptake of work experience placement, from parental/community attitudes, to careers advice and issues in the workplace.

Examples of Good Practice and Factors Which Might Facilitate Change:

  • A number of organisations provide excellent initiatives which challenge gender stereotyping in school-to-work (including among others the work of JIVE, WISE, The GERI Partnership and Scienceís Next Wave).
  • Teachers and pupil respondents volunteered various suggestions for reducing gender-stereotyping in work experience, from particular interventions and improved teaching materials to prioritisation in school policy.

Key Messages:

  • This study has revealed the extent of gender stereotyping among pupils in their uptake of work experience. It has demonstrated that pupils are overwhelmingly positive about work experience, and how impressions around gender taken from work experience can help to inform future decisions. It has also shown how many pupils support equal opportunities regarding occupation and would be willing to experiment with non-traditional placements.
  • We argue, therefore, that currently a major opportunity is being wasted to broaden pupils horizons at pre-16. Indeed, rather than broadening outlooks, pupilsí perceptions of the adult workplace are being constrained by work experience practice, both in terms of gender and social class. In this sense traditional block-placement work experience where placements are largely self-identified by pupils may be seen to be furthering, rather than reducing, social inequality.
  • Interventions taking place to address gender stereotyping from school to work, though often of high quality, are relatively small scale and are not reaching all pupils. This, coupled with the fact that gender stereotyping is a profound aspect of pupils’ construction of gender identity, means that it is unsurprising that these initiatives are not having a broad impact on pupils’ choices. Clearly, if the numbers of pupils undertaking non-traditional placements are to be increased, there will need to be a shift in the approach of schools and other agencies concerned with work placement.
  • We argue that work experience placement needs to be uncoupled from pupil career aspirations if gender stereotyping is to be reduced in work experience. This can be justified for the following reasons:
  • A link between work experience placement and eventual career cannot in any case be assumed.
  • The notion of ’freedom of choice‘ in the current model of organisation is a myth in terms of outcome.
  • The prioritisation of a link with occupational aspirations has meant that other benefits of work experience placement gain insufficient attention.

In developing work experience to broaden pupils’ outlooks and opportunities as well as developing their skills and experience to equip them for adult work, we argue that pupils might engage in two or more very different placements, in different occupational sectors. The aims of these would be to:

  • provide pupils with experiences of different types of work environment (including non-gender traditional), and the various practices and work involved
  • Develop skills from the school curriculum (which would be aided by application in different work environments)
  • Develop personal and social skills necessary for the world of work (which would be aided by application in different work environments)
  • Learn new work-based skills (which would be aided by experience of different work environments)
  • Inform pupils and broaden their horizons concerning the types of work available in the adult workplace.


Project Team:

Becky Francis
Louise Archer
Jayne Osgood
Jacinta Dalgety


Jayne Osgood -


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