Aspirations and ambitions

In Winifred Holtby’s South Riding, published in 1936,  Lydia Holly is the eldest daughter of a large and poor family living in a converted railway carriage.  She is ‘an untidy fat loutish girl in a torn overall’ – but she shows evident signs of cleverness, and her mother sees this.  “Her mother  was a fighter; her mother had insisted  that she take the second chance of a scholarship to Kiplington High School.  When she was eleven she had  won a place at Kiplington, but her parents had needed her to escort her small sisters to the village school, so she had missed her chance.  Now Daisy was old enough to take her place there, the transfer might be arranged, and she might go to the High School.”

All does not, however, go smoothly.  Lydia’s mother dies in yet another childbirth, and so she has to be taken out of the High School.   The headmistress plans her rescue.   Since I haven’t finished the book yet I can’t give you the eventual outcome (maybe in a future blog).  At present it’s not looking good: “Lydia believed in promises no longer..At 16 a forlorn cynicism quenched her once robust vitality…She knew that she was clever.  But something  had broken in her spirit.”

Even if Lydia’s ambitions for school are fulfilled, her choice of subsequent occupation in those days was very limited, even at professional level.   The point here is the perennial dilemma of how to match aspirations to probabilities, to best effect.   One person’s realistic option is another’s unacceptably low ambition.

Melissa Benn is writing ‘What should we tell our daughters?’ , a book on the challenges which face different generations of women.  She and I occasionally use the British Library caff to swap notes on the direction of our respective books (and daughters).  One item on her list when we did this last week was what we (generally) should say to our  daughters about careers.

Educational  aspirations for and by girls have changed enormously over the years.   So have career aspirations;  but it’s not clear that they have changed as much.  So what kinds of encouragement we should give to girls in their career plans (if they get around to career planning – not something I ever managed myself).    Of course we should ‘give every encouragement’.    That includes broadening the range of occupational options, so that no individual  is discouraged from any particular type of job because of their gender  (which goes for boys as well).   It surely also means encouraging them to use their full potential.  But aspiration is not quite the same as ambition.   There is an issue about how much emphasis to put on professional ambitions, and how this fits with other priorities, including (not not confined to) family ones.

Girls’ career aspirations are still quite strongly gendered.  PISA’s 2006 survey showed that on average only 5% of girls in OECD countries expect a career in engineering or computing, compared with 18% of boys.  On the other hand,  girls are 11 percentage points more likely to expect to work as legislators, managers and professionals, again on average across the countries.  But it’s not just occupational choice, but ambition that is at issue;  how far up the various ladders girls should aim to climb.    Does ‘giving every encouragement’ mean  guiding or pressing them to aim literally as high as possible?  This might be the only accceptable answer.  But  is it unacceptably pessimistic line to suggest caution about very high ambitions because of the pressure that this puts on women, combined with the doubtful probabilities of actually getting to the top.   I’m not for one moment suggesting that this is Melissa’s line, but it’s an issue for many parents.


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