Let Toys Be Toys supporter Steph explains how she sees gender stereotypes affect children’s dreams for their future in her work in careers advice, and what we can do about it.
Three years ago I had the privilege of working on a government pathfinder that aimed to explore how Career-related Learning could become part of the primary curriculum so that children would be encouraged to consider the link between education and later life chances / work opportunities.
As part of this, we looked at the prevalence of gender-specific career/role stereotypes, how these came about, and if they could be reduced through specific approaches to learning.
By late primary gender already affects career ideas
The majority of both girls and boys who filled in our initial questionnaire agreed with the statement that there are jobs only boys can do and some jobs only girls can do, and also tended to demonstrate perceived links between girls and service roles and boys and skilled jobs.
This was not a surprise to the research team because we know that by the ages of 9-13 children are more aware of the realities of their lives, and the constraints on the careers they might choose. These might include a lack of belief in their ability to meet tough job requirements, (‘I’m not clever enough’) or an unwillingness to take risks, (‘What if I don’t make it?’).
It also includes limitations on what they can imagine people like themselves doing, and gender is a major factor here.
Teenage careers advice comes too late
By the time I am offering careers guidance to 14-19 year olds, making real choices about education and training, it’s already too late. These assumptions are very difficult to address. I have time and again challenged girls who cannot shake the deep-rooted belief amongst them (and very often their peers and families) that they can’t work in construction or mechanics, for example. The picture for boys considering retail and hairdressing is much the same.
Children need to see role models
To help young people approach their futures with a truly open mind we need timely interventions that can help inhibit stereotyped and self-limiting thinking about opportunities long before major decisions need to be made.
Children are heavily influenced by role models, and introducing them to successful women working in traditional male roles and vice versa, alongside teaching on how the learning from schools subjects is transferred to skills for these workplaces, had a marked effect on their aspirations.
For example, by the follow-up assessment period, girls in Pathfinder schools who had taken part in these activities were significantly less likely to say they would like to do a customer service/operative job or an elementary job than otherwise similar pupils.
Stereotyped play restricts children’s career ideas
However, it is not simply through formal learning where stereotyped thinking develops.
During my work with primary children, many talked about not being given the option to play with the same toys as their siblings or friends of the opposite gender, and directly linked these experiences to their ideas about careers. For example, one 10 year old boy who told me excitedly how much he loved watching mum cook, was adamant that he couldn’t work in a restaurant because his sister “does that stuff cos she is a girl” (referring to the play kitchen she was bought).
By narrowing down the choices open to children through categorising toys by gender, we are sending a clear message that some options are not open to both genders; and this extends firmly in the minds of children to the future jobs open to them, on both conscious and subconscious levels.