A lot of research evidence suggests tech companies and academia are biased against women.
There are number of quantitative and qualitative research studies which show that recruitment and employment practices are biased against women, despite the fact that employers claim to be meritocratic.
In this post I focus on gender bias in tech companies and academia.
Sexism in tech companies
The tech industry is the peak of gender bias in employment, with only 25% of tech company founders saying they weren’t interested in diversity or work-life balance at all, which severely disadvantages women because they are more likely to be have higher loads of domestic responsibilities.
An analysis of 248 performance reviews from a variety of tech companies found that women are a lot more likely to receive negative personality criticism than men.
Women were called bossy, abrasive, strident, aggressive, emotional and irrational, and usually told to watch their tone and step back. For the most part men’s personality traits didn’t come up in these reviews, and on the rare occasions they did, they were criticised for not being aggressive enough.
Women make up only 25% of employees in the tech sector and 11% of its executives, and more than 40% of women leave tech companies after 10 years compared to only 17% of men, with women leaving mainly because of ‘workplace conditions’, ‘undermining behaviour from managers’ and ‘a sense of feeling stalled in one’s career’.
One of the possible reasons for gender bias in tech is that the historic recruitment practices are based on male gender stereotypes: the ‘ideal type’ of person who would be good at coding as overwhelmingly male characteristics, so the recruiters think.
For example, any recruitment program involving multiple choice maths tests are male biased, and there is a historic network-bias towards men that helps them get tech jobs.
Historically antisocial people have been stereotypically seen as good coders, which automatically disadvantages women who historically tend to do more social and emotional labour.
Some tech firms also use social data to trace the interests of prospective applicants. In one example, a ‘preference for Manga’ was seen as solid predictor of someone having good coding skills, and it is mainly boys and men who look at Manga sites.
Research has also found that the stronger you believe in meritocracy, the more likely you are to act in a sexist way, which is a particular problem in the tech sector, because tech founders tend to have a very strong belief that they are super meritocratic. In reality, according to the research, they are not meritocratic.
Sexism in Academia
Female students and academics are significantly likely to receive funding or get jobs than men, and where mothers are seen as less competent, being a father can work in a man’s favour.
Studies have shown that double-blind peer-reviewing results in a higher proportion of female articles being accepted for publication, but most journals and conferences do not adopt this practice.
Men self-cite 70% more than women, and citations are a key metric in determining career progression, so this can perpetuate gender inequality in academia.
When it comes to teaching women are asked more often to do undervalued admin work and are more likely to be loaded with extra teaching hours which impacts their ability to do research and get published.
Teaching evaluation forms are biased against females to the extent that it is statistically significant. An analysis of 14 million reviews on ‘RateMyProfessors.com’ found that female professors are more likely to be dubbed as ‘mean’ ‘unfair’ or ‘annoying’ and they more likely to get glib and offensive comments about their appearance.
Female academics also have to do more emotion work than males, as students with emotional problems usually go to female staff not male for help.
There is also a catch 22 situation where women are penalised if they aren’t deemed sufficiently warm and accessible, but if they go too far this way they are criticised for not being authoritative and professional.
Two simple solutions
Firstly, companies need to sex-disaggregate available data to analyse the relative performance of men and women in companies, and then they’d probably find that men and women have equal performance.
Secondly, they need to have gender-blind recruitment practices as these have persistently shown that more women get hired when they are adopted.
The biggest barrier to more gender equality in the workplace is algorithmic recruitment programs which claim to be neutral but actually have a gender bias hard wired into them, as with combing social data.
Signposting and sources
This material is supporting evidence for the view that there is still gender inequality in society, and shows us that Feminism is still relevant today.
The material above was summarised from Perez (2019) Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men.
Unfairly benefitted middle class parents through selection by mortgage and the school-parent alliance.
Other criticising concepts and evidence
Banding and streaming, myth of meritocracy, hidden curriculum, ethnocentric curriculum.
Sociology Teaching Resources for Sale
If you’re a sociology teacher and you like this sort of thing, and you want to support my resource development work, then you might like these teaching resources for the sociology of education. They are specifically designed for A-level sociology students and consist of three documents:
In this Channel 5 series, one family in the ‘wealthiest 10%’ of Britain swap lives for a week with a family in the ‘poorest 10% of Britain’. As I see it this programme performs an ‘ideological control function’ – spreading the myth of meritocracy.
They two families swap houses, budgets and leisure-timetables for a week – in episode two for example, the poor family, living on the rich family’s typical weekly disposable income, have to live off about £3000 per week, while the rich family, have to live off just under £200 per week, and in this episode, both families seem to be genuinely hard working and just, well, nice.
The meat of the programme consists of watching the families hanging out in their respective houses, doing whatever activities the other family would normally do, and meeting their respective friends/ work colleagues, including some running reflections on how ‘nice’ it is to be rich, and what a ‘struggle’ it is to be poor.
Here’s how the programme performs the function of ideological control – basically it spreads the ‘myth of meritocracy‘.
It misrepresents what the top 10% look like – the narration keeps talking about how the rich family is in the top 10%, they are, but their weekly disposable income of over £3K, and the fact that they own 12 restaurants and employ 60 odd people, puts them easily in the top 1%. This fact alone really annoys me – it is the extreme minority that lives like this. I worked this out using the IFS’ income calculator)
The family in the top 1% are further unrepresentative in that the father genuinely worked his way up after failing school, cleaning toilets and then getting into restauranteering. This is most definitely NOT how the majority get into the top 1%, especially since social mobility has been declining in recent years.
The working class father keeps saying ‘I want my children to see this and want this’ – he seems to take the experience of his week in the rich mans world as evidence that anyone can make it if you try hard enough – in fact there is LESS CHANCE TODAY HIS KIDS than he would have had to climb the career ladder.
Maybe the same point as above – the working class guy has 4 kids – I wonder what the actual chances of all four kids from one working class family independently becoming millionaires actually are? It’s probably lottery odds.
The ‘luck’ word is mentioned once, apparently it’s all about hard work. NO – this view is just plain wrong, Malcome Gladwell convinced me of this in his book ‘Outliers’
Personally I think this series (if it carries on this vein) is lazy and appalling television – it wouldn’t take much to add in some depth analysis, have some commentary or stats overlying how likely it is for someone to go from working class to millionnaire, for example.
There’s also absolutely no mention of the sheer injustice of the fact that both sets of parents are doing similar amounts of ‘work’ but the rewards are so incredibly different, and no mention of how good it is that we’ve got social housing so at least the poor family have a decent house.
In short, my intense dislike of this show stems from the misleading portrayal of the richest 1% as representing the richest 10% and from its total lack of analysis of the actual chances of social mobility occurring.
NB – It was also quite dull viewing. If you think it sounds a little like Wife Swap, it’s much less entertaining as it’s the whole family doing the swapping, so there’s much less conflict.
Writing in the 1950s Parsons argued that modern education systems performed two main functions – role allocation and providing value consensus through meritocracy.
The American sociologist Talcott Parsons (1961) outlined what is commonly accepted as the Functionalist view of education as it relates to modern societies in the late 1950s.
Particularistic and Universalistic Values
Parsons argued that, after primary socialisation within the family, the school takes over as the focal socialising: school acts as a bridge between family and society as a whole, preparing children for their adult roles in society.
Within the family, the child is judged by particularistic standards. Parents treat the child as their own, unique, special child, rather than judging him or her by universal standards that are applied to every individual.
However, in the wider society the individual is treated and judged in terms of universalistic standards, which are applied to all members, regardless of their kinship ties.
Within the family, the child’s status is ascribed: it is fixed by birth. However, in advanced industrial society, status in adult life is largely achieved: for example individuals achieve their occupational skills. Thus it is necessary that the child moves from the particularistic standards and ascribed status of the family to the universalistic standards and achieved status of adult society.
The school prepares people for this transition. It establishes universalistic standards, in terms of which all pupils achieve their status. Their conduct is assessed against the yardstick of the school rules; their achievement is measured by performance in examinations. The same standards are applied to all pupils regardless of ascribed characteristics such as sex, race, family background or class of origin. Schools operated on meritocratic principles: status is achieved on the basis of merit (or worth).
Like Durkheim, Parsons argued that the school represents society in miniature. Modern industrial society is increasingly based on achievement rather than ascription, on universalistic rather than particularistic standards, on meritocratic principles which apply to all its members. By reflecting the operation of society as a whole, the school prepares young people for their adult roles.
Education: Meritocracy and Value Consensus
Parsons argued that a further main function of schools was to socialise young people into the basic values of society. Parsons, like many functionalists, maintained that value consensus is essential for society to operate effectively. In American society, school instils two major values
The value of achievement
The value of equality of opportunity.
By encouraging students to strive for high levels of academic attainment, and by rewarding those who succeed, schools foster the value of achievement itself. By placing individuals in the same situation in the classroom and so allowing them to compete on equal terms in examinations, schools foster the value of equality of opportunity.
These values have important functions in society as a whole. Advanced industrial society requires a highly motivated, highly skilled workforce. This necessitates differential reward for differential achievement, a principle which has been established in schools.
Both the winners (the high achievers) and the losers (the low achievers) will see the system as just and fair, since status is achieved in a situation where all have an equal chance. Again, the principles that operate in the wider society are mirrored in the school.
Ultimately Parsons believed that the education system was meritocratic and because of this it created value consensus in an unequal society.
Education and Selection
Finally, Parsons saw the educational system as an important mechanism for the section of individuals for their future role in society. In his words, it ‘functions to allocate these human resources within the role-structure of adult society’. Thus schools by testing and evaluating students, match their talents, skills and capacities to the jobs for which they are best suited. The school is therefor seen as the major mechanism for role allocation.
Evaluations of Parsons
The main criticisms of Parson’s work come from Marxism.
Marxists criticize the idea that schools transmit shared values, rather they see the education system as transmitting the values of the ruling class, as outlined in Bowles and Gintis’ Correspondence Principle.
The 10, 000 Hour Rule is the theory that it takes 10 000 hours of practice to become an expert in something – and seems to be most frequently applied to the fields of sport and music.
Below is a summary of Malcolm Caldwell’s perspective on the 10, 000 hour rule – he basically argues that it does seem to be true that you need 10, 000 hours to become a world-leader in any given field, but you also have to be extremely lucky and/ or privileged in some way to have the opportunities which give you the time to accumulate 10,000 hours of practice.
The University of Michigan opened its new Computer Center in 1971… its mainframe computers stood in the middle of a vast white room looking like something out the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Off to the side were dozens of keypunch machines – what passed in those days as computer terminals. In 1971, this was state of the art and the University of Michigan had one of the most advanced computer science programmes in the world. The most famous student who passed through this was a gawky teenager named Bill Joy who came to the Center the year it opened when he was 16. From that point on, the Computer Center was his life.
In 1975 he enrolled in graduate school at the University of Berkeley, where he rewrote UNIX in collaboration with others, which remains the main operating system on literally millions of computers around the world today, and then went on to co-found Sun Micro-systems where he rewrote JAVA.
Joy is sometimes called the Edison of the Internet, and is one of the most influential people in computing history.
The story of Bill Joy is normally told as one in which he existed in a pure meritocracy – because in a new tech field, there was no old-boy network and the field was open, all participants being judge on their talents…. It was a world where the best men won, and Joy was clearly one of those best men.
It would be easier to accept this story if one hadn’t have already have looked at the Hockey stats… whose story was also supposed to be a pure meritocracy. Only it wasn’t, it was a story of how outliers in a particular field reached their lofty status through a combination of ability, opportunity, and utterly arbitrary advantage.
Is it possible that these same factors work in the world of computing as well?
For many years psychologists have been involved in a debate over whether innate talent exists. This is something that most people accept – success = innate talent + preparation, but the problem with the concept of innate talent, is that the more psychologists look at it, the bigger role that preparation seems to play.
Exhibit A in the talent argument is a study done in the early 1990s by the psychologist K. Anders Ericsson who divided violinists at Berlins’ elite Academy of Music up into three groups – those with the potential to become world class soloists, those who were judged to be merely good, and those who were unlikely to ever play professionally – they were asked a simple question – since you first picked up a violin, how many hours have you practiced?
The answer was that early on the practice regimes were the same, but when the students were around the age of eight, real differences began to emerge. By the age of twenty, the elite students had amassed a total of 10 000 hours, the good students 8000, and the future music teachers only 4000 hours.
Ericsson also found that there were no people who simply coasted without practicing, and no grinds – students who tried but got nowhere, so he simply concluded that once you look at just the ‘elite students’ what differentiates the best students from the ordinary is simply the amount of practice they have amassed.
This pattern has been found among musicians, sports stars and grand-masters at chess.
This idea that to become an expert requires a critical mass of practice hours surfaces again and again, so much so that the magic number of 10 000 hours to be an expert has emerged.
Practice is the thing that makes you good – and the interesting thing about it is that it is an enormous amount of time….And if you’re a hockey player born young, the fact that you’re deselected early on means you’re unlikely to be in an environment where you’re going to get 10 000 practice before you’re 17, and If your poor, you simply can’t fit it in the hours because you’ll probably need to work.
While it is true that Bill Joy had an enormous aptitude for maths, he was also lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to get in 10 000 hours of programming practice, which was basically just down to luck.
Firstly, he was lucky enough to be at Michigan University at a time when that was pretty much the only place in the world which had a computer center in which programming had evolved to a ‘time sharing system’ – where the computers could handle more than one task at once, so multiple people could programme at the same time, rather than the old ‘punch card system’ in which it took hours of preparation to get in a few minutes of programming.
Secondly, he was lucky enough that the university kept the computer center open all night, which allowed him to programme 8-10 hours a day.
Thirdly, the computer center charged for people to use it, but a bug in the programme allowed him (and many others) to programme for free.
So yes, Joy was talented and put in the effort, but he also needed a whole of lot fortunes of circumstance to come together so that he could amass his 10 000 hours of practice – which meant that by the time he was in his third year at Berkeley he was up to the task of rewriting UNX.
NB Joy hadn’t even gone to Michigan to study computing, but maths and engineering, he was just lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.
Is the 10 000 rule a general rule of success?
The Beatles came to America in 1964, by which time they had really ‘made it’. However, they had known each other for a long time before fame: Lennon and McCartney first met in 1957.
Interviews with The Beatles reveal that what really made them was their experience of playing in strip clubs in Hamburg where they were required to play 8 hours a night and 7 days a week. They weren’t able to just do their best numbers, they had to learn a lot of covers, and, being foreign, they had to put more energy into their routines to come across effectively.
Just as with Bill Joy, it was sheer luck that got The Beatles their Hamburg experience – a particular promotor from Germany was in London scouting for bands, and met a guy from Liverpool who knew of The Beatles, just randomly in a bar in Soho – it was this connection that did for them.
Between 1960 and 1962, they played for a total of 270 nights in Hamburg – they went out average and came back uniquely excellent – no one else sounded like them.
By 1964, The Beatles had amassed a total of 1200 live performances, a figure which most professional bands struggle to achieve in their entire careers.
Bill Gates’ story is also told as one of individual grit – Brilliant young math whiz discovers computer programming and drops out of Harvard to form a little company called Microsoft… and so on.
But let’s dig a little deeper… and there a shed loads of social factors from which Gates benefited…
Gate’s father was a wealthy lawyer in Seattle and his mother the daughter of a well-to-do banker. They put him into the elite independent Lakeside School in grade 7.
In 1968, the school set up a computer club, with money from the mother’s annual junks sale ($3000), unusually, they installed an ASR-33 Teletype which allowed Gates (who joined the club) to do real time programming in 1968, which was practically unheard of.
Washington University set up a Computer Centre Corporation, and one of the founders of the firm had a son at Lakeside, and Gates was networked into being able to test out their software at weekends for free.
This first firm went bankrupt, but another company, ISI established and need someone to write Payroll software – Gates took advantage of that opportunity
Gates happened to live within walking distance of Washington State Univeristy
WSU had free computer time between 3 and 6 a.m. that Gates took advantage of.
A power station in Washington State needed people to write software, the only people with the skills in the area were the kids from Lakeside.
Lakeside school allowed Gates (and some others) to go write software for that power station under the guise of an ‘independent project’.
All of the above opportunities gave Gates time to practice programming – by the time he dropped out of Harvard, he was way past 10 000 hours.
What truly distinguishes Bill Joy, Bill Gates and The Beatles is not their extra-ordinary talent and effort (although all three cases had both), but rather their extraordinary opportunities…. This seems to be the rule rather than the exception with software engineers and rock stars.
Another examples of this ‘extra-ordinary’ opportunity thesis is revealed if we analyse the birth dates of the richest 75 people in history.
An astonishing 14 people on the list are American born, and born within 9 years of each other – thousands of years of human history, hundreds of countries, and 20% of the richest are born in one generation in one country.
What’s going on here? In the 1860s and 70s the American economy went through one the biggest expansions in its history: it is when the railroads were built, when Wall Street emerged and when industrialization started in earnest. However, if you were born in the late 1820s, you were too old: your mind set was shaped by pre-civil war paradigms, if you were born in the late 1840s, you missed it!
We can do the same analysis with people like Bill Joy and Bill Gates.
If you talk to veterans of Silicon Valley, they’ll tell you that the most important date in the history of the personal computer revolution was January 1975 when the first DIY computer kit, the Altair 8800, was released at a sale price of $397, a minicomputer kit to rival commercial models. This was the year when personal home computing became available to the majority of people.
If you were too old in 1975, born before 1952, then you’d already have a job at IBM, and have a hard time making the transition to the ‘new world’ and the possibilities for transformation that were opening up. You’d be of an age in in 1975 where you’re established computer career meant it was just comfortable to stay put.
If you were born after 1958, then you were too young to get your foot in the door when this change took place.
Ideally you would have been born in 1954 or 1955, and just look….
Bill Gates – October 28th, 1955
Paul Allen, third richest man at Microsoft – Jan 21st 1953
Steve Ballmer, the cofounder of Apple computer, March 24 1956.
The key message of the book is that almost everyone who succeeds (in education, or business for example) does so on merit – they are both hardworking and talented, but they are also lucky, and in recent years, social scientists have discovered that chance plays a much larger role in important life outcomes than most people imagine.
The book is thus a challenge to the rhetoric of meritocracy, and subverts the idea that people who succeed do so purely on their own hard work and effort, purely on their merit.
Frank provides his own personal example to illustrate the huge role that luck played in his own life – He had a heart attack while playing tennis, and had it not been for the lucky fact that an ambulance which had been called out for another nearby accident which had proved less serious than initially thought was could be diverted to him, he would have died.
Laurie Taylor, the presenter of Thinking Allowed, offers his example of a chance phone-call from a Radio 4 executive decades ago which kick-started his radio 4 career – they needed a talk show guest on a particular topi, and he just happened to be the person who was contacted at that time.
Frank says that if you remind people they’ve been lucky, they get angry, but if you ask them to recall situations in which they’ve been lucky in their lives.
The commentators agree that the rhetoric surrounding, or myth of meritocracy, is not as pronounced in the
The podcast then goes on to explore the idea that might be a ‘structure to luck’ – for example, it was much easier for those born in the 1970s to go to university because of the increased opportunities, while many of that (my!) generation’s parents and parents wouldn’t have been able to go even if they had the ability, because there were simply fewer universities, and so no where near as much opportunity.
Another example given is that working class kids are disadvantaged by the structure of luck where their schools are under-resourced compared to middle class kids have their paths smoothed by their access to cosmpolitan cultural and social capital.
Most people recognise that there is a structure to luck if you give them the example of being born of good parents in a country you can succeed if you are hard working; compared to being born in a country such as Somalia, for example.
Frank also points out that if you ask successful people to tell the story of how they became successful, and ask them to point to any examples where they were lucky, they can all point out several of these (however, if you just remind them that they are wealthy just because they are lucky, they resist the idea, so the info you get out of them depends on the tone in which you ask the questions!).
Despite all of the evidence that luck is crucial to success, in the U.S. at least there is a very persistent myth of the self-made man, the idea that those who have succeeded have made it entirely on their own efforts. (This is less common in Britain, where we are (apparently?) painfully aware of how social class limits some and empowers others).
The problem with this myth of the self-made man is that it gives the successful a sense of entitlement to keeping the fruits of their labour, and this is especially problematic given the recent emergence of what Frank calls the new ‘winner-takes all markets’ – we don’t have local markets anymore, what we increasingly have global markets where a few people can monopolise and perfect a good or service and then flog it to the masses.
Frank describes how, in a world increasingly dominated by winner-take-all markets, chance opportunities and trivial initial advantages often translate into much larger ones–and enormous income differences, thus over time the level of inequality increases.
Ultimately where these (neoliberal) myths come to shape political and economic policy, everyone suffers – tax policy has changed over the last 40 years in the US and UK which allows the wealthy to keep more of the returns on their wealth (part of the rationale being that they’ve earned it on their merits) – this means that less money gets re-invested in the public infrastructure, which ultimately harms everyone – rich and poor alike.
Frank uses the useful analogy of a Ferrari owner driving on a road with potholes compared to a Porsche owner driving on well-surfaced roads – the idea here is that if we forced the the super rich to pay higher taxes, they wouldn’t be as rich, but they’d be happier, just like the rest of us.
The book is in part a plea to the successful to remember and acknowledge the role which luck has played in their success, and to further recognise that they don’t deserve to keep such a high proportion of the fruits of their labour.
Frank argues, we could decrease the inequality driven by sheer luck by adopting simple, unintrusive policies that would free up trillions of dollars each year–more than enough to fix our crumbling infrastructure, expand healthcare coverage, fight global warming, and reduce poverty, all without requiring painful sacrifices from anyone.
NB – I haven’t actually read the book, so if you want more on possible policy solutions, I suggest you buy it – I did pop out to Waterstones having listened to the podcast to buy it, but they didn’t have it in stock, I ended up spending an hour browsing and then buying two other books to add to the unread pile.
Commentary – Application to this year’s Apprentice
It’s worth reflecting on just how applicable the above is to the latest winner of The Apprentice – Alana, yes she’s hard-working, yes she’s talented enough to perfect five cake recipes, but then again so are literally thousands of other people in the United Kingdom. Dare I suggest that if Alana wasn’t lucky enough to tick all of the following boxes, she would have been stuck on an average income for the rest of her life like all of the other hard working and talented professional bakers in the country:
She’s a rare combination of sexy and mumsy all rolled into one – just what a premium cakes business requires, and let’s face it, for £250k Sugar’s got a sweet deal on that image.
The success of Bake-Off (and maybe it’s fragmentation) suggests there’s a huge market in baking to be tapped into. Sugar wouldn’t invest in something without a huge market potential.
Her main brand-competition is clearly on the decline given her coke habit and her domestic violence victim status (unfortunate because of the physical and emotional scars, and more so because her public really don’t wanna have to think about that do they!)
One of Alan’s side-kicks clearly identified with her throughout the process.
Her parents were able to afford to build her her own personal kitchen in which to perfect her cake-recipes.
Her uncle owns a restaurant which kick started her cake-sales business.
I mean come on, this is hardly success based on merit alone! In fairness to Alana, she probably knows it!
A range of quantitative and qualitative evidence which both supports and criticises the Functionalist view of education.
Functionalist theorists such as Durkheim and Parsons argue that education systems are meritocracies and that they perform positive functions such as secondary socialization and role allocation, but how valid are these views today?
Before you read the material below, make sure you have a clear understanding of the functionalist view of education. You should have notes, organised into at least four points which functionalists make about the role of education in society. Then read/ watch the material below and annotate your notes, linking each piece of evidence to a particular aspect of the Functionalist theory of education, stating whether the evidence supports or critics that particular aspect of the theory (of course, some of the evidence might be ambiguous).
Evidence you could use to evaluate the Functionalist view of education
NB the evidence I present below is far from the only evidence you can use. I have tried to select a variety of qualitative and quantitative sources. You might have your own, more recent evidence you can use to evaluate Functionalism!
Whatever evidence you’re using You need to consider how valid, reliable and representative each piece of evidence is! It might be useful to brush up on your research methods knowledge before looking at the material below!
Education Yorkshire: The Case of Musharaf
Educating Yorkshire was a documentary which aired on British T.V. back in 2013. In terms of methods it used a variety of non participant observation (filmed) and interviews with mainly the students.
Musharaf was one of the main characters from this first series, and to my mind this clip is one of the best pieces of supporting evidence for the functionalist view on education – it’s a really positive story. Watch it to find out more, it’s all in there: especially solidarity at the end!
Cross National Comparisons
Cross National Comparisons suggest support for the Functionalist view that formal education and qualifications are functionally advantageous for society as a whole, as they are correlated with a society’s level of economic development.
Human Development statistics show a clear relationship between improved education, higher skilled jobs and economic growth. In the most developed countries such as those in Northern Europe children spend more than a decade in full time education, with the majority achieving level three qualifications (A level or equivalent) while huge numbers of children in Sub-Saharan Africa receive only a basic primary or secondary education, with actual enrolment figures in school much lower, and only a few going on to level three education or level four (university level).
You can use Google Public Data to compare a range of Education Indicators across a number of countries
Of course as a counter-criticism, it’s worth keeping in mind that correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation in every country.
School Exclusion Statistics
Exclusion statistics suggest that the education system doesn’t act as an effective agent of secondary socialisation for every child, although the numbers of exclusions are small, with only 5% of pupils being given a fixed term exclusion and only 0.1% being permanently excluded.
However, some types of student are much more likely to be excluded – boys are three times more likely than girls, FSM students 4 times more likely than non FSM and Black-Caribbean and mixed white and Black-Caribbean 3 times more likely than the figures as a whole, suggesting that school works better for some types of student than others, which is something Functionalists do not consider.
You get a very different picture of absenteeism depending on which set of stats you look at!
Statistics on persistent absenteeism show that one in nine, or 11% of pupils are routinely absent from school, missing more than 10% of school in any one term –and the numbers are much higher for special schools, for boys and FSM students.
HOWEVER, if you look at the overall absentee rate (which looks at number of sessions missed for all students, rather than individual students) then the absentee rate is much lower – it stands at around 4.8%
So whether you see these statistics as supporting evidence for Functionalism or as criticizing Functionalism is kind of open to interpretation!
The correlation between employment and education
Employment statistics from the ONS demonstrate a strong correlation between educational level, employment skill level and income – those with GCSEs earn 20% more than those without GCSEs and those with degrees earn about 85% more than those with only GCSEs. This set of statistics from The Poverty Site further demonstrates that those with poor GCSCEs/ no qualifications are approximately five times more likely to either be unemployed or in low paid-work (less than £7/ hour) compared to those with degrees. This demonstrates at least partial support for the theory or Role Allocation – the higher your qualification, the better paid job you get (although this says nothing about whether this is meritocratic).
To simplify it – for 16-64 year olds, on average, graduates earn about £8K more a year than non-graduates and postgraduates earn another £8K year a more than graduates.
More recent data from the Labour Force Survey shows that those with a level 4 qualification earn almost twice as much as those with no qualifications, in 2019.
And data from 2018 suggests that working age graduates earn £10 000 a year more on average than non-graduates.
However, the gap between the earnings of non-graduates and graduates has narrowed in the last decade… .In 2005 graduates earned 55% more than non-graduates, but by 2015, they only earned 45% more.
Criticising the view that schools are meritocratic, A recent Longitudinal Study found: ‘three years after graduation, those from more advantaged socio-economic backgrounds and those who attended private schools are more likely to be in the ‘top jobs’….
‘This research shows that even if we compare students from the same institution type, taking the same subjects and with the same degree class, socioeconomic status and private schooling still affects an individual’s chance of securing a top job,’ the report concluded.
‘An individual who has a parent who is a manager and who attended a private school is around 7 percentage points more likely to enter the highest status occupations. Male graduates from a managerial background who attended a private school are around 10 percentage points more likely to enter the highest status occupations.
But academics do not know whether the advantage given to private school pupils is simply the ‘old boys’ network’ or whether they learn better social skills so appear more confident in job interviews.
‘Our results indicate a persistent advantage from having attended a private school. This raises questions about whether the advantage that private school graduates have is because they are better socially or academically prepared, have better networks or make different occupational choices.’
Ken Robinson (a Post Modern View)
This TED talk by Ken Robinson (An RSA animated video of a talk) – Offers several criticisms of the contemporary education system – you could loosly call this a post-modern/ late modern criticism of the role of modernist education, which also criticizes the Functionalist paradigm that school performs positive functions:
In short, Robinson argues that modern education lets most kids down in the following ways –
It stifles their creativity by focusing too much on academic education and standardised testing – kids are taught that there is one answer and it’s at the back, rather than being taught to think divergently.
It tests individual ability rather than your ability to work collaboratively in groups (which you would do in the real world).
Lessons are dull – out of touch with children who are living in the most information rich age in history.
It medicates thousands of kids with Ritalin – which Robinson sees as the wrong response to kids with ADHD – we should be stimulating them in divergent ways.
Functionalists focus on the positive functions of education – creating social solidarity, teaching core values and work skills and role allocation/ meritocracy
Functionalists focus on the positive functions performed by the education system. There are four positive functions that education performs:
1. Creating social solidarity 2. Teaching skills necessary for work 3. Teaching us core values 4. Role Allocation and meritocracy
Education Creates Social Solidarity
We have social solidarity when we feel as if we are part of something bigger. Emile Durkheim argued that school makes us feel like we are part of something bigger. This is done through the learning of subjects such as history and English which give us a shared sense of identity. Also in American schools, children pledge allegiance to the flag.
Durkheim argued that ‘school is a society in miniature.’ preparing us for life in wider society. For example, both in school and at work we have to cooperate with people who are neither friends or family – which gets us ready for dealing with people at work in later life.
Learning specialist skills for work
Durkheim noted that an advanced industrial economy required a massive and complex Division of Labour. At school, individuals learn the diverse skills necessary for this to take place. For example, we may all start off learning the same subjects, but later on we specialise when we do GCSEs.
The most obvious examples of this function of education are in the compulsory sector, especially with vocational education where students learn the specific skills required for particular professions – everything from engineering and construction to media and IT technicians and beauty therapy.
Durkheim believed that one of the most impressive things about modern education systems was that they simultaneously taught us core values and a sense of belonging to the whole (See below) while at the same time they teach us the DIFFERENT and DIVERSE skills that a modern economic system requires to function.
Education teaches pupils core values
Talcott Parsons argued that education acts as the ‘focal socializing agency’ in modern society. School plays the central role in the process of secondary socialisation, taking over from primary socialisation. He argued this was necessary because the family and the wider society work in different principles and children need to adapt if they re to cope In the wider world.
In the family, children are judged according to what he calls particularistic standards by their parents – that is they are judged by rules that only apply to that particular child. Individual children are given tasks based on their different abilities and judged according to their unique characteristics. Parents often adapt rules to suit the unique abilities of the child.
In contrast in school and in wider society, children and adults are judged according to the same universalistic standards (i.e they are judged by the same exams and the same laws). These rules and laws are applied equally to all people irrespective of the unique character of the individual. School gets us ready for this.
Education allocates people to the most appropriate job for their talents using examinations and qualifications. This ensures that the most talented are allocated to the occupations that are most important for society. This is seen to be fair because there is equality of opportunity – everyone has a chance of success and it is the most able who succeed through their own efforts – this is known as meritocracy.
Functionalists believe that meritocracy is extremely important for peace in society because people will only accept status and wage differences if those in lower status jobs believe they themselves had (or have) a fair chance to climb the ladder and get a higher status and better paid job themselves.
Positive evaluations of the Functionalist view on education
School performs positive functions for most pupils most of the time – even though students might not want to go to school sometimes and not necessarily enjoy school some of the time, the majority come out after 13 years of formal schooling as reasonable human beings.
There does seem to be a link between education and economic growth, suggesting a good education system benefits the wider society and economy. All countries in Western Europe have very good education systems while many poorer countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have many more problems with their education systems, such as low attendance rates.
Exclusion and truancy rates are relatively low, suggesting there is very little active resistance to schooling.
Schools do at least try to foster ‘solidarity’ – through PSHE lessons and teaching British Values for example.
Education is more ‘work focused’ today – increasing amounts of vocational courses. If you look at post-16 education especially there is a lot of diverse courses offered and it it is difficult to see how technologically advanced post-industrial economies could function without a thriving post-16 and university sectors.
Schooling is more meritocratic than in the 19th century (fairer)
Criticisms of the Functionalist View of Education
It is usual in A-level sociology to criticise one perspective using other perspectives, but in the case of Functionalism there are many more stand alone criticisms that we can make!
Marxists argue the education system is not meritocratic – wealthier students from higher socio-economic backgrounds still, in 2022, get better results than poorer students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, this is true within the state school system , but the largest difference in achievement is between the 7% of very wealthy students who attend fee paying independent schools and the 93% who attend state schools.
HOWEVER, there is evidence that a disadvantage gap opened up during school lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, with poorer students falling further behind than richer students, this actually suggests that when schools are open as usual, they at least narrow that achievement gap to an extent!
Marxists would also argue that the Functionalist view of education is ideological – the fact that it focuses on the postive functions of education means it reflects the views of the powerful – the education system tends to work for them and they suggests there is nothing to criticise.
The Functionalist perspective on education was developed in the late 19th century (Durkheim) and the 1950s (Parsons) – during modernity, but with the shift to postmodernity society has changed and the British school system seems to have adapted with it.
For example, schools today focus more on developing the individual rather than teaching duties and responsibilities that individuals should adopt towards society – it’s more about the individual and less about solidarity (following the shift from modern to postmodern society)
Functionalism ignores the negative sides of school – e.g. bullying and there are a minority for who it doesn’t work, such as those permanently excluded. If we were to do the kind of in-depth research Interactionists prefer we might find that a significant minority of children are harmed during school in more subtle ways.
It is difficult to argue that schools performed any of the above four functions during the disruption caused by the government’s response to the pandemic, especially not being judged by universalistic standards (no standardized exams) or meritocracy (because private school teachers inflated their students’ grades more than state school teachers).
Video summary of the Functionalist Theory of Education
Contemporary Evidence to Evaluate Functionalism (2022 update)
Students need to be able to evaluate sociological perspectives using contemporary evidence and a lot has happened in the last few years, most of the evidence suggesting that the Functionalist view of education is extremely limited in helping us to understand the role of education in society.
Below I consider five pieces of contemporary evidence mainly from 2020-2022 and what they suggest about some of the key ideas of Functionalism as applied to education.
The shift to the Ebacc
The government plans to make 90% of pupils sit GCSEs from with the Ebacc suite of subjects by 2025. This will result in a more similar experience of education for 14-16 year olds studying towards GCSEs and the Ebacc as the Ebacc consists of a relatively narrow range of subjects: English, maths, the sciences, history or geography and a language.
On the surface this move away from allowing students to have more choice in what they study could lead to more of a shared collective conscience and thus solidarity and value consensus as students are taught a higher proportion of rational (e.g. a lot more science) and critical subjects – so more students might finish their GCSEs thinking more similarly.
The ArtsProfessional blog points out that this will result in more students from more deprived backgrounds studying subjects NOT on the approved Ebacc list because such students are more likely to do seven rather than nine GCSEs – and they have to do seven from the list above as part of the Ebacc. This means we could have poorer students being excluded from creative subjects and P.E. because these aren’t on the list, while richer and more able students do the seven Ebacc subjects plus two or three other GCSEs of their choice.
It’s also likely that more able and affluent students will get better results in their Ebacc and have a more rounded subject base because of their additional subjects, while less able and poorer students end up with only Ebacc GCSEs and weaker results.
So the net effect of making students sit a narrower range of subjects is an increase in the inequality of outcomes along class lines, which goes against the idea of meritocracy as it reproduces class inequality.
The Problem with PREVENT and British Values
The requirement to teach British Values in schools started in 2015 and emerged out of the PREVENT agenda, which required schools to intervene when they suspected (mainly Muslim) children were being radicalised and drawn into terrorism.
The government defines British values as democracy, respect for the rule of law, individual liberty and tolerance and respect for those with different faiths – and the theory behind getting students to think about what ‘being British’ means is that it might to create a new tolerant and respectful national identity based on these values and help prevent radicalisation and terrorism.
OFSTED’s vision is that British Values are embedded into the curriculum and taught through several critical thinking subjects such as history and english – through which students learn about the historical struggles for democracy and the emergence of civil society. Ideally, students would also be taught to think about whether these values are universal beyond Britain.
However, according to a 2018 article in the Conversation it is highly unlikely that the requirement on schools to teach British Values is going to promote Value Consensus in any meaningful way.
Some schools, for example, confuse British Values with British stereotypes and get students to do projects such as doing collages of what Britishness in involving pictures of the Queen (or now King) and fish and chips, which hardly promote critical thinking.
A second problem is that these values are so general that each of them can be interpreted in many different ways, and they are also full of contradictions.
For example, there are different forms of democracy, other than our first past the post system, and ‘individual liberty’ is context dependent and clearly has its limits, but where? And as to the rule of law: Boris Johnson didn’t even respect that during lockdown so that is laughable. Hence any discussions around what the specifics of these values should mean could potentially reveal or even open up divisions between pupils.
There is also a problem that the whole PREVENT and British Values agenda emerged as a response to Islamic fundamentalism – it could potentially lead to further marginalisation of Muslim children in schools as the implicit message is that it’s mainly targeted at making Muslim children conform to this new Britishness (whatever that is!)
The EU Referendum in 2015 firmly split the UK population down the middle, with approximately half the population voting to stay in the EU and half voting to leave.
This is the only time that the UK Population has been offered the chance to vote directly on a specific social policy and the fact that it divided the nation in half suggests that there is no meaningful value consensus around the idea of how Britain should relate to the wider world.
And clearly if there is no value consensus in adult society, schools have roundly failed to foster any sense of value consensus on this issue during the last five decades!
Graduate Labour Market Statistics
The 2021 Graduate Labour Market statistics suggest some broad support for education performing the role allocation function, where a tiered education system sifts and sorts people into higher and higher skilled roles.
86.7% of graduates were employed in 2021 compared to 67.2% of non-graduates:
And graduates were three times as likely to be in ‘highly skilled’ jobs compared to non-graduates, suggesting that going to university successfully sifts most graduates into higher skilled jobs.
HOWEVER there are still around 25% of graduates who end up in lower skilled jobs so clearly the system isn’t that effective, and it’s also clear that going to university is NOT the only way to secure a higher-skilled job.
According to the 2021-22 apprenticeship data The total number of people doing apprenticeships in 2021-2022 was approximately 750 000, with the main sectors being health and social care and business administration.
The majority of people doing apprenticeships are under 25 and this suggests that apprenticeships are working alongside more traditional further and higher education institutions (colleges and universities) to further perform the function of role allocation.
The numbers of people doing apprenticeships certainly aren’t sufficient to suggest that apprenticeship, work based learning is undermining the role allocation function being performed my colleges and universities.