Gender stereotypes still influencing five-year-olds

Gender norms remain depressingly persistent, even among the current crop of five-year-olds around the world, journalist Sue Osborne writes.

A 2021 OECD report found children’s aspirations were still constrained by traditional expectations and stereotypes. The report found that one in four of the 30 most popular careers selected by girls were in traditionally female-dominated occupations. More than one in two of the top 30 roles specified by boys were in the traditional male-dominated fields.

The International Early Learning and Child Wellbeing Study (IELS) is an in-depth analysis of five-year-olds’ cognitive and social-emotional development. The report surveyed 4000 five-year-olds in England and Estonia.

On the bright side, veterinarian and doctor were more popular with girls, while more boys preferred transport and construction roles – and girls and boys were equally likely to choose STEM-related roles.

Girls and boys from advantaged backgrounds were more likely to want to be a scientist or an engineer than children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Family matters

Family background related more strongly to the choices made by boys.

Roles such as doctor and pilot were popular among boys from advantaged backgrounds, while boys from disadvantaged backgrounds more commonly wanted to be in the armed forces or to drive trucks.

Half of the top 30 roles specified by children were favoured by both girls and boys, including the wish to be a police officer, teacher, doctor and a cook/chef.

Girls were often more concrete than boys on the job or occupation they want to do when they grow up. On average, the types of roles stated by girls require higher qualifications and were better paid than the roles favoured by boys.

Girls were more likely to nominate jobs that were male- dominated (like police officer and firefighter) than boys were to aspire to roles that were less traditional for men, like caring roles.

Most characters or creatures that girls aspired to were fairies, mermaids and unicorns. Boys who wanted to be a fictional character most often cited superheroes such as Spiderman and Superman.

Nonetheless, the most popular aspiration among five-year-old girls is to be a teacher and, internationally, 68 per cent of teachers are women.

The most frequent career choice for five-year-old boys is to be a police officer, followed by athlete or sportsperson, then firefighter. Protective services professions, which include police officers and fire fighters, are 84 percent male.

The fourth most common aspiration of five-year-old boys is to work as a builder or in a construction-related field. Men account for 97 percent of employment in construction and related trades.

Even when general aspirations overlap there were stereotypical differences. Boys were three times more likely to want to be an athlete or sportsperson than girls.

The most common sports mentioned by boys were football and car racing.

Girls who want to be an athlete or sportsperson tend to cite gymnastics or horse riding as their chosen sport.

Fantasy characters

Most characters or creatures that girls aspired to be were fairies, mermaids, and unicorns. Boys who want to be a fictional character most often cited superheroes such as Spiderman and Superman.

The ‘be what you see’ rule applies. Most of the future roles children aspire to were probably familiar to them from their family or community, or from books, television and films.

Like father, like son

Fifteen per cent of children aspire to roles that were the same or like their parents’ occupations. The 14th most popular aspiration among boys was to work with their fathers.

Of the children who said they want to do exactly the same job as a parent, for example, “I’d like to be a postman like Daddy”; nine out of 10 girls want to do the same job as their mother and a similar proportion of boys mention their father.

Boys with an immigrant background tended to aspire to roles that were more qualified and higher paid than other boys, while the aspirations of girls with or without an immigrant background were similar.

Some aspirations were associated with particularly high early literacy and social-emotional skills.

Aspiring to be a scientist or engineer was associated with particularly high emergent literacy scores, while the role associated with the highest average social-emotional skills score was animal carer.

Children who aspire to be artists, veterinarians and nurses also have high average emergent literacy skills. Children who aspire to be teachers and musicians had among the highest average social-emotional skills.