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7yo boys 20x more likely to want to become engineers – Week 33

Welcome back to Feminist Fact Friday and theme #9: EARLY YEARS. I’ve previously covered a whole range of topics from POLITICS through to HEALTH. If you’re new to this project you can start from the very beginning, right here and I’d urge you to follow up with a look at one of my favourite HEROES: Marc Benioff. If you’ve recently faced excuses that fighting sexism and racism take time then he’s the perfect example of someone who acted rather than chickened out. Whatever power you hold you can choose to be that decisive too even if it’s on a small scale.

Last week I kicked off EARLY YEARS with a look at how gender inequality begins for most of us at birth, with women being the primary caregiver and doing three times as much unpaid childcare as men. For most couples (for those who remain together, and are in heterosexual relationships) this isn’t even a choice, but a situation imposed on them by factors as various as the gender pay gap, lack of advancement for women and the rate at which men’s desire to parent is denied.

This week’s topic

According to the 2018 report Drawing the Future from Education and Employers, children make gendered career choices from at least as early as seven years of age. Examining the views of 20,000 children, the report reveals a picture of strong gendered distortion from very early on:

Across the sample, children’s aspirations appear to be shaped by gender-specific ideas about certain jobs. Boys overwhelmingly aspire to take on roles in traditionally male dominated sectors and professions. Over five times the number of boys aim to have a role in the armed forces or firefighting services compared to girls. This continues into the male-dominated manufacturing and design sectors, where again over 20 times the number of boys have aspirations to be involved in manufacturing (Mechanic) and construction (Builder, Architect and Engineer). Similarly, over 20 times the number of girls aspired to be involved in the fashion industry compared to boys.

As the BBC writes of similar findings, “there are only “minimal changes” in attitudes towards career options between the ages of seven and 17″ so what we see at these early stages carries long-lasting consequences.

Why is this important?

Fans of the status quo like to argue that we all have a choice, it’s just that boys and men like certain things (blue, trucks) and girls and women like other things (pink, dolls) and that’s a completely natural, biologically-determined state – a view that completely fails to acknowledge the role that socialisation plays. Professor Becky Francis, Director of UCL Institute of Education perfectly sums up what is wrong with gender being such a strong determinant of future career choice:

Economically it is desirable to see jobs allocated on merit, rather than based on gender (or indeed, ethnicity or social class). More directly, as the report points out, some sectors face staff and skills shortages, which are compounded by the lack of uptake by women or men respectively. And at an individual level, such trends suggest that many people are still having their ambition and potential capped by horizons that are narrowed by gender.

Even if the status quoers were right about gendered stereotypes being natural (clue: they’re not) there’s clear harm and determinism that comes out of ‘boys being boys’ and ‘girls being girls’ as the 2018 report states (drawing on research from Bian, Leslie and Cimpian) :

Girls who define themselves as ‘girly’ (highly feminine) are particularly unlikely to aspire to a career in science. Girls who do aspire to science and STEM-related careers tend to be highly academic and are more likely to describe themselves as ‘not girly’. Those ‘girly’ girls who do aspire to science careers at age 10/11 tend to either drop or change these aspirations over time. According to this evidence, traditional or conventional ideas about jobs are cemented in a child’s mind at a young age and prevail well into their teenage years.

Quoting L. Bian, S-J Leslie and A. Cimpian in Drawing the Future

As with so much of this well-established research, the numbers above come from very robust studies, including almost 19,000 surveys (as well as a sample of longitudinal interviews). We don’t have to accept this situation as being inevitable – as Drawing the Future says, early-years interventions pay dividends and help raise children who can realise their potential outside of gendered constraints.

This research is so important because it shows that it’s not enough (though it’s better than nothing) to start changing minds in secondary school during careers sessions, but rather we need to involved very early on, helping to shape children’s perceptions of what’s possible for both girls and boys.

What can you do about it?

If you have children yourself, or spend time with children close to you (perhaps you’re an aunt or uncle, grandparent or godparent) then take the time to talk about the different kinds of careers you know of and how they’re suitable for both men and women. One of the findings that came out most strongly from the report was:

Among young people who did know someone, the analysis found that parents and other extended members of the family (siblings, grandparents etc) were the most influential in defining children’s career aspirations. The least influential person or people was a member of the local community.

Further, as ‘the evidence suggests that giving children the chance to meet volunteers from the world helps them to see the meaning and relevance of the subjects they are studying at school work’ I’d encourage you to try and get involved with a scheme such as Primary Futures or just more casually seeing whether schools in your area have times when they invite people in to talk about their work. You could also consider seeing whether your employer is open to inviting young people to your offices (probably only suitable if you actually have a diverse team to be proud of).

Research on this theme emphasises how much role models matter. In fact, while this is only loosely related, Disrupting the Feed, a recent paper from The Female Lead and Dr Terri Apter revealed just how much of a positive impact changing who teenage girls were following on social media could have on their lives “the results indicated a strong correlation between following female role models on social media and a more positive and aspirational self-image.” While this was a small study on young women aged 14-17 I believe the results can be transformational on all of us. Though gender socialisation starts forcing our choices very early on, it’s never too late to ‘disrupt the feed’ for all of us. Try transforming your feed with these recommendations from The Female Lead and if you find it works for you, consider recommending this small change to anyone in your life who could benefit.

As always, I’d encourage you to go back and read some of the previous Feminist Fact Friday articles. BEHAVIOUR is particularly pertinent for this topic as it’s all about how women are three times as likely to be labelled “too aggressive” in the workplace more likely to get burdened with office housework and 21% less likely to be promoted. Then take this new knowledge and do something with it!

Yours in solidarity.


Education and Employers Drawing the Future 19 January 2019

Bian, L., Leslie, S-J., and Cimpian, A. (2017). Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests. Science 355 (6323), 389-391

Sean Coughlan writing for the BBC Career ambitions ‘already limited by age of seven’ 15 October 2019

The Female Lead Transforming Your Feed 8 October 2019