Girls in Vocational Education

The selected excerpts come from the report “Vocational schools and the labour market for women with basic vocational education. Report from the study conducted in 2015 “issued by Karat Coalition.


Various rational and practical reasons and motivations decide about choosing by girls a Basic Vocational School (provided they made the choice themselves). The women feel that a basic vocational school is an optimal investment – it involves only a short training time and offers a fairly good chance to find a job. The women who chose their own programme and work in their profession are more satisfied with their jobs.

Vocational training is chosen by girls:

  •  who did not obtain good grades in primary education and feared that they would not be admitted to a vocational secondary school or a general secondary school. They were also worried they would not manage in that kind of school;
  •  who needed to become financially independent, either because of a difficult financial situation at home or for psychological reasons. Graduating from a basic vocational school allowed them to earn a profession and enter the labour market;
  •  due to belief that after graduating they would secure a good job;
  •  due to belief that ‘having a profession’ is a key to success in the labour market. According to them practical qualifications, competences and skills are taught at Basic Vocational School;
  •  who wanted/want to study and learn new skills and acquire competences through practice. The women remarked that vocational secondary schools are less focused on vocational subjects and practicing vocational skills, and put more emphasis on academic subjects which are seen as less useful in the labour market;
  •  who had a clear professional ambition and knew exactly what they wanted to achieve in their professional life. Basic Vocational School was a way to secure professional development in the chosen field.

The results of the study go against the popular stereotype of girls going to vocational schools as irrational people who do not wish to study, and also contradicts the stereotypical image of Basic Vocational Schools as schooling establishments with no prestige.


At the age of 14-15 the choice of profession, possibly for one’s entire life, is something highly abstract. In many cases educational choices are random, and more often than not these decisions are made under conditions of limited choice. Sometimes it is the parents who decide.

The location of the school is an important factor when the girls have no clear opinion on their preferred programme of study or when their family is in a difficult financial position and the parents are not prepared to cover the expenses relating to their child’s education. In those cases the girls choose one of the offers at the nearest school. Difficult financial situation and the need to reduce spending can often result in a situation where a girl chooses a programme she is not at all interested in.

While choosing the programme of education and their future programme, the girls tend to follow the patterns they know, i.e. the occupations of their relatives: mothers, grandmothers, and occasionally their brothers or fathers. Another factor determining their choice are their interests, mostly based on their household experiences. The kind of ‘feminine’ domestic work they are used to do at home becomes the basis for choosing their future school.

The choices of future programmes of study often reflect the widely accepted patterns of a given social group: some professions are relevant for girls, other for boys (hence the “girls to the catering school”). The girls’ vocational choices are related to the way they perceive women and femininity. Sometimes the choices lack consideration and other are based on the belief that women are different from men in a way that predisposes them to pursue certain professions, such as the stereotypical view that girls are more diligent, rigid and generally better at humanities, while men are more creative and able in the sciences. Another concern which emerged in the interviews was the typical ‘what would people say’ if a girl choose a ‘typically masculine’ programme. It could raise a suspicion that she is not ‘feminine enough’ or that she is desperate to find a partner.

While choosing their future occupation, girls generally believe that they are making a rational choice. They base their decisions on their parents’ experiences, who had worked all life in a given profession and had never been out of work. They are convinced that certain jobs will be needed and some services, such as hairdressing or catering will always be in demand. The level of saturation of the labour market with a given profession is a factor which they tend to notice only after graduation (for instance, that it makes no sense to start their own hair salon as there is one on every street already). The women pointed to the fact that it is difficult to make a rational choice from the perspective of the labour market. Choosing an occupation which is in demand at the time of choosing the profession does not have to result in finding the job upon graduation.


On one hand, a woman in a ‘masculine’ profession is seen as ‘feisty’, ‘confident’, with a ‘strong personality’, ‘self-sufficient’ and intelligent, which could all be considered positive features, except for the fact that they are all traditionally associated with masculinity. According to the interviewed women, this could lead to problems in relationships with men at work and, what is worse, in the relationship with a partner/husband. The fear of losing the feminine side and the consequences thereof seem to be the key barrier stopping women form choosing the ‘masculine’ professions.

In the interviews there was also a conviction that employers will not want to hire a woman in a ‘male’ job as they will not be convinced of her skills, and even if they are, they will know that the customers will not trust a woman worker in a ‘masculine’ job. Teachers in basic vocational schools, even those who were favourably inclined to their female students, also openly expressed their concerns about their students’ future employability.

How are the women who graduated from vocational schools perceived?
The situation of the researched group in the labour market is heavily influenced by the fact that the social status of basic vocational education is very low. The women mentioned the stereotypical image of their social group. Basic Vocational School’s female graduates are seen as stupid, unintelligent, unambitious, from poor families, those who never made an effort to study and who can only do well in manual labour. This harmful stereotype seems to affect women more than men – the majority of men graduate from the more socially recognised engineering and technical programmes. The low social status of female basic vocational education relates to the low prestige of the occupations which they choose. This is important for women’s self-esteem.


Women could feel the lack of respect from their employers. They often mentioned being ‘kicked about’ and exploited by the employers. A particularly notorious example of bad working conditions are chain supermarkets, where employers are expected to be available around the clock and the refusal to stay after hours may result in receiving a notice. Another instance of exploitation, according to the interviewed women, is a situation where the employer offers the workers only a part-time job but forces the workers to stay overtime. Lack of respect for the workers and a poor organisational culture in the workplace are apparent. Bad relationships in the workplace, mobbing, undignified behaviour towards the workers – all this is in stark contrast with the experiences the women have while working in western countries.


Adopted in the last three decades educational model which favours establishments of tertiary education needs to be questioned, and one needs to consider the fact that choosing a basic vocational school does not preclude the possibility of further study. Mass high school education has certain downsides such as the lowering of standards of education (academic teachers decry the ever-worsening academic level of first year students), the number of students repeating a year and the dropout rate.

This model of education seems particularly problematic for girls who choose general high schools and finish their education after school graduation. Over half of girls and less than one-third of boys decide to go to general high schools. Lack of a specific profession significantly limits the chances on the labour market. Consequently, only 41% of women who graduated from general high schools have a job; for comparison – 49% of those who graduated from basic vocational schools and 55% of those who graduated from secondary vocational schools are employed. *

Approx. 10% of girls, usually coming from rural areas and small towns, choose vocational schools. Joining a specific profession is often considered a social promotion, especially for families with a difficult financial situation. The reform of vocational education conducted by the Ministry of Education for the last couple of years, has assumed significant funds for vocational schools. However, the recent comments of the Ministry indicate that “the reform must be financed without generating additional costs for the state budget” **. This may result in even greater barriers for girls to accessing vocational training in professions that are in demand on the labour market, especially next year when the eighth grade students of elementary schools and the third year students of middle schools will choose upper secondary schools **.

*The data come from the report „Pay gap between women and men with basic vocational education. An analysis of statistical data concerning the labour market, pay disparities and the opinions of the female respondents in 2015”, issued by Karat Coalition.

**Suchecka Justyna, Pucałek Aleksandra; No idea and money for vocational schools. (in:) Gazeta Wyborcza, 13.08.2018