Gender stereotypes continue to play a significant role in how children imagine their future careers, and in the long term, these stereotypes may limit opportunities for both boys and girls. We know that the perceptions young people have about careers are formed and consolidated at a young age, with some research suggesting stereotypes are evident from the age of seven (Chambers et al., 2018). In both Australia and the United Kingdom, there have been efforts to widen the participation of under-represented groups in higher education and in specific career pathways – one example of this is the extensive range of ‘Women in STEM’ initiatives. Yet career choices continue to be shaped by gender stereotypes as young people have become more concentrated on fewer occupations (Francis et al., 2017).
‘Career choices continue to be shaped by gender stereotypes as young people have become more concentrated on fewer occupations.’
Our research (Scholes & McDonald, 2022) examines the career pathways of 7-to-8-year-old children in Queensland, Australia. As part of this research, we drew on data from a larger study to focus on the responses given by 332 children (156 boys and 176 girls) from 14 Australian schools in metropolitan, regional and rural locations to two short-answer survey questions about career aspirations. We asked the children to complete two sentences:
- ‘I want to get a job as…’
- ‘I would like this job because…’
By asking children to consider why they were interested in particular careers, we were able to explore whether their explanations reflected traditional constructions of gender. We were particularly interested in exploring how students justified their career choices through a lens that considers traditional constructions of masculinities and femininities in society.
The children’s responses to the survey questions revealed that the top three jobs for girls (teacher, vet, arts (incorporating artist, singer, dancer)) and boys (professional sports, STEM, police/defence) reflected traditional feminine and masculine occupations. Furthermore, the children’s justifications for why they were interested in these careers illustrated how traditional masculine and feminine characteristics are deeply ingrained. More boys than girls justified their choices based on money and power, and more girls than boys justified their desires based on care and love. Our research also revealed that boys aspired to a career in STEM (34 boys or 22 per cent) at a much higher rate than girls (10 girls or 6 per cent) reflecting a continual under-representation of girls in these fields in Australia (Office of the Chief Scientist, 2020). However, we did note that STEM-related jobs did make the top 10 for girls in our sample, while this category is absent in the girls’ top 10 reported by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 2020). This local variation may reflect the current educational efforts in Australia to attract girls into STEM (Murphy et al., 2019).
‘The children’s justifications for why they were interested in their chosen careers illustrated how traditional masculine and feminine characteristics are deeply ingrained.’
Our findings demonstrate how traditional constructions of masculinity and femininity remain an important factor in how children come to aspire to particular careers, despite a push within educational contexts towards more equitable gender participation. Yet we believe there are possibilities for change, particularly in the early years. Classrooms could provide more opportunities for young students to expand their understandings of gender – for example, play which expands girls’ beliefs about traditionally defined masculine roles and offers boys opportunities to positively embed traditionally deemed feminine characteristics and contribute in caring, nurturing and service capacities. We propose that as gender stereotypes are ingrained in children’s career choices in the early years of primary school, policy agendas to disrupt stereotypes and widen participation should start earlier in life.
This blog is based on the article ‘Year 3 student career choices: Exploring societal changes in constructions of masculinity and femininity in career choice justifications’ by Laura Scholes and Sarah McDonald, published in the British Educational Research Journal.
Chambers, N., Kashefpakdel, E. T., Rehill, J., & Percy, C. (2018). Drawing the future: Exploring the career aspirations of primary school students from around the world. Education and Employers.
Francis, B., Archer, L., Moote, J., DeWitt, J., MacLeod, E., & Yeomans, L. (2017). The construction of physics as a quintessentially masculine subject: Young people’s perceptions of gender issues in access to physics. Sex Roles, 76(3–4), 156–174. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-016-0669-z
Murphy, S., MacDonald, A., Danaia, L., & Wang, C. (2019). An analysis of Australian STEM education strategies. Policy Futures in Education, 17(2), 122–139. https://doi.org/10.1177/1478210318774190
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD]. (2020). Dream jobs?: Teenagers’ career aspirations and the future of work. https://www.oecd.org/education/dream-jobs-teenagers-career-aspirations-and-the-future-of-work.htm
Office of the Chief Scientist. (2020). Australia’s STEM workforce. Australian Government. https://www.chiefscientist.gov.au/news-and-media/2020-australias-stem-workforce-report
Scholes, L., & McDonald, S. (2022). Year 3 student career choices: Exploring societal changes in constructions of masculinity and femininity in career choice justifications. British Educational Research Journal, 48(2), 292–310. https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3767