Young people, class and gender

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To what extent, and why, are young people divided by class, race or gender, and how does this reflect the influence of wider social processes? In exploring these questions, you should seek some perceptions from young people themselves and use these as data. What relevance might youth work have in this context?


“People are divided by their gender from birth until death.  Throughout life, gender influences the manner in which a person is treated within their social class and within society as a whole.  This then affects their treatment of others.”  Young Person, FYWG consultation, 2004

The subject of gender divides within young people has long been an interest of mine.  I believe that although some divides are biological, most are a consequence of social attitudes regarding gender and the roles each sex has with society.  Historically women have always been classed as the ‘underdog’ of society and have had to fight continuously for their rights to be recognised.  It needs to be acknowledged that men have in recent years come to recognize the important of child rearing and housekeeping.  Many have fought to take on these roles previously thought of as feminine, even going to court to gain sole custody of children after a family breakdown.   Although it is generally assumed the children would live with the mother regardless of who is the better carer, men are beginning to prove that they can carry out ‘maternal‘ caring roles as well as women can take on the stereotypical men’s jobs.

In order to obtain up to date information based on the views of young women in Cornwall and relevant to my field of work, 20 young people from Hear Our Voice, Young People’s Mental Health Project (HOV) and 20 young people from another youth project (Zebedees Youth café) aged between 14 and 25 years completed a questionnaire I had compiled to ascertain their views on gender divides (see appendix).  My reason for involving young people from another project was to ascertain whether young people from HOV were more or less aware of any gender divides, perhaps initiated by their mental health issues.  The questionnaire results showed nothing conclusive either way although follow up workshops with the HOV Falmouth Young Womens Group (FWYG), a necessary part of my work schedule, brought up issues of male dominance during childhood.  This was regardless of class and age of the young people involved.  

My role as a youth worker largely focuses on issues experienced by young women, so for the purposes of this essay I feel it is important to concentrate largely on the effect gender divides have upon young females.  Based on their own experiences of being a young woman in society, the members of FYWG explored the impact their gender had upon their lives whilst growing up, in their social, family and school lives. The group meets on a weekly basis. It concentrates on emotional well being and uses informal education and peer educative / supportive methods to raise levels of self esteem.  Falmouth is a harbour town in Cornwall and is surrounded by many small villages.  The young women involved with the consultation for this essay were white and of British origin, it is important to recognise the data collated by myself represents the views of Young White Women from a variety of classes all of British origin and all of whom live in rurally isolated areas.  Throughout the consultation social class re-emerged time and time again as an important factor within this field.   For that reason class and how it impacts further upon gender divisions is mentioned throughout the essay.  

Initially I intend to give a brief historical overview of the gender divides and how society has moved on in response to people fighting for equal rights. I will then look at the extent to which young people are affected by society’s attitudes towards gender during the early stages of childhood.  Subsequently I discuss the educational systems role in dividing young people according to their gender and the effect this has upon future career choices and opportunities.  I also ask what level youth workers should be involved.  If so, what would their role be?  Finally I will focus on the views of the young people in the consultation for this project.  I discuss their views on the extent of gender division during childhood and how they believe it influences and affects their youth.  I also include their views of using the youth work approach to counteract the gender divides that exist.

Historical overview:

The changing role of women in society was analysed by Ann Oakley 1981 (cited in Haralambos and Holborn).  Incidentally, Oakley, undertook the first ever study on women and housework and when approaching her boss (probably a man) with the subject, was told ‘to go away and come back with a proper topic’. (Harolambos and Holborn 2000).  Working class adults and children of both sexes were employed in the factories before the industrial revolution in the 19th century.  Most middle and upper class women and children would not have seen the inside of a factory and the men would have had managerial positions. 1819 saw the introduction of the factory act that steadily controlled child labour. From 1841 to 1914 (the beginning of World War 1) a woman working was seen as a threat to men. The Mines Act which banned women from working in the mines (1852) reduced the employment of women greatly.  The social attitude was that women should be in the home to care for her family. In 1851 only 1 in 4 women were in paid employment by 1911 it was 1 in 10. With the growing limitations on women’s employment, more and more women were forced to stay at home. (Harolambos and Holborn 2000 p.144)

During World War I women became useful again as cheap labour and many returned to the workforce while men were away fighting in the war.  The economy needed women in the workforce and could be paid less than men had been for doing the same work. In February of 1918 the representation of people’s act gave women the right to vote for the first time. Under this act women over 30 were allowed to vote if they were householders, wives of householders, paying annual rent over £5, or graduates of British universities or women who were qualified although not graduates. This ruled out working class and many middle class women from voting. About eight and a half million women were able to vote in the 1918 election. Women also became eligible to stand as MPs. Several suffragette campaigners stood for Parliament in the 1918 election. It is worth noting that none were successful.

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Although the primary role of a woman was still seen as that of the housewife/ mother, many returned to work between 1914 and 1950.  Women faced an uphill struggle to be accepted  as equals by men, many of whom could not accept women being anything other than quiet and obedient to her husband. “We, as an organisation are opposed to the introduction of women as a general principal.” Jack Tanner, Amalgamated Engineering Union, (Cited in Walby 1987).

1970 saw the Equal Pay Act, which meant that women were to receive equal pay to men if they were employed to do ...

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