How Educators Can Help Smash Career Stereotypes

Letitia Denham

Nic Ponsford believes that anyone should be able to do a job that they like, and that for society to be happy and productive, we need to be able to encourage gender equality in all areas. She is a firm believer in the power of education to encourage a gender […]

Nic Ponsford believes that anyone should be able to do a job that they like, and that for society to be happy and productive, we need to be able to encourage gender equality in all areas. She is a firm believer in the power of education to encourage a gender equal society, as well as in the concept of the portfolio career.

Having worked as a teacher, tech lead and now tech start-up founder, Nic and her colleague Cat Wildman founded the Global Equality Collective in 2020: an organisation that strongly believes that equality benefits everyone – regardless of gender, race, ability, orientation, identity, religion, background, nationality, age or socioeconomic status. Cat and Nicole’s organisation provides gender equality training, sources experts and leading educators and speakers in the field, and offers an online app to help businesses and educational organisations ensure they are working to uphold the highest standards of equality for their students and employees.

We met Nic and talked to her about doing what you love – regardless of gender – and how we as educators can work to encourage everyone to achieve what they are capable of. See a 5 minute clip on your YouTube channel here or read on for the full interview.

Xperienceships: Could you tell us a bit about your background in education and how and why you co-founded the GEC?

Nic: I started teaching at the turn of the century – I had previously worked in marketing and advertising. As a NQT (newly qualified teacher) of media, I was learning the craft of being in the classroom, and applied to be an examiner, so I could understand the curriculum. The school that I was at was really supportive of early careers teachers, and they set up a group with a couple of other young teachers who had set up alternative A-Levels and things. So I had a support unit. I was nominated for a teaching award really early on and then asked to write as an early career teacher. 

As an examiner and writer, I started to write training in school, then for local authorities, regionally, and then it started to go national and international, which was amazing. I started understanding what it was like working against a backdrop of what we call disadvantaged – but Americans called under-served – students, and saw some of the biases that I came across as a young teacher, then started seeing what it was like in leadership – being a woman in leadership.

Because I’d always worked around technology, I started to go onto social media around 2010 – there started to be more communities online that teachers were engaging with. And I met a woman there called Dr. Julie Wood from the US, and we ended up writing a book online together. (TechnoTeaching: Taking Practice to the Next Level in a Digital World, 2014) Harvard published it, which was incredible. So I kind of started to see well actually as a parent, as an educator, remote working, what the possibilities were.

X: What happened next to take you down the gender equality path?

I started to work for a charity called Achievement For All. They look at the 20% lowest attaining students and it got me interested in how schools carry themselves and how they do or don’t listen to parents, how teachers represent themselves, and how they make themselves heard with how to reach families. I did that for nine years, all the time hearing about biases, and limitations within the education system. So I started to do a little bit more around diversity and inclusion. 

A teacher called Graham André was in a program called No More Boys and Girls, which was BAFTA nominated, and he set up a Twitter group: I was on it, and Cat Wildman was brought into it. Cat was a digital product director at The Telegraph at the time, having the same kind of conversation; she’d done a six week field study in a classroom about careers and seen some of the bias there. She was going to all the big meetings trying to get more women around the table. We had a conversation: what’s going on in your area, what’s going on mine – I’d remembered there was a website, creative skillset, that I used as a media teacher, which really helped young people understand employment routes in the creative industries. And I thought we needed something around gender and inclusion. And, then Cat said, I’ve got a really big idea: that idea is what we call the GEC App. We had an idea of this framework, which was based on all the teacher training that I’ve done, and all the work that she’s done in business, to create a way of actually being able to identify what those gaps are: e.g. Why are girls not taking up jobs in STEM? Why are boys not taking particular art subjects?

Cat and I wrote a framework, one for business, and one for education. We’ve got two assessments, and built into that so then you know what your gaps and celebrations are, and you want to take it further. For education, we have thirty e-learning modules, which go from: what on earth does this mean, to specific expertise all brought in with our collective. We got investment at the start of lockdown for it, which is phenomenal, particularly for female founders!

X: Congratulations, that’s quite an achievement this year!

N: Yes, we’ve built it all, launched to businesses in September and launched to education a few days ago. We’ve had 10 schools and colleges that have done the pilot – we have done it for £150 per setting, which is basically admin fee for the data. Because education doesn’t have anything like this. We don’t normally get it, because we’ve got no money. And there’s been a lot of conversation about how we change it? Or how do we get more women in? And how do we close a gap in education? – but there’s not been anything solid that can be used…until now.

X: So can you explain what the GEC App for schools encompasses?

N: The app is the framework, the membership, a mark, and e- learning modules. It’s basically a kite mark for gender equality and inclusion. We address the nine characteristics of the Equalities Act. What was interesting in developing it for businesses and for education, there’s an awful lot of overlap and learnings on both sides. 

There’s a lot of training that we do in education that is actually of very high quality, that business leaders can use particularly around around diversity and inclusion, when you’re starting to talk about the language used, how you hold and receive those conversations, the gender pay gap, things like that, there’s, there’s a lot of things that can be learned on kind of either end. The way it’s being used is the same, because essentially, it is about changing cultures and, and, and staff training, which we all need to do as part of our professional development be it in business or in the education space.

X: You’ve been working embedding digital technologies into education for a while. What do you think for the last six to eight months over the pandemic have been in this time of forced adaptation, what have been the most impactful changes you’ve seen for learners and teachers?

N: One of the jobs I’m doing at the moment is working with the Edtech demonstrator program, which is a DFE funded peer to peer project. We’ve got 48 demonstrator schools and colleges who were initially chosen because of their competent use of edtech and their proven skills, but we had to become a delivery model. 

With HE, there are a lot of universities that have already moved to a cloud based system, and on the whole, the students are more independent. So the model that they’re doing is very different to what early years would be doing in a primary school I’ve always been pushing for more technology, because I think technology is a great equalizer, particularly when it comes to children with SEND as well. 

I think the problem we’ve had in England is we haven’t had that national approach, which Wales did, for example. So we weren’t able to have a kind of consistent approach straightaway. And because we’ve got gender gaps and diversity inclusion gaps, particularly around low socioeconomic status, has happened with COVID, that digital divide has been seen really clearly in schools as well. Schools that didn’t have the Wi Fi, didn’t have the devices, didn’t have the staff, didn’t have the strategy or the CPD, or the aspirations. All these different factors were handled in different ways.

X: What have you seen then, that works in terms of getting schools to try and embed technology with teachers and learners?

N: Firstly, it’s a disposition towards technology. Education is known to have held technology at arm’s length. There’s the issue around early years where there’s, research that it doesn’t improve motor skills, so why would you use tech? I would argue, you can catch a student voice, like no other way using technology – it’s just good quality early years teaching and learning. Actually, what’s happened with digital platforms like famly and tapestry, have made that really popular.

I think that the way we can help our students now is to understand a couple of things. Firstly, understand that technology is just part of life. And it’s very much the future of work. To deny students that means you are cutting opportunities for them, particularly at the moment where students can’t go look around, say, universities, for example, or do work experience.

X: We hope that Xperienceships can help students with that! 

N: That entrepreneurial spirit I think is something that schools can really promote, when they understand that, actually, the Gen Z generation, they’re not going to have a standard career path. No jobs are safe, even before COVID no jobs were and even now they’re not. One of the things I’ve noticed is that we as teachers would say, “What you want to be when you’re older?” What I do now is I say, “What do you want to achieve?” 

One way to improve things for the careers of our students is looking at what work is now. It’s an area I don’t think teachers understand, because it is changing. And if you are not involved in the kind of startup world, if you’re not involved in what’s going on with technology across the board, not just in this country, because you can work anywhere, then you have to quickly teach yourself what what actually the situation is when it comes to career paths for the students in front of you.

X: It’s really cool to hear from educators who can broaden it, who can zoom out. 

We’re going to move now across to gender equality. How do you think technology helps or hinders gender equality and education? 

N: I feel quite strongly that the messages we’re getting to try and close gender equality gaps, when it comes to STEM are not working – what has been missing is the empowerment of female teachers in the classroom in front of those girls, as technologists. And so a couple of years ago, I started to really pursue it. I got really annoyed with the “where are the women” conversations because the women were working really hard, but they weren’t asked to be on the panels. They weren’t confident to put themselves forward, and they were just too damn busy. So I created the Edtech collective, on our website, and basically just went to the women I really admired and said, can we come together?

They don’t fit the mold of, you know, women who are going for headships. Some of them started off in teaching, and then have moved out and developed varying apps or they’ve become academics. Like Dr. Sarah Jones, who does sort of VR for Google, but is also a lecturer in Birmingham. We have Cat Lamin, who does incredible work around coding and Raspberry Pi in Google, but we’ve also got Caroline Keep, who is director of the first maker space school in the country.

I think that’s one way to close the gap because I think then the students are then learning from other females, and that that helps. But also I think the other way we can help close those gender gaps is to allow children to be pioneers. We need to be equipping our children: by understanding that technology isn’t inbuilt. They’ve been brought up with it, but are not digital natives. 

We don’t know what those jobs are going to look like. The problem we’ve got in schools is where teachers don’t understand what the jobs are, that are out there now, let alone in the future, they are letting both the boys and the girls down.

X: What’s a gendered stereotype you’d like to smash for the educators out there?

N: I think the biggest stereotype is; girls aren’t interested in STEM. I would like to smash that in terms of homes, schools and businesses. So the girl has opportunities for all those STEM toys, not just TV programs that seem to be filtered with pink and purple. The other side I’m learning about is where the research comes in. At the moment I’m looking at how boys’ hands develop slower than girls: the bones develop at a different rate which means they hold a pencil later than girls. Between four and six you see in education, boys are told to hold the pen, and they can’t do it properly, but the girls can. And then we start to get that route through into literacy, and writing and the arts. So that’s a big stereotype. But I would like to smash it, for education to understand that the boys are later developers with that, and we need to address that as a system because I think that’s huge.

It’s around training, and an understanding identification of the biases that we have personally, what we then bring into our organizations. That’s the way to stop it. Because your brain is constantly trying to take those mental shortcuts. But what we need to be able to do is kind of step in and police that before it happens and kind of tell ourselves that we need to be open and actually doesn’t matter if it’s a boy or girl or non binary or black, white, whatever. And then we might be able to start to recognize people by their potential, rather than what they put in front of us or what we judge •

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