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Career Choices of Middle Schoolers Tend to be Highly Gendered

Simmons College and Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts Study Illustrates Impact of Societal Influences, Suggests Significant Effect on Future Workforce.

Most middle school students are listening when their parents tell them to aim for "whatever career makes you happy." However, a new survey found that although girls have strong career aspirations, they view their options as being more limited than boys, and ignore non-traditional fields such as emerging and more highly paid careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

This was among the key findings of a study by Simmons College and the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts featuring more than 1,600 middle school students in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania. The survey studied girls, girls who are Girl Scouts, and boys; all between ages 10-15.

Among the study findings was that fewer middle school girls vs. boys see themselves in STEM careers; only 10% of all girls would choose a job in STEM vs. 32% of boys. Other key findings include:

  • More than twice as many boys vs. all girls (23% vs. 11%) say their parents would like them to have a job in STEM 27% of all girls and 35% of boys agree with the statement "boys have more career options than girls"

  • All girls surveyed scored higher in confidence than boys, yet more than half of all of the girls surveyed (55%) and 3/4 of the boys (73%) say they agree with the statement "there are some jobs that boys are better at than girls."

Researchers say the findings illustrate the pervasiveness of gendered social norms and influences that trump positive, well-meaning messages from parents and influential adults about career options that impact girls' and boys' understanding of job choices. "Despite 40 years of progress by women in the workforce and the best intentions of parents to encourage broad career aspirations, societal messages still have a major influence on attitudes about job opportunities based on gender," said study co-author Mary Shapiro, a professor at the Simmons School of Management. "When parents tell their middle schoolers ‘do whatever makes you happy,’ this message is being heard through gendered stereotypes about careers."

The survey also found that although most girls saw more limited career options vs. boys, the girls surveyed who were Girl Scouts were nearly twice as likely to consider a career in STEM and business compared to non-Girl Scouts: 14% of Girl Scouts vs. 8% of non-Girl Scout girls. The research also showed that Girl Scouts were the least likely (compared with boys and non-Girl Scouts) to believe in gendered messages about careers.

Study authors said these results underscore the value of girl-serving organizations in assisting parents in the face of the gendered societal influences surrounding their children. Partnering with girl-serving organizations and programs is considered an effective practice for parents to increase girls' confidence as leaders and to expand girls' career choices.

It has been widely reported that, despite significant unemployment, there are three million unfilled positions in the U.S. because companies can't find workers with relevant STEM skills. Researchers noted that there is an opportunity for parents, teachers, and other adults to highlight and make STEM careers relevant to middle school children, especially girls, in order to meet this growing need.

Download the article here.

Would you like one of the study's authors to come speak to your organization on this topic? If so, please contact Elisa van Dam at Elisa.vanDam@simmons.edu or 617-521-3869. Learn more about other speakers and workshops here.

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