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Despite efforts to improve careers education, it is still seen to be largely ineffective. In addition, young people’s career aspirations have changed little in recent decades. OECD data from more than 40 countries shows that most young people expect to work within just one of 10 popular fields by the age of 30, such as being a doctor, a teacher or a business manager (Mann et al., 2020). These choices have changed little in decades despite new and emergent areas of work, such as in the digital economy and artificial intelligence.

Our research explored the career choices of young women and what shapes them, and indicates that (many) are stressed and potentially disconnected from the realities of the contemporary job market. The study involved 1,339 female secondary school students in the southern Australian state of Victoria, and provides a striking view of the current experiences of young women in Australia when choosing their work destinations in school. The sample included young women from schools in low, medium and high socioeconomic areas in metropolitan and regional Victoria from both government and non-government sectors.

A mixed methods approach was utilised in order to create a measure of Career Identity (CI). Sociological and psychological-based identity and CI literature, as well as career development frameworks and current research regarding youth transitions to employment post-education were reviewed as a first step. The quantitative analysis reported here is based on bi-variate associations tested using chi-squared tests of association between variables and reported as relative frequencies.

‘Our findings show that young women at school were confident about their futures … Yet contradictions in their responses suggest that this confidence is sometimes possibly a façade.’

The findings show that young women at school were confident about their futures, with 60 per cent feeling confident that their studies would lead to a future career. Yet contradictions in their responses to our survey suggest that this confidence is sometimes possibly a façade.

The findings show feelings of anxiety, uncertainty and confusion.

  • Though confident they were heading in the right direction, 33.5 per cent of young women did not know what careers best suited them.
  • 34.1 per cent were studying and taking on activities without any sense of purpose or career direction.
  • 26 per cent expressed a high degree of career stress.
  • 22 per cent were overwhelmed by the career information and choices they faced.
  • 49.1 per cent made choices based on the expectations of others, such as parents and carers.
  • 51.5 per cent were concerned that others would not approve of their choices.
  • 76.1 per cent of young women who often felt down or worried about selecting a career also reported that they were ‘choosing certain careers to please others’.
  • 40.1 per cent felt they had no career direction.
  • 39.3 per cent were worried that their studies would not lead to a ‘real’ career.
  • A similar proportion felt unemployable.

Having more career choices is desirable. It is closely associated with mobility and self-determination. But how much choice do young women really have? Young women are told that they have options – perhaps more so than ever – but their ability to understand and navigate such choices is complex, considering wider change in contemporary labour markets and the advice they are getting in their teens. Career choices are profoundly shaped by others, and not always to the benefit of young women.

Echoing OECD data cited above, those that do have possible careers in mind continue to nominate careers within a narrow band of occupational fields (such as a nurse, doctor or teacher), despite massive changes to employment in recent decades. Our data suggests that young women understand that in pursuing what they perceive to be a real career (that is, one that is desirable and stable), they have a restricted set of choices beyond which lies uncertainty. This might go some way to explaining the stress and lack of confidence when choosing a career – particularly when it goes against the advice and expectations of the other significant people in their lives.

Our study raises other questions for future research. Nominating careers within the same traditional fields raises significant questions. For example, do young women choose them because they still resemble a linear trajectory, one that is easier to comprehend and more secure? To what extent are they aware that their post-school journeys are going to be less linear than the career pathways previously experienced by those typically advising young women, such as family and teachers? And how can we improve career education, not only in schools, but also beyond the classroom?

This blog post draws from the report Young women choosing careers: Who decides? published by The Monash Centre for Youth Policy and Education Practice.

To find out more, join session 1.1 Informal Education and Post-16 Transitions at the BERA Annual Conference 2023 on Tuesday 12 September, 11am–12:30pm, room MB 653.


Mann, A., Denis, V., Schleicher, A., Ekhtiari, H., Forsyth, T., Liu, E., & Chambers, N. (2020). Dream jobs? Teenagers’ career aspirations and the future of work. OECD.