NCRVE Home | Site Search | Product Search

<< Contents NCRVE Home
Brief No. 6 Fall 1996

Voices of Diversity

. . . in programs linking education and work

Gender Perspectives on Programs Linking Education and Work

Are We Really Serving All Students?

"What are you doing here?," her brother said, when Caroline showed up at the electronics shop. "You are a girl, you are not supposed to be in electronics," her brother continued. "Don't judge me because I'm a girl," Caroline replied. "I bet I can do better than you." And she went on to successfully complete career exploration in electronics, as well as in carpentry and business. All in all, participation in a Technical Arts program facilitated her career development and opened up new windows of opportunity for her upon graduation from high school.

Unlike Caroline's story, the majority of female students in high school do not have the opportunity to explore nontraditional career fields as part of a holistic approach linking career development to current education reforms. Traditional enrollments in vocational education continue to show stereotyped program participation. In 1994, for instance, the National Assessment of Vocational Education reported that most vocational programs had stereotyped enrollments. The same report indicated that about half of all school districts did not have provisions to reduce gender bias (e.g., curriculum development, building awareness, and so on). Of those that did offer gender equity activities, the quality was highly variable. Thus, it is not surprising to see the preservation of gender bias in occupational trends.

In our democratic society, the search for gender equity has been a pervasive problem. We have yet to make significant progress in many areas, including the removal of stereotyped messages in textbooks, teacher training in equity issues, representation of women as administrators and professors in educational institutions, and provisions for incentives and supportive measures for female students.

In this brief, we describe the impact of career-oriented programs featuring school-to-work principles on gender perspectives regarding career and academic aspirations. The content is based on the paper, Developing Career and Academic Aspirations in School-to-Work Programs, authored by Hernández-Gantes and Nieri and presented at the 1996 American Education Research Association Conference in New York City.

Perspectives on Schooling Experiences

Both female and male students benefited from participation in career-oriented programs. Applied instructional activities, opportunities to explore broad career fields, and equal opportunity to participate in all program components were found to be important by students.

The internship is fun because you do a lot of real office work and you get to see what goes around. It helps you see what is important in industry, how it works, and the kinds of jobs [that] are available.


Factors for Program Enrollment

Students discussed critical considerations for deciding to enroll in their program, including safety issues, family influences, and program reputation:

The best way to get into a good medical program in college would be to start out in this science and technology school because they have better equipment and specialized courses.


Outlook on the Future

Gender differences regarding motives underlying future aspirations and perspectives on family priorities are addressed based on students' perspectives:

Finishing school is my priority in life, and to get the highest education possible.


Factors for Program Enrollment

Based on female and male perspectives on experiences prior to enrollment in their program, consistent considerations were reported. Across all programs, female students did not appear to be especially targeted and had to go through a recruitment and application process in which grades and teachers' recommendation played a key role. Beyond these screening considerations, students of both genders spoke consistently about three key factors for deciding to enroll in their program:
  1. Safety issues

  2. Family influences

  3. Program reputation

Safety Issues

Both female and male students showed concern about safety issues. The majority of students, regardless of gender, wanted to get away from school environments where safety would be a problem. This was a key consideration for enrollment and in some cases took precedence over the career-orientation of the program.

For Laurie, a senior student in Science and Technology, enrollment in her program was an opportunity to escape from the rough environment of her previous school and the social distractions of peer relations built over the years. Lianne, a sophomore student in Business, provided a similar account. She did not want to go to a "bigger school with a lot more people and a lot of problems." For her, it was the safe and professional-looking atmosphere of the business magnet school that made her decide to enroll in that program.

For male students, safety considerations for enrollment were even stronger. The fear of gang problems, in particular, appeared to be a major concern for a male student who had been previously enrolled in inner city schools. Julian, a senior in a Business program, shared his experience:

The schools in the area had a bad reputation. I was initially interested in another school, but it had a history of gang problems. I chose the Business program because it was small and peaceful.


Family Influences

Strong family influences were identified across accounts of both female and male students. Directly or indirectly, parents and relatives appeared to play a major role in the decision for program enrollment. In the majority of cases, there was direct parental involvement in helping students decide on which program to enroll in.

In some instances, students were motivated by parents or relatives working in the field represented by the occupational orientation of the program. Either way, direct and indirect family support seemed to be particularly important for female students, especially those who were considering enrollment in nontraditional programs such as Manufacturing, Agricultural Sciences, or Science and Technology.

My dad didn't want me to go another nearby school for safety reasons," said Lianne. So, she began to consider other options until she found out about the Business program, which offered a safe and professional oriented environment. For Laurie, her mother was the reason she ended up enrolling in a Science and Technology program. Because of Laurie's excellent grades, her mother encouraged her to apply to the program. Laurie further elaborated: "I thought that this would be a really good opportunity for me because it seemed like the perfect kind of thing I would have wanted. It would really make my family proud because on both sides of the family I'm the first person to enroll in this program."

Male students were supported in similar ways. Andrew's story is a typical story of the family role in shaping the decision for the program enrollment. "My dad is a machinist and he influenced me to get into the Manufacturing program. He talked to me, asked my opinion, and said I would really like to go into the manufacturing field."

Carlo, on the other hand, made his own decision but was indirectly motivated by his father's occupation. His father is involved in the carpentry business and he got practical experience working with him. Through this personal experience with his father, he developed an appreciation for the carpentry industry and decided to apply for admission in a Technical Arts program with a concentration on carpentry.

Program Reputation

Considerations for enrollment in programs that were safe were consistent with the commitment of the majority of the students, female and male, to pursue studies in areas featured by their high school program of interest. Driven by early academic and career aspirations, students were looking for programs that would enhance their chances to go to college and build a career in the future. The program reputation was indeed a major attraction for these students who were highly motivated and qualified for enrollment based on their grades and teachers' recommendations.

Rhonda, a senior student in Science and Technology, said that "the best way to get into a good medical program in college would be to start out in this science and technology school because they have better equipment and specialized courses." The reputation of programs created great competition for admission and students spoke about the sense of pride resulting from the selection process. For instance, Laurie, a student in Science and Technology, said that

It's a real honor to be chosen to this school. They said almost two thousand children wanted to go here. You have to be really good to get in here. I felt pride for getting accepted. It feels like a major accomplishment


Male students provided similar accounts. This school's got an excellent reputation in the area." said Julian. "It's a small business school," he continued, "so the student-teacher ratio is very good. The school is famous for its specialized Business program." The program reputation was also a consideration for Lenny, a student in Science and Technology:

I wanted access to better scientific instruction. The labs here and the computer equipment are just so incredible, better than at my previous school. This program will get me an edge on college


Marcus, a student in Agricultural Sciences, agreed with this perspective: "I liked all the positive aspects of the school. It has a very low dropout rate and a very high number of students who graduate and get college scholarships because of the specialized preparation this school provides.

Perspectives on Schooling Experiences

After entering their program, students began to experience learning activities with an occupational focus, which may have not been otherwise available at traditional schools (e.g., holistic approach to hands-on activities and work-based learning). All students, female and male, reported a high level of appreciation for learning opportunities that connected vocational and academic courses, school- and work-based learning, and exposure to the different aspects of broad career fields. Although students of both genders spoke enthusiastically about their program experiences, there were some differences in perspective between female and male students regarding the following:

Authentic Learning

The career-oriented focus of the programs provided students with ample opportunities to experience active learning, connect academic knowledge in an occupational context, and enhance their motivation for further learning. Both female and male students agreed on their level of appreciation for the practical approach to teaching and learning. Because of the programwide focus on a field of interest, students were able to establish practical connections between academic subjects and their career interests (i.e., business, science and technology, agriculture, technical arts, or manufacturing).

Ordinarily, Laurie, a student in Science and Technology, explained,

Biology and English would have nothing in common. But in this program they found a way to integrate principles of Technology and English. Then to write a report including graphics, we have to use computer-assisted drawing programs. Teachers in my program are less into telling the answers to problems, having you remembering and regurgitating information. There's more emphasis on comprehension and real learning.


Lianne, a sophomore student, expressed that in her Business program authentic learning is promoted through Socratic seminars--that is, students have the opportunity to state their opinions on a topic in which "there isn't a right or wrong answer but you get to learn a lot from different points of view."

The authentic and practical approach to teaching and learning is not about preparation for a specific occupation as viewed in traditional vocational education. In these programs, it was a teaching and learning medium to engage students in meaningful and challenging school activities. "We don't do shops where it's just the teachers showing us how to do something," Caroline, a student in Technical Arts, observed. "No, it's hands-on work we do on our own. We learn through practice."

Male students agreed. Rod, a Manufacturing student, noted that "actually doing something makes you learn more. The lecture gives us the how-to information, but then we are supposed to put it in practice and develop an ability to use it later in other day-to-day problems." Scottie, a student in Technical Arts, reinforced this view: "You get hands-on and academic experience in this program because it is good to incorporate both. The real learning takes place here in school and out there in the real world. It is not only in the classroom."

Career Exploration

Aligned with authentic learning opportunities, a program component with emphasis on career development was present in different formats at the five schools participating in their research. Through career exploration activities, both female and male students were able to connect academic preparation opportunities included in school career exploration by providing students with access to several occupational modules (e.g., electronics, carpentry, and business), or alternative concentrations within fields (e.g., marketing, management, and accounting).

Further, work-based learning activities, including internships and mentoring experiences with professionals in the community, contributed to the enrichment of students' preparation and career development. "The internships," said Lianne, "give you a wide view of what you can do with your future."

Male students agreed with the valuable experiences acquired through work-based learning and exploration of different areas within a field of interest. "This is one of the benefits about the Manufacturing program, at least for me," said Eddie. He continued to explain: "Three days of the week we are at the Manufacturing Academy and then two days we're at a company where the people there move me around to each of the stations so I get a grasp of what the company does."

These opportunities to connect school and work serve as an excellent medium for career exploration and help both female and male students shape their career interests.

Equitable Experience

Both female and male students seemed to experience equal excitement for authentic learning experiences that serve to enhance their career development and preparation for college and work. However, female students spoke about stereotyped attitudes from peers and teachers and the need to prove themselves both academically and in work-based activities, especially in those fields traditionally dominated by males. "the teachers were shocked that me and my friend Rosie were interested in the electronics shop," Caroline said. Sara, a Manufacturing student, agreed on the need to show determination to succeed:

I was determined to show [the male students] that it was no problem for me to participate in the program. Some of the guys thought that if you're a girl, you couldn't do it. Well, soon they learned that girls can do it just as good as the guys.


Across programs, students noted that only a few females enrolled in nontraditional curriculum options (e.g., electronics, manufacturing). "I don't remember how many kids were in here," Marsha, a Manufacturing student, noted. "But I do know that there were more guys. There were only two girls in the Manufacturing program when I enrolled. And last year only three women were accepted in the program." Caroline pointed out that her Electronics program "was more for a guy." She went on to suggest that female students have to be tough to be able to compete with their male peers in these male-dominated programs.

When female students realized they could compare with their male peers and successfully perform nontraditional tasks, a powerful sense of fulfillment and accomplishment began to emerge. "My dad was very surprised when I fixed something at home," Caroline commented.

Perhaps the account shared by Sara, a manufacturing student, best describes this feeling of discovery and confidence:

It just really fascinated me. Because you take a piece of raw material and you turn it into something that can be used in a machine. I found it amazing that a lot of the guys not enrolled in the program could not relate to this and other things I have learned.


Outlook on the Future

All students, regardless of gender, appeared to benefit from participating in career-oriented programs by developing strong and solidly grounded academic and career aspirations. All students indicated college and career aspirations in the field represented by their programs. However, there were gender differences regarding motives underlying the following issues:

Academic/Career Aspirations

All students sampled for this study reported college aspirations and had identified career plans around the field represented by their programs. Unlike traditional vocational programs that prepare students for specific jobs, career-oriented programs with rigorous curricula implemented through various combinations of academic, vocational, and work-based learning activities appear to enhance both college and career aspirations upon graduation from high school.

For example, going to college was not a question for Lianne. the question for her was to major either in business or law. "Finishing school is my priority in life and to get the highest education possible," she said. Laurie, on the other hand, wanted to use her preparation in biotechnology to ho into medicine. "I'm thinking more on cardiology. I'd like to be a surgeon," she remarked. For others, like Rosie, the road to college may be longer, but plans are already laid out to accomplish career goals:

I will probably start as a part-time student and work full-time. I will first get an associate degree and then I will add two years to get a bachelor's degree in engineering.


Male students also spoke about college plans and majoring in areas related to their high school program orientation. Lenny, a student in a Technical Arts program involved in the electronics component was certain of going to college: "A four- or two-year college, whichever comes first, to study electrical engineering. My dreams are to graduate from college and get a PhD."

Andrew, and Science and Technology student, reported similar strong aspirations. To him, the question was which college to apply to and narrowing choices for a major concentration of studies: "With the kinds of things that I'm interested in, I'm leaning toward the medical field in areas dealing with genes and DNA."

Personal motives underlying academic and career aspirations were somewhat different for males and females. While males appeared to be more interested in the socioeconomic rewards of career choices, females talked about their potential contribution to the common good through their expected professions. Renee and Laurie, students in Science and Technology and Agricultural Sciences, respectively, provided revealing accounts in this regard. Renee said,

Finding cures to illnesses is one of my dreams because of my interest in medicine. Cancer, AIDS, for instance. Why should I care? I think people tend to forget that their children and their grandchildren will have to face these problems. I would like to be part of the solution to these medical problems.


Laurie is also driven by a social concern: "Because the way Americans keep their diet habits, their health is declining and I would like to find a way to combat this. Bad eating habits are putting a great strain on everybody's heart. I would like to turn people around into fitness."

Family concerns

A major difference in students' perspectives on future prospects was that males did not mention family issues as important, while for females family was a very important consideration around which aspirations were developed. For instance, Jenny wants to be a doctor but she added that, "I also want to have a family. I want to get married and have some kids." Sara, concurred in identifying family issues as priorities in life besides career aspirations:

I have planned to try to fulfill all of the dreams I've had. Having a nice beautiful home with two stories and, of course, the little four-legged critters to go with it.


Others, like Maria, spoke about setting an example in the family. "I want to be the first one to give my parents the opportunity to see me graduate and go on to be somebody," she said. She also shared that she wants to set an example for her brother and sister so "they will go the right way."

All these issues are perhaps best captured by Shona, a student in Science and Technology:

I want to make enough money to be comfortable, so I can get my children everything they want. I want to have a family and spend as much time with them as possible. I also want to be able to see my little sister graduate. It's the American dream.


Implications for Program Improvement

The impact of career-oriented programs on academic and career aspirations appear to be positive for both male and female students. All students, regardless of gender, shared common considerations about their decision to enroll in their programs. The career orientation of programs featuring school-to-work principles facilitated the holistic approach to instruction, learning, and career development for both female and male students who valued the opportunity to participate in these programs. Once presented with the opportunity to participate in career-oriented programs featuring nontraditional fields (e.g., science, manufacturing, and technology) and provided with equal opportunity to learn, female students perform at equal or better levels than their male counterparts and develop similar aspirations.

However, unlike males who appear to take for granted family considerations in their future prospects, females place a higher priority on family issues. Academic and career aspirations are weighted according to family priorities in addition to socioeconomic considerations for female students.

In general, these findings are supported by other studies but caution should be exercised in overemphasizing the equal benefits of career-oriented programs. As these programs become commonplace, their high standards for admission may continue to preclude the enrollment of female students interested in nontraditional programs. As noted in this study, only a few women were enrolled in some of these programs (e.g., manufacturing). Considering that males have been traditionally encouraged to gain a stronger preparation in mathematics and science, females will continue to be at a disadvantage when applying for programs requiring high academic requirements. Gender issues should be addressed much earlier to encourage women to consider these kinds of programs. Further, stereotyped attitudes about females participating in nontraditional programs seem to be alive and well. Although, career-oriented programs seem to be providing quality opportunities to learn for both female and male students, teachers, and counselors appeared ill-prepared to address gender equity in the schools.

In conclusion, although career-oriented programs show great promise in facilitating sound career development for both female and male students, much remains to be done to remove barrier to equitable access, participation, and formation of postsecondary aspirations including a better understanding of emerging work-family roles. The implications for program improvement include a call for renewed efforts to address gender equity early in school to stimulate female students in developing and appreciation for science and mathematics and nontraditional occupations (e.g., electronics, computers, and engineering). Further, it is apparent that better recruitment and career guidance practices are needed to truly address the needs of all students. Content, instruction, and assessment should also be gender sensitive and provisions should be made to review curriculum materials, and provide professional development opportunities to sensitize staff on equity issues.

Voices of Diversity: Project Design Overview

This longitudinal study was designed to build an understanding of the experiences acquired by students through programs featuring key elements of current education reforms. Of particular interest were the experiences of students who are traditionally underrepresented in the literature (e.g., female, Latino, and Asian students). In 1993-1996, project staff periodically interviewed students in nine secondary and postsecondary programs linking education and work. Qualitative techniques were used to collect and analyze data, and identify themes as an ongoing process.

An in-depth examination of the personal experiences encountered in education and work is crucial in understanding how students make decisions to enter education for work programs. Further, how students from different genders and ethnic backgrounds differentially experience vocational education is also central to understanding the impact of policies and practices on overcoming barriers to full participation in the economy.

Based on these premises, the study was grounded in four major research questions:

  1. What are the reasons students enroll in programs linking education and work?

  2. What kinds of learning experiences are students exposed to?

  3. What are the students' perspectives on these learning experiences?

  4. What are the students' expectations and experiences upon graduation?
The project design was based on a multicase study including nine programs and a sample of 133 students. Participant sites are located in major geographical areas of the country (South, Northeast, Midwest, West) and represent urban and suburban communities.

At the secondary level, five programs were included representing the following curriculum orientations: business, technical arts, manufacturing, science and technology, and agricultural sciences. At the postsecondary level, four programs participated in this study representing the fields of biomedical technology, environmental sciences, international trade, and computeraided design technology.

Overall, 65% of the participating students are male and 35% female. Participation by ethnicity is as follows: African-American, 26%; Asian, 8%; Hispanic, 2%; Native American, 2%; and Caucasian, 46%.

For and in-depth description of the project design, participants, and procedures, please refer to Voices of Diversity, Brief No. 1.

About Voices of Diversity Briefs

Voices of Diversity . . . in programs linking education and work is a series of briefs supported by the National Center for Research in Vocational Education. These briefs highlight major findings derived from a national longitudinal study of high school and two-year college students enrolled in programs featuring key principles undergirding current education reforms. Each report features themes that emerged from the students' voices and perspectives on different aspects of their learning experiences in programs linking education and work. Practitioners, educators, policymakers, and researchers alike should benefit from these student-level insights to gain a better understanding of students' schooling experiences. The following briefs are available:

Brief No. 1: Learning From Students' Perspectives on Programs Linking Education and Work

This report provides background information on the study design, characteristics of research participants, research procedures, and analytical techniques. Brief descriptions of the students' programs are also provided.

Brief No. 2: Quality Indicators of Programs Linking Education and Work

This report provides high school students' perspectives on the three core components undergirding current reforms in vocational education: (1) integration of vocational and academic education, (2) integration of secondary education, and (3) linkages between school and work.

Brief No. 3: Building a School Climate Conducive to Learning: Students' Perspectives

This report provides a description of three critical elements of school climate as identified by high school students enrolled in five programs linking education and work. These three elements are (1) authentic program context, (2) teaching and learning context, and (3) a supportive environment conducive to learning.

Brief No. 4: Grounding Career Development in Authentic Learning Activities

Important considerations for enhancing students' career development are highlighted in this report. A benchmarking approach for program improvement is suggested.

Brief No. 5: Connecting Education and Work Through Authentic Instruction

Problem-solving, research projects, and critical thinking activities that are integrated into authentic teaching and learning are addressed in this report.

Brief No. 6: Gender Perspectives on Programs Linking Education and Work

This reports addresses the question of equity and access to programs linking education and work based on gender perspectives. High school students, both male and female, talk about their experiences in five career-oriented programs.

Other Voices of Diversity Briefs will be forthcoming. These reports will address high school students' perspectives on their schooling and transitional experiences. Briefs describing two-year college students' perspectives on similar issues will also be produced.

Detailed descriptions of project findings can be found in both published journal articles and in papers presented at national conferences. The following are available:

Producing knowledge in career-oriented programs: Students' perspectives on schooling experiences (1996, December). Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Vocational Association (AVA), Cincinnati, Ohio.

Developing career and academic aspirations in school-to-work programs: A qualitative study of gender perspectives (1996, April). Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of American Educational Research Association (AERA), New York.

Developing career and academic aspirations: Creating new and different doors for students in school-to-work programs (1995, July). Paper presented at the National Leadership Forum on School-to-Work Transition, Boston, Massachusetts.

Voices of Diversity in emerging vocationalism: Students' perspectives on school climate (1995, April). Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), San Francisco, California.


Project Directors
Victor M. Hernández
L. Allen Phelps

Project Assistants
Alejandro H. Nieri
Carol Wright

Voices of Diversity Briefs,
Editorial Work
Leticia Alvarez
Patricia Quijada
Christine Corbasson

Research Advisory Group

Penny Burge Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Colleen Capper University of Wisconsin-Madison

Clifton F. Conrad University of Wisconsin-Madison

Lizanne DeStefano University of Illinois

Jane Plihal University of Minnesota

Christine E. Sleeter University of Wisconsin-Parkside

Sandra M. Mathison SUNY-Albany

James Stone, III University of Minnesota

Janet Washbon Wisconsin Technical College System Board

Wendy L. Way University of Wisconsin-Madison


We would like to acknowledge the contributions of John Jones, Thomas Holub, Cynthia Knickrehm, Lisa A. Nieri, and Dorothy Sanchez in different stages of this longitudinal study.

National Center for Research in
Vocational Education

NCRVE's mission is to enable education to prepare all students for substantial and rewarding employment, further education, and lifelong learning. NCRVE advocates an emphasis on learning through applied problem-solving together with a rigorous course of academic study. NCRVE believes individuals learn best by doing, and that relating school to work creates a focus and relevance for all students. As the nation's largest research and development organization investigating work-related education, NCRVE plays a key role in making this vision a reality. The results of NCRVE's research and development activities are disseminated to a wide audience of students, educators, researchers, employers, and policymakers.

Center on Education and Work
University of Wisconsin-Madison

The Center provides leadership in identifying and responding to issues affecting the connection among education, work, community, and the family. We seek to accomplish this through collaborative, interdisciplinary research and development programs. The Center is committed to translating research and development findings into practical solutions and effective policies through dissemination, professional development, and technical assistance. In each of its research and service programs, the Center builds both organizational and professional leadership capacities for integrating research, theory, and practice.

<< Title Contents NCRVE Home
NCRVE Home | Site Search | Product Search