International Women's Day debate: Ending gender stereotypes in education will empower women to think big

On International Women's Day 2023, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) held a debate on dismantling gender stereotypes in education, which are still stopping girls and young women from making their own study and career choices and achieving their full professional potential.

Gender stereotypes and roles are instilled from an early age, often holding women and men back from following their desired professional path in life. The deconstruction of gender stereotypes is slow and laborious, and requires efforts from the whole community, ranging from the training of teachers and tackling gender discriminatory language in the media and schools, to attracting more women in technical or science sectors and more men in professions that are traditionally perceived as female, such as early and primary education or care.

Ensuring that all girls and young women receive a quality education is key to achieving gender equality. It means granting them the power to make their own choices and to build a better future for themselves and their families. Amazing things can happen when women are empowered to think big, EESC president Christa Schweng said as she opened the debate.

The EESC is committed to amplifying young women's and girls' voices to make them heard at EU level. Only together can we make concrete progress towards a Union of Equality, Ms Schweng said.

The debate Pink or blue – dismantling gender stereotypes in education, organised by the EESC's Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship, brought together EESC members and representatives from the Lifelong Learning Platform, European Women's Lobby and European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE).

The panel underscored the detrimental impact of gender stereotypes in education, which subsequently leads to labour market segregation, with much fewer women working in high paying jobs or in science fields. Almost three quarters of students in engineering, manufacturing and construction are male, while women account for the majority of students within the field of health and welfare. Women account for only 41% of scientists in the EU and amount to less than one in five IT specialists.

Furthermore, recent studies have shown the huge negative impact gender stereotypes have on the economy, with estimates that limited educational opportunities for girls cost countries between 15 and 30 trillion US dollars in lost lifetime productivity and earnings. Other estimates show that having more girls and women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) would increase the EU's GDP by 610 billion euros by 2050.

Brikena Xhomaqi, Director of the Lifelong Learning Platform, emphasised the importance of early childhood education and care, as gender stereotypes are already instilled in early childhood years. Stereotypes later negatively influence women's confidence, making them lag behind not only in technical sectors, but also when it comes to holding high posts in sectors with more women, such as in arts and the humanities sector.

Ms Xhomaqi also pointed to the key role of lifelong learning for personal and professional development, but where women are often disadvantaged and marginalised due to their caring duties.

There is a major focus on gender equality, but it is a very binary approach which lacks a broader vision and focuses mostly on school education. However, formal and non-formal education is also important, and Europe is not investing enough in the broader definition of education and training systems, Ms Xhomaqi said.

Line Gessø Storm Hansen, of the European Women's Lobby, spoke about the need to rethink our value system as a whole. For example, care is not valued as high as technical or STEM sectors, leading to low-paid care jobs. When a sector becomes more female-dominant, salaries will not rise as in sectors where there are more men, she said, adding that prior to the 19th century, care work was exclusively done by men.

We have a vision of a feminist Europe where all boys and girls enjoy equal opportunities in life. This is why we need to deconstruct harmful stereotyped roles assigned to girls and boys from an early age. At times of crises, there is a backlash and setback on women's rights. It would be best to secure this through the EU and not let the Member States do it on their own, Ms Gessø Storm Hansen said.

Susan Flocken, European Director, European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE), stressed the need to provide gender equality education and training to teachers. By providing support to teachers, we will enable them to provide support to students, she maintained.

She also spoke about the need to attract more men to work in early and primary education, which is currently dominated by women. This also due to the fact that working in the education sector enables women to achieve work-life balance thanks to more favourable working hours and longer school holidays.

Maria Nikolopoulou, president of the EESC's Ad Hoc Group on Equality, stressed the importance of schools as a microcosm of society. By working together with parents, teachers should instil the values of equality in children, also on an emotional level, by encouraging boys not to hide behind the armour of physical and mental strength and by strengthening girls' self-esteem. They can also work on children's skills, promoting, for example, technological disciplines among girls or encouraging boys to take interest in subjects or sports traditionally practiced more by girls.

In order to achieve genuine gender equality, we need to create space for it. I believe that this is the point of effective equality, that women have the same opportunities to do what men do, and that men get used to doing what women do without being ashamed, Ms Nikolopoulou concluded.

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