Based on the Dutch Early Years Blog written by Bodine Romijn.
When I grow up, I want to be…
What did you used to answer when a grown up asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up? And how often do you ask this question to the children in your group? In this blog message we will tell you more about what we know of the occupational aspirations of young children.
Dreams of 5-year-olds
In 2021, the OECD asked over 4000 5-year-olds what they want to be when they grow up. A top 30 of the most given answers was made for both girls and boys. The favorite choices of girls were teacher, veterinarian, doctor, hairdresser and police officer. For boys, the top 5 consisted of police officer, athlete, fire fighter, construction worker and teacher. Other lovely answers to this question were older/bigger (#10 boys, #19 girls), ninja (#27 boys) and some form of animal/creature like dolphin, puppy or unicorn (#28 girls). Moreover, when we compare the top 30 of the boys and the girls, we see that 15 occupations were present for both groups. But besides similarities, we also see big differences between boys and girls.
Girls tend to choose professions where ‘caring for someone/thing else’ plays a big role, such as veterinarian, nurse/doctor or teacher. Boys on the other hand are more likely to list professions that have to do with construction, transportation or protection, like construction worker, (truck)driver or fire fighter. In these choices we clearly see gender stereotyping. Several studies show that children are more positive towards gender confirming professions than gender inconsistent professions [1,2]. Thus, boys are more likely to choose professions that are usually performed by men (like pilot), whereas girls are more likely to choose professions that are mostly performed by women (like nurse).
Besides differences in gender, the OECD study also investigated differences in social economic status (SES) and migration background. A common misconception is that children from disadvantaged backgrounds (low SES and/or migration background) have lower aspirations for their future. Several studies show that the differences between children from low and high SES families are rather small when it comes to occupations aspirations [1,3]. The OECD study mostly found similarities between these two groups. The same holds for girls with or without a migration background: there are more similarities between the two than differences. For boys a small difference was visible, as boys with a migration background more often chose professions that need a higher education level and have a higher salary. Overall, when it comes to dreaming about your future profession gender seems to play a much more important role than children’s social or cultural-ethnic background.
The role of role models
Children base their occupational choices on the world surrounding them. They link professions to the people they come in contact with. Therefore, it is no surprise that teacher is a top 5 choice for both girls and boys. In addition, approximately 15% of the children want to have the same or a similar profession as one of their parents, or other influential adults in their lives (uncles, aunts, older brothers or sisters). Interestingly, of all the children that indicate that they want to have the exact same occupation as their parent (3% in total), only 1 out of 10 mentions the occupation of the parent of the other sex. So girls mostly want to become the same as their mother, while boys wish to take on the same occupation as their father. Besides the influences of people closest to them, children also get inspiration for profession choices from books, movies and other media.
Thus, if children mostly base their occupational aspirations on what they see in the world around them, it is no surprise we see big differences between boys and girl. Gender stereotyping is deeply rooted in our society. We have idea’s on what colors, toys, sports or clothes are more fitting for boys or girls. And also what professions are more fitting for men or women. Perhaps you’ve heard the following riddle before:
A man and his son get into a horrible car accident. The man dies on the spot and the child is rushed to the hospital, directly into the operating room. The surgeon takes one look at the boy and says: “I cannot operate on this boy, he is my son!” How is this possible? The majority of people who come across this riddle for the first time, have a hard time coming up with the solution. Their answers usually include an adopted boy, a stepfather or sometimes a gay couple. Only a few people come up with the most straightforward answer: the surgeon is the child’s mother.
The ideas we have about the social roles or skills of men and women, also influence our perception on professions. Care is associated more strongly with women, whereas making a career is associated with men. As such, most people expect a female nurse and a male doctor (or surgeon) in the hospital. And children take over these ideas from a very early age, as you can see in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G3Aweo-74kY
Unfortunately, our stereotypical thoughts keep these patterns in place. If we keep thinking that men are better fitted for professions with a strong technical component (like engineer), we are likely to support technical skills more in boys than in girls. As a result, mostly boys will come to work in technical professions, creating mainly male role models in this sector. And then we keep thinking that this sector is more fitting for men than for women. Stereotypical thoughts and reality are thus in a vicious loop with one another and if we do not actively try to break this circle, reality will never change.
Becoming what you want: What can you do?
The theme of the Dutch Children’s Book Week of 2021 was “becoming what you want”. They chose this theme because they believe that books should allow children to dream about their future regardless of their background and the limitations of real life. But do we really give children this opportunity? Or do our books and materials mostly confront them with stereo typical role models they also see in society? Changing the gender stereotypes in society can’t be done in one day, but starting with small steps you can contribute to the change. Here are some things to consider:
- Examine your own gender biases. What professions do you consider more fitting for men than for women? Do you think men are better than women (or the other way around) with regard to specific skills? And why do you think so?
- Do you talk differently to boys and girls when you talk about their future dreams? Do you have different expectations from boys and girls during fantasy role play about the roles they can take on?
- Do your materials show children that professions are not just for men or women? Or do you need to update your materials to show more diversity? Think about the books you are reading, the puzzles in your group, the clothes children can use to dress up, and other toys (for example, only male action figures with a building helmet or police outfit).
- Consider the professions of the parents of the children in your group. Can you invite parents to tell or show something about their talent and skills? Try to find parents that break the gender stereotypes.
 OECD (2021). The future at five. Gendered aspirations of five-year-olds. OECD: Paris.
 Levy, G. D., Sadovsky, A. L., & Troseth, G. L. (2000). Aspects of young children’s perceptions of gender-typed occupations. Sex Roles, 42, 993-1006.
 Gore, J., Holmes, K., Smith, M., Southgate, E., & Albright, J. (2015). Socioeconomic status and the career aspirations of Australian school students: Testing enduring assumptions. The Australian Educational Researcher, 42, 155-177.