Girls’ and boys’ career choices in middle school: How they differ

Girls' and boys' career choices in middle school: How they differWhat happens when you ask middle school girls to choose a future career as if they were boys?

They make different career choices, according to a new study in the Middle School Journal based on a survey of 1200 middle school students.

“When girls speculate about their top choices as boys, girls accurately anticipate the top three choices the boys made for themselves. In order of preference, girls-as-boys select professional athlete (boys’ #2 choice), jobs in STEM ( boys’ #1 choice), and jobs in business (boys’ #3 choice).”

When boys imagine themselves choosing careers as girls, they chose differently as well. Their top 3 choices duplicate the top 3 choices of girls in the same sequence: jobs in the arts (performer, artist, writer, designer), jobs in professions (lawyer, professor) and jobs in medicine.

Gendered messages

These study results provide more evidence of the “dampening effect social gendered roles and messages have on the interests of students, particularly female students,” the authors write, and highlight how gender impacts students’ nascent career interests.  The study reinforces the need for educators to do more to keep girls in the pipeline to leadership and STEM careers.

Researchers surveyed middle school boys and girls through the online platform Zoomerang. The sampling drew from 2 groups: a Zoomerang database of adolescents in grades 6-8 from New England, New York and Pennsylvania and Girl Scouts in the same grades. The 2 samples of girls–Girl Scout girls and girls from the database—allowed researchers to explore differences in career aspirations and the possible effect of girls’ participation in a single-sex organization. The majority of the sampling (82%) was Caucasian.

Jobs in STEM ranked #4 in girls’ top 5 career choices compared to #1 for boys. Jobs in business ranked #5 for girls compared to #3 for boys.

In all, 26.1% of boys chose STEM careers compared with only 12.4% of girls, a result that is “eerily resonant with current data on women in STEM,” the authors write.

Media, books, parents and educators all play roles in shaping adolescents’ beliefs and attitudes toward gender and careers. Interestingly, while middle schoolers report that the most frequent advice they get from parents is to “do whatever makes you happy,” girls perceived less parental support for career choices that d0 not meet gendered expectations. Girls perceived less parental support for STEM careers compared with boys (11% of girls said their parents were supportive of this career choice versus 23% of boys).

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Recommendations

What can educators do to help middle schoolers avoid the trap of gendered career aspirations?

  • Don’t underestimate your influence. Almost of 40% of girls and 33% of boys indicated school was their primary source of information about careers, followed by family members (averaging 23%);then internet, television and magazines. Guest professional speakers, job shadowing, field trips to workplaces, career fairs are some of the ways educators can keep exposing young adolescents to a broad spectrum of career choices.
  • While it is encouraging that families are advising children to do what makes them happy, educators need to supplement this “happy” advice with more specifics regarding the reality of the work world, career options and what pathways they need to follow in order to pursue their interest.
  • Help students understand the gendered landscape. Have discussions about gender, what it is and the multitude of ways it is communicated. Challenge images that perpetuate gendered career stereotypes and discuss difficulties facing both men and women who choose careers inconsistent with their gender. Research shows that conversations about gender and gender role expectations help mitigate the power of those messages.
  • Make middle school a time for keeping options open and exploring possibilities rather than getting on a track.  “Indeed, a first step out of the pipeline may involve making curricular choices in middle and high school that may impact college options and, ultimately, career options,” the authors write.

“Middle school girls and the ‘leaky pipeline’ to leadership,” by Mary Shapiro et al., The Middle School Journal, May 2015.

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