As parents, we have a significant role in nurturing our children’s interests, values and, ultimately, career decisions. Often, we unintentionally introduce gender stereotypes (beliefs about acceptable roles for boys or girls) through our interactions with our children or introduce gender stereotype thinking into the home. As parents of a little girl and a grown woman, we are aware of the dangers of gender stereotyping. We have always been conscious of finding ways to instill values of gender equality and androgyny, behavior that is neither masculine nor feminine. For example, when Kathy realized she was defaulting to the male pronoun, she began trying to insert the female pronoun or both pronouns into her speech. Her daughter has become so attuned to gender-neutral language, that, when discussing the activity of an insect, she’ll proclaim that “he or she is crawling up the wall.”
However, despite efforts by us (including our husbands) to model androgyny in our behaviors at home, our daughters still managed to absorb societal beliefs of what is for “girls” and what is for “boys.” For example, when Kathy asked her daughter what she wanted to be as a grown-up, she said she wanted to be a nurse. When asked why, she said “because I’m a girl.” What a logical conclusion – every time she has gone to the doctor, her nurse has been female. And virtually every doctor has been male. You can bet that the very next thing Kathy did was search for a female doctor and a male nurse! We began to wonder why these beliefs continue to be so pervasive and what effects they were having on Kathy’s daughter, Carolyn’s daughter, other girls, and young women as they form their career goals. And, more importantly, what can we do to counter these effects?
Parents’ Beliefs and Behaviors
Because the family unit is the starting point, and possibly the most significant place for our children to begin developing gender stereotypes and how they relate to career goals, parents have a powerful role in our children’s career development through the opportunities we provide, the nature of our family relationships, and our behaviors and beliefs. Indeed, parents and children tend to have very similar career goals and values. When we have strong bonds with our children, we easily transmit our values, beliefs, and interests to them, and this can contribute to our children’s career choices and success. As parents who support and advise our children’s career development, we pave the way for our children to feel free to pursue non-traditional careers, such as engineering or computer science for girls, and music or elementary school teaching for boys –or not!
Although both mothers and fathers have an impact on children’s career development, mothers may be more influential than fathers, teachers, and even peers. Children who identify strongly with their mothers tend to put more value on school, have a higher selfconcept, and have higher educational expectations. High school juniors report that they talk more to their mothers than anyone else about their career plans and the training and education needed for a career. Fathers, second only to mothers, also have an important role in teens’ career planning. It is clear that, as parents, we have a profound impact on our children’s career development. For example, parents who value education tend to have children with professional career goals, and parents who value athletics tend to have children with athletic career goals.
Our values also influence the particular interests, developed competencies, and self-concepts our children cultivate, and these characteristics are important indicators of career choice. For example, if we show that we place a high value on science ability, then our children are likely to be interested in science, feel confident in their science abilities, and take advanced courses in that subject. Attaching value to an area of study and holding high expectations for performance in that domain is likely to influence a child also to place high value on that performance domain and strive to feel competent at it. Competence in an area leads to a tendency to see the possibility for related careers.
We also affect our children’s career choices by passing along gender stereotypes. The ways in which such stereotypes are relayed to children can be subtle but consistent, sending a clear message about the academic domains at which boys and girls are supposed to excel. Parents tend to help their children with school assignments in gender-stereotypic ways; for example, Dad may help with math homework and Mom with language arts homework. In addition, parents tend to identify their child’s giftedness in gender-stereotypic ways (again, boys are good at math and science, and girls are good at language arts). Indeed, parents’ beliefs about their children’s abilities in areas like math, English, and sports are more influenced by their children’s gender than actual ability.
Ultimately, our beliefs affect our behaviors, which in turn influence children’s development of self-concept, interests, and career goals. Our beliefs affect the way we explain our children’s successes, how we react emotionally to our children’s achievements, the value we place on our children’s accomplishments in certain activities (such as sports, math, or dance), and the activities, toys, and experiences we choose for our children.
A Study at the University of Virginia
These understandings led a group of us at the University of Virginia to investigate the effects of parents’ beliefs about their children’s abilities on the way gifted students viewed themselves in the areas of math, science, humanities (for example, visual art, foreign language, writing, and philosophy), and social sciences.
About 500 5th to 11th grade students and their parents responded to questions about their beliefs of the students’ academic abilities. We found that parents’ beliefs were very much related to their children’s beliefs about their abilities, particularly for math. We also found that both parents and their children viewed the students’ abilities along gender-stereotypic lines.
Specifically, we found that parents viewed their sons as more capable in math and science, and their daughters as more capable in the humanities. Considering the apparent influence that parents and children have on each other’s perceptions of students’ abilities, we expected that children would view themselves in a similar pattern. Instead we found that boys and girls had equally high perceptions of their abilities in all academic areas except for humanities, where girls had more positive perceptions of their abilities than did boys.
What we can learn from this study is that, fortunately, our children are less stereotypic than their parents are when it comes to gender and academic ability. Even though the math and science fields are still dominated by men, the future looks bright because our daughters feel equal to their male classmates in math and science. However, our sons continue to lack confidence in their abilities within the humanities. In addition, the results from this study suggest that parents are still viewing their boys as better in math and science, and their girls as better in humanities, and may be steering their children toward careers according to these gender stereotypes. As a society, we have worked very hard to encourage girls to believe that they may achieve in traditionally male domains, but it appears that we may have left the boys to languish in the belief that they are inferior in the language arts and that drama, poetry, dance, music, and philosophy are female domains.
Suggestions for Parents
As parents, it is important to remember that the ideals of genderequality apply to both genders. Research shows that children who have androgynous views of careers are more likely to select careers that fit their likes and dislikes, rather than stereotypes of what is appropriate for men and women. As parents who want happy children who will one day become successful, satisfied adults, we should remind our children that they can be whoever they want to be. We should seek out examples of people who defy gender stereotypes. Take your children to a female doctor with a male nurse. Introduce your children to a female architect or engineer. Take your children to a ballet with male and female performers. Read books with your children about female mechanics, male violinists, and female philosophers.
We should remember that we have a critical role in the development of our children’s self-concepts, interests, and career goals. As such, it is important that we cultivate open lines of communication with our children. Just as we talk with our children about staying away from drugs and taking responsibility for our actions, we should also talk to them about careers and the world of work. Discuss your career with your children and around your children. This helps children, from a very young age, understand that employment makes up a major portion of adult life and, ideally, employment should be enjoyable and fulfilling. Introduce your children to people in a variety of careers, and encourage them to think about how their educational choices (such as advanced math or honors-level English) may influence their career choices. For example, courses in advanced math will prepare your student for an array for career options, such as engineering or computer science, that may not seem possible without such experiences. Similarly, more rigorous English courses help students build confidence with written communication, a skill that is critical in almost any occupational field. When your child shows a passion for something, such as public speaking, take a moment to discuss careers in which public speaking is an important skill. Most importantly, consider your own behavior and beliefs, and be alert to opportunities to change them. These simple steps can encourage your child to keep doors open for many possibilities in life, unfettered by gender stereotypes.
Resources for Parents, Children, and Teens
Books that Counter Gender-Stereotypes
- E. Browne and D. Parkins (1996). Tick-Tock. Newtown, Australia: Walker Books. Intended for children in preschool through grade 2, this book tells the story of Skip Squirrel and her friend Brainy (also a girl). The friends break Skip’s mother’s cuckoo clock and set off on an adventure to get the clock fixed before Skip’s mother returns home. They visit a mechanic, a shoemaker, and a gadget-repairer – all female characters.
- Robert N. Munsch and Michael Martchenko (1992). The Paper Bag Princess. Toronto: Annick Press. This book, as well as others by Munsch, turns the traditional story of a prince, a princess, and a fire-breathing dragon on its end. Princess Elizabeth rescues Prince Ronald from a dragon by using bravery and smarts and, when the prince complains that she is no longer pretty, Elizabeth walks off into the sunset – by herself. All ages.
Books for Children and Teens about Careers
- Anne Rockwell (author) and Lizzy Rockwell (illustrator) (2000). Career Day. New York: Harper Collins. This book focuses on Career Day in Mrs. Madoff’s class. In the story, children are introduced to a variety of careers, such as judge and crossing guard, by parents, grandparents, and other adults. Appropriate for children preschool through grade 2.
- P. K. Hallinan (2002). When I Grow Up. Carmel, NY: Ideals Publications. Intended for preschool to early elementary aged children, this is an A to Z book that begins “When I grow up, I know I can be whatever I dream of from A to Z.”
- Bettie Youngs and Jennifer Youngs (2002). A Taste-Berry Teen’s Guide to Setting and Achieving Goals. Deerfield Beach, FL: HCI Teens. In this book, teens can read stories told by other teens who have successfully set and achieved goals. Books about Career Development and Succeeding in Life
- Richard Nelson Bolles, Carol Christen, and Jean M. Blomquist (2006). What Color Is Your Parachute for Teens: Discovering Yourself, Defining Your Future. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.
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