How to convince girls to be pilots and engineers

careers article WEB



In a recent article in The Conversation, Gina Rippon, Professor of NeuroImaging at Aston University (Birmingham, UK), outlined recent research in the fields of neuroscience and psychology that has overturned long-held beliefs about the existence of fixed differences in male and female brains.

Scientists have found that every brain is a mix of male and female, meaning that “none could be described as fully male or fully female”, while psychologists have discovered evidence that brains can be moulded by different experiences and cultures.

Despite this, research shows that gender stereotypes about careers are already strongly entrenched in children aged just 4-6. KidZania, which operates educational indoor play centres in over fifteen countries around the world, collected data from 400,000 children showing which career they selected to role-play when entering the KidZania mini-city. Among younger children aged 4-6, boys were far more likely than girls to choose to be a pilot or engineer, while girls were more likely than boys to choose to be airplane cabin crew.

In fact, of children aged 4-6 who chose to be a pilot, 80% were boys and 20% were girls. Similarly, of those who chose to be an engineer, 80% were boys and 20% were girls. In contrast, of those who wanted to be cabin crew, 63% were girls and 37% were boys. And these statistics are not limited to young children. The KidZania study showed that the gender split is roughly the same for each profession among children aged 11-14.

Dr Ger Graus, Director of Education and Partnerships at KidZania (UK), says this data shows that children tend to choose something that they are already familiar with and therefore more needs to be done to raise awareness of career choices for girls from a young age. As he comments:

What this data shows is that gender stereotypes are formed much earlier than you would expect and poses the question of what is happening with these kids up to the age of 4.

A recently published American study, based on interviews with 99 children aged 3-6, found that girls are far more likely to hold stereotyped beliefs about occupations and activities than boys. Psychologists Erin Baker, Marie Tisak and John Tisak from Bowling Green State University in Ohio found that the majority of girls believe that only girls can be teachers and nurses, and that only boys can be police officers. In contrast, most boys said that both genders can be teachers, doctors, police officers, bus drivers, waiters and nurses.

In terms of activities that girls and boys can do, the results were mainly gender neutral with the majority of both genders saying that boys and girls can ride a bike, watch television and cook dinner. Most boys also thought that girls and boys can shop for clothes. However, the majority of both genders said that only boys can use tools and fix cars, while half of girls said that only girls can shop for clothes.

The researchers concluded that young boys “tended to express no stereotypic beliefs” while young girls “expressed multiple stereotypic beliefs”. Overall, they said, these results reflect the findings of earlier studies showing that females express greater gender stereotypic beliefs than males. But why, as the American study shows, do such young girls believe that only boys can be police officers and only girls can be teachers and nurses?

The study authors say young girls are provided with more socialisation opportunities than boys, so it may be the result of being exposed to “socially accepted gender norms” at a  young age and unconsciously incorporating them in their notion of what a “girl” is.

Secondly, female gender norms are very prescriptive and tell girls what they can do in clear terms. For instance, girls are told that “girls wear dresses”, whereas for boys, maleness is identified with activities or traits, which can be more difficult concepts for young children to understand.

Erin Baker, Marie Tisak and John Tisak say that while their study has important implications for preschool teachers, “parents might assist children in participating in activities and developing behavioral habits that inhibit gender-stereotype development”. Furthermore, the study’s findings “might be particularly relevant for parents and teachers of female children”. In particular, regarding occupations and activities, “it might be beneficial to expose children early on to gender-incongruent individuals and positions”.

Of course, these findings are not just relevant to preschool-age children. Recent developments in neuroscience debunking myths about hardwired differences in male and female brains, combined with studies showing that girls as young as 3 and 4 have already acquired strongly stereotyped beliefs about occupations and activities, clearly demonstrate that girls and young women are being influenced by gender stereotyping even before they start school. If we are to make substantial progress in convincing girls that they are the pilots and engineers of the future, then parents, grandparents, early childhood centres, schools,  the media and the wider community all have a vital role to play in preventing girls from picking up harmful stereotypes that may stop them reaching their full potential.

Baker, E., Tisak, M., & Tisak, J. (2016). What can boys and girls do? Preschoolers’ perspectives regarding gender roles across domains of behavior. Social Psychology of Education, 19(1), 23-39. DOI: 10.1007/s11218-015-9320-z
Rippon, G. (2016, October 27). How ‘neurosexism’ is holding back gender equality — and science itself. The Conversation. Retrieved here. 
Vaughan, R. (2016, November 4). Children’s career choices fixed by gender as early as age
4. TES [Times Education Supplement]. Retrieved here


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