Lifting limits through school engagement by Cathy Walker

Early years and primary education are an undeniably important stage in children’s development, during which they begin to discover their identity and then work to develop and maintain it.

Much developmental psychology is based around theories of social identity, which can see children proactively behaving in a certain manner to belong to a certain group, looking for ways to find meaning and make sense of the social world that surrounds them, and using the concept of gender to help them to interpret what they see. Gendered marketing that targets little girls to be caring, nurturing, gentle – and pink – and that targets boys to be active, rough-and-tumble and even aggressive, makes an impact on the self-image of the developing child that is difficult to overcome. 

In the Lifting Limits report, Professor Gina Rippon, Professor Emeritus of Cognitive Neuroimaging at Aston University explains: ‘By the time they are about six years old, (children) have normally aligned themselves firmly to their own gender and made up their minds about what this means for them, what it means they can do and how they should behave.’ Sadly, this also means that although they might be told in school, or at home, that they can be anything they want to be, this message is undermined for them by what they see, hear and experience in the wider social and cultural world.

This ‘wider world’ also includes school, and the Lifting Limits pilot project in five London primary schools set out to eliminate the unconscious bias that can perpetuate limiting and artificial gender stereotypes in educational institutions. The pilot involved:

  • Staff training to raise awareness and encourage self-reflection
  • A ‘gender audit’ to identify areas for development within the school’s systems
  • Appointing ‘Gender Champions’ to maintain the focus of the pilot
  • Assemblies to help pupils to engage with and overcome the existence of gendered limitations in their day-to-day lives

The impact of the pilot is both startling and encouraging: participating schools noted positive changes in teachers’ and pupils’ attitudes, greater awareness and raised aspirations. One way in which the research notes this is in pupils’ altered attitudes towards particular toys and themes, with both boys and girls demonstrating a greater awareness of a more diverse range of roles and possibilities for women and girls, and men and boys. 

This research resonates with us here at the Automotive 30% Club, where our Outreach Network works to partner automotive executives with educational establishments, in order to raise awareness amongst young people of the wide variety of jobs, the improving inclusivity and the increasing diversity within the automotive industry. Like the Lifting Limits pilot scheme, we are proactive in challenging gender stereotypes. Over the next academic year, our Outreach Network will aim to visit 30 educational institutions to share our campaign to address the gender imbalance in the automotive sector. Our Inspiring Automotive Women’s network will also hold an activity day for 100 female students from 10 schools, hosted by Volvo, as well as undertaking 30 outreach visits, to showcase inspirational, successful female ‘real models’ from within our sector. 

It is our hope that the work we do to address the gender imbalance in the automotive industry will empower the next generation of young women and men to engage with the debate around gender diversity, thus and continuing to recognise and overcome artificial barriers to their own personal and professional ambitions. 

If you would like to get involved in the Automotive 30% Club Outreach Network as a volunteer, please contact our Volunteer Engagement Manager at danielle@automotive30club.co.uk. If you are from an educational establishment and would like a visit from a member of the Automotive 30% Club, you can get in touch with our Schools Outreach Co-ordinator at cathy@automotive30club.co.uk.

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