By Rowena Phair
Project Leader, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills
Gender equity will not be achieved quickly if children continue to copy the gender norms of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. While some barriers in perceived possibilies are breaking down, gender norms are evident in young children’s views of their future.
The OECD’s International Early Learning and Child Well-being Study asked over 4 000 children what they wanted to do or be when they grow up. Most children had a definite idea of the type of the job they would like and were keen to share their views.
Boys’ choices more closely match traditional gender norms than the choices made by girls
While there is overlap between the job preferences of five-year-old girls and boys, a disproportionate number of boys see their future in traditionally gendered roles.. More than one in two of the 30 most popular roles selected by boys are in traditionally male-dominated occupations. In contrast, one in four of the 30 most popular roles selected by girls are in traditionally female-dominated fields.
Girls are more interested in jobs that are male-dominated, such as police officer and fire fighter, than boys are in roles that are less traditional for men. Nonetheless, the most popular career choice among five-year-old girls is to be a teacher, whereas the most common aspiration for five-year-old boys is to be a police officer.
The roles preferred by girls tend to require higher qualifications and are currently better paid than the roles favoured by boys. Boys from immigrant families, however, tend to aspire to roles that are more qualified and higher paid than other boys. The aspirations of girls with and without an immigrant background do not significantly differ.
Approximately half of the responses from girls and boys responses are the same. Similar proportions of girls and boys opt for STEM-related roles, such as being a scientist or engineer. Being a parent is also a common preference for both girls and boys.
Girls are more likely to aspire to caring or creative roles
The roles preferred by girls are more likely to involve an element of protecting, helping or caring for others than those preferred by boys. Roles like veterinarian, doctor and nurse are more popular with girls, while boys prefer transportation and construction roles.
Girls are also more likely than boys to indicate interest in creative roles and the performing arts. For example, being a dancer or an artist is among the top 10 aspirations identified by girls, but neither feature among the most popular choices nominated by boys.
Gender is a stronger factor than socio-economic background
Gender is more strongly related to children’s future aspirations than family socio-economic background, including parents’ education levels or occupations. The aspirations of children from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds are in fact more strking for their similarities than their differences.
Differences based on socio-economic status are, however, greater between boys than between girls. For example, boys from advantaged backgrounds are more interested in being a pilot or doctor than other boys, whereas boys from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to opt for being in the armed forces or driving lorries or trucks than other boys.
Early skill development is linked to children’s views of their futures
Children’s early cognitive skills, such as oral language, and early social-emotional skills are evident in children’s views of their futures Children who want to be scientists, engineers, artists or veterinarians have particularly high language skills whereas children who want to be pet groomers, animal care workers, musicians and teachers have high social-emotional skills.
The aspirations of five-year-olds suggests children – especially boys – may limit their aspirations and dreams to the gender norms of previous generations
Children’s aspirations affect their later progress at school and beyond
Children’s aspirations have been linked to school performance, as well as subject choices that open or close career possibilities. In turn, subsequent choices as young people enter the labour market affect levels of gender-based occupational segregation and the gender pay gap.
The aspirations of five-year-olds suggests the gender pay gap may narrow in the future, as already evident in a number of countries. Nonetheless, traditionally male-dominated roles may well persist. Perhaps more importantly, children – especially boys – may limit their aspirations and dreams to the gender norms of previous generations.
Children respond to the world they see. While current gender roles are changing very slowly, we can ensure children are aware of the diversity of roles they can aspire to, through access to gender-sensitive books, films and other media entertainment. In particular, a wider range of children’s literature is now available that challenges gender stereotypes and encourages children to think about who and what they want to be. Parents and educators who read such stories with children will expand their horizons. Reading frequently with children has the added benefit of strengthening children’s cognitive and social-emotional skills, making it more likely children will achieve whatever aspirations they choose for themselves.
- OECD International Early Learning and Child Well-being Study website
- Early Learning and Child Well-being – A study of five-year-olds in England, Estonia and the United States (full international report)
- OECD International Early Learning and Child Well-being Study (summary report – PDF download)
- Calling all girl scientists: climate change needs you
- PISA in Focus: How do girls and boys engage with global and intercultural issues?
- Education Indicators in Focus: Why do more young women than men go on to tertiary education?
- OECD gender portal