The gender divide is as strong at age 4 as it is at 14 when it comes to children’s career choices, a major new study has revealed.
The figures, based on the decisions of hundreds of thousands of children, reveal that gender stereotypes about potential career choices are firmly in place well before the teenage years and then remain.
The data raises significant questions about the impact of high-profile interventions designed to encourage girls to study Stem subjects and consider careers in engineering. One teachers’ leader warned this week that society had “gone backwards” on tackling the gender divide.
The study of more than 400,000 boys and girls aged between 4 and 14, by KidZania – a children’s amusement centre in which children carry out role-playing activities in a mini-city – reveals that boys are significantly more likely to choose to be a pilot or engineer than girls.
The organisation has collected figures on the career choices that children opt to act out when they enter the “city”. They can choose from a range of occupations including journalist, police officer, pilot and surgeon.
The data shows that even those aged 4 to 6 demonstrate strong gender stereotypes according to the job they pick: 80 per cent of boys in this age range will opt to be a pilot, while just 20 per cent of girls will.
However, when it comes to pretending to be the cabin crew, 63 per cent of girls will choose this as an occupation, compared with just 37 per cent of boys.
A similar picture emerges for engineering, with 80 per cent of boys aged 4 to 6 choosing it as a profession to act out, compared with only 20 per cent of girls.
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union, said that tackling such stereotypes was difficult for schools and the data was indicative of a wider problem in society.
“The tragedy is we are going backwards,” she said. “In the 1980s, there was lots of work done around gender stereotypes, getting girls into maths and science, and looking at the curriculum and pedagogy. But I don’t think we take the issue seriously enough anymore.”
The data shows that stereotyping is as bad in very young children as it is in their older counterparts: the gender split is roughly the same for each profession at ages 11-14.
Ger Graus, director of education and partnerships at KidZania UK, said the figures show that more needed to be done to raise awareness of possible career choices, particularly for girls, earlier in their development.
“Children can only aspire to be something that they know exists,” Dr Graus said. “They tend to choose to do something that they are already familiar with.
“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.”
This is an edited article from the 4 November edition of TES. Subscribers can read the full article here. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here