Speaking of masculinity, our small study found that kids’ understanding of gender roles may actually have a big impact on the careers they want.
On the one hand, we found that across the board, girls chose creative dream jobs (like acting) more than boys. Meanwhile, boys chose service roles (like military service) far more often than girls.
So does this mean the “traditional” idea that boys are naturally physical and girls are naturally creative holds true? Maybe. Maybe not.
“Research has shown in many cultures that by the age of two, boys are more physically aggressive than girls. And it depends on the child, but often you’ll see male toddlers focusing more on gross motor activities, and girls will have a little more proficiency and interest in fine motor activities (as well as some of the gross motor),” says Dr. Saline.
At the same time, though, Dr. Saline explains that these tendencies may or may not be “natural.” Instead, they may be caused or amplified by how boys and girls are treated by their parents and other adults.
“We may consciously or unconsciously encourage girls to draw, or bead, or play with figurines or dolls or Lego[s]. And we may encourage boys to do those things, but we may also be encouraging them a little bit more to play sports or run around outside.”
And of course, girls’ lack of interest in service roles can also be blamed on the examples they see in the world around them.
“Although we use the term ‘police officer,’ ‘firefighter,’ and ‘train conductor,’ what kids see in their daily lives is that those people are mostly men. Even in my town, where the chief of police is a woman, most of the officers are men. So if that’s who you’re seeing doing jobs, then that’s what you’re going to associate with that job.”
Fortunately, it seems that many girls aren’t letting that hold them back. In fact, we were thrilled to find that with age, the girls in our study developed an increasing interest in STEM.
Meanwhile, boys’ interest in STEM decreased with age.
We also noticed that while boys’ interest in creative roles increases as they get older, it doesn’t grow at nearly the same rate that girls’ interest in STEM grows.
So we have to ask: If we’re working to destigmatize more careers for girls, are we putting in the same amount of work to destigmatize more careers for boys?
Unfortunately, the answer is probably no. According to Dr. Saline, traditional views on masculinity still play a big part in boys’ professional goals.
“The code of masculinity is fairly rigid. While it’s more flexible than it used to be, when boys head into puberty, they’re more aware of traditional male roles and behaviors. What most cultures (including ours) value about masculinity revolves around strength, performance, proficiency, and dominance.”
Dr. Saline continues, “There are a lot of nine- and ten-year-old boys who want to be the next Lebron James, Adrian Peterson, or Dr. Dre. They are much more focused on being a successful sports figure or musician than they were before because those professions speak to their developing interests, and those professions are perceived as 'cool' by peers. Many boys don’t necessarily want to be a doctor. There’s not as much fantasy or perceived income attached to that.”