Photograph by Getty Images
By Jared Lindzon
November 23, 2015

Some good news for those who hope to someday live in a world where women coders and surgeons are as plentiful as their male counterparts: Today’s elementary school girls are actually more interested in pursuing a STEM career than their male classmates are.

What’s more, while young boys’ ideal jobs have stayed relatively consistent over the past quarter century, young girls career dreams have grown loftier and more ambitious.

Back in 1989, a study published in the British Journal of Guidance and Counseling found that 11-year-old boys were most interested in becoming an athlete, a service member, or an engineer. Now, a new survey of children 10 and younger, released last week by Fatherly, a site for millennial dads, found that boys’ career dreams have stayed relatively stable. Pro athlete once again came in at No. 1, followed by firefighter and engineer.

In the 1989 study, girls said they aspired to be teachers, nurses, flight attendants, secretaries and hairdressers. In the Fatherly survey, though, girls’ No. 1 pick was doctor, followed by teacher and scientist.

Fatherly professions survey

 

Also notable: Overall, girls were more likely to say they were interested in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) job than their male counterparts. Indeed, 41% of girls expressed interest in technical career, vs. 32% of boys.

Yet while girls’ increased interest in scientific careers is clearly something to celebrate, there is still progress to be made, says Simon Isaacs, the co-founder of Fatherly. “We can celebrate the girls’ focus on STEM, which is largely focused towards healthcare and the sciences, but if we look at ages 1 through 10 right now, we still have a long way to go with regards to getting girls involved in engineering, computer programming and other tech fields.”

Other recent studies, including one by Google and Gallup and another by the OECD, similarly found that American girls believe they are relatively unlikely to end up in a career that requires computer science or engineering skills.

“Even as we talk about being a generation that is growing up more gender-non-conformist than any other generation, we aren’t necessarily seeing that translate into what [kids] want to be,” said Isaacs.

Isaacs adds that he decided to pursue this research to better understand how today’s culture of role models—who are as diverse as the Kardashians, Mark Zuckerberg, and Malala Yousafzai are shaping the next generation of students’ career ambitions.

“What we find at the elementary level is that kids are often basing their aspirations on whatever they’ve been exposed to in the media,” said Tony Wagner, an expert in residence at Harvard University’s Innovation Lab and author of Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change The World.

Wagner adds that gender norms portrayed in the media have begun to change, specifically with regards to female characters in medicine and science. He believes it’s no coincidence that those the fields are now seeing greater interest from young girls. The gender depictions, however, remain relatively unchanged in the fields of engineering and computer science, where school-aged girls have traditionally expressed less interest.

Wagner adds that in his research he has found that girls are more interested in careers that are portrayed as having a direct human connection, like medicine and education.

“What they don’t understand is that much of engineering, and other STEM work, is profoundly human-centered. The problem lies in how it’s taught,” he said, adding that depictions of coders and engineers spending hours on end glued to a computer screen only reinforce that perception. “When you begin to understand engineering as a design problem, as meant to solve real human problems, you immediately engage all students, and particularly women, far more actively than you would otherwise.”

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