A lack of relevant and accurate career information can have a big impact on participation in nontraditional and STEM careers. Because students receive career information in a variety of manners starting at an early age, educators need to question the information in order to address low participation. What materials and practices are students exposed to? What kinds of occupational information do they receive, and from where? How can educators facilitate students getting the relevant information and experiences?
Materials and Practices
Males will show interest in a career field before they have developed skills related to that field, whereas females need to develop confidence in their potential ability before they will show interest.
Additionally, evidence suggests that if a female’s confidence falters, so will her interest. She is more apt to “leak out” of the nontraditional/STEM pipeline if she lacks confidence (Allison & Cossette, 2007). Making all students aware of these tendencies can be a small step in inoculating them against the impact, making sure that students understand they don’t have to be good at a subject right away. Practice and effort net positive results!
Traditionally, students receive career information in a variety of manners, through different materials and practices. They garner information from career exploration classes, from school advisors, from TV and movie representation and from family and friends’ employment choices and participation. Much of this information will be stereotypical, lacking in accuracy, or incomplete.
Brochures, talks, and demonstrations are seldom enough, but they can lead to greater curiosity in nontraditional and STEM careers, if the information communicated is equitable, bias-free, and comprehensive.
Nontraditional and STEM career camps, programs, site-visits, and courses also increase participation. There are many ways to have an impact through these channels. For instance, it is helpful to provide information about how career choice is traditionally influenced and constricted by gender socialization. Communicate the benefits and drawbacks of different careers. Provide a realistic view of day-to-day activities. And show career ladders and opportunities.
While there are many generalizations about the difference between females’ and males’ motivations as well as those of students of different ethnicities, we cannot be sure that we know the reasons students show interest in or choose a particular career field. Therefore, it is important that we are aware of our own biases. We need to do our best to eliminate any implicit bias that may influence the information we provide, as well as the way in which we provide it.
In one study of over 800 students in California, the vast majority of the students could not identify what a computer science major would study in college. Based upon this study and others, we can’t assume that students can identify what an engineer or a biomedical technician does.
To be safe, developing an age-appropriate presentation delivered to all students is good policy. This presentation should include information on job satisfaction, family and career balance or flexibility, wages, career outlook and opportunities, community contribution, and the daily tasks of the job.
A frank discussion about the barriers and benefits of the job is also important. Discuss with students the danger in some jobs versus the tedium in others. Talk about working alone versus collaboratively. Talk about salary versus impact on community. Talk about travel and stress. Giving students the opportunity to hear from employees that they can relate to, who are already working in the career fields, or who are in the training programs or colleges, has enormous impact.
We never know what a student will hear, or when they’ll hear it. So, it’s important that this is not a one-time event but an ongoing conversation that begins in elementary school, or the earliest point possible.
Younger children are more open to different opporotunities because they have not been as influenced by social restrictions about gender-appropriate careers.
Therefore, strike while the iron is hot! Students often don’t make post-secondary education and career decisions until high school. However, it’s important that students of all ages remain open to nontraditional and STEM careers and that the courses they take don’t close any doors.
For example, females have historically been primary caregivers. As young males begin to internally define themselves, they naturally associate caregiving and nurturing roles with females. As a result, young males begin to see themselves as separate from those nurturing tasks (Piburn, 2006) and ultimately separate from caregiving careers such as nursing, dental hygiene, and early childhood education. Challenging caregiving and nurturing stereotypes as feminine will begin to shift the status quo.
Congruently, young women typically choose fields in “helping” professions, despite the fact that they are academically as prepared as young men to enter STEM careers (National Center for Education Statistics, 2015). Due to broader cultural messages, girls often decide in elementary school that math is not for them. In fact, researchers at the University of Washington found that by second grade, a majority of girls and boys hold the stereotype that “math is for boys” (Cvencek et al, 2011). Intentional intervention to counteract these messages can have a positive impact on girls’ later interest in STEM careers.
A host of resources are available to get young women engaged in programming, robotics, and other traditionally male-oriented computer or technology-based careers. However, without context, many popular STEM activities—including robots, racecars, and rockets—can perpetuate stereotypes that exclude women. It may not be obvious to a 12-year-old that the skills and materials used in robotics competitions can lead to exciting careers that create technologies that help others and shape our world. Positive, tested, and effective messaging is key! (National Academy of Engineering, n.d.)
All STEM activities, such as robotics, clubs, competitions, problem-based learning, and classroom examples, should align to the following three messages:
- STEM professionals make a world of difference and help shape the future.
- STEM careers are essential to our health, happiness, and safety.
- STEM professionals are creative and collaborative problem solvers.
In addition, providing role models of young adults in non-traditional careers will broaden children’s views. Early and regular interventions can begin to disintegrate ideas of “traditional” gender roles in education and the workforce.