How Stereotypes Affect Career Choice, And Why They Shouldn't

By - February 22, 2021

We tell young people all the time that they can "grow up to be anything they want,” and that fundamental statement is true. Female scientists make new discoveries that significantly impact the world. Powerful African American leaders are reshaping the political landscape. Male nurses provide compassionate, professional care for their patients. Yet, when we look at the data, does the reality always reflect the promise? 

  • Black women account for only 3% of full-time faculty at degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the U.S.  
  • 72% of the world's scientific researchers are men.   
  • 91% of nurses in the United States are women. 

Of course, many contributing factors have an influence over an individual’s career choice. Skills, interests, education, ethnicity, family, and career awareness all shape the path an individual pursues. But what role do stereotypes play when a young person wonders, “what do I want to be when I grow up?”  

Let’s admit it. Stereotypes are reinforced throughout our lifetimes, as we face a constant barrage of messages from the media. These messages influence the toys we play with as children (or as psychologists might say, the toys assigned to us), to our careers as adults.  By preschool, children are already influenced by what society dictates does or doesn't "fit" into gender roles. 

But there’s good news. Just as kids can be impacted by ideas that fall in line with outdated stereotypes, they can also be affected, if not inspired by, stories that celebrate workforce diversity.   Here are some strategies on how to quash stereotypes in career exploration. 

  • Eliminate the word "should"- "Should" implies there's a right choice. There's not. Have students focus on what they want to do, not what others expect. 
  • Identify and analyze stereotypes- The ways stereotypes influence our choices are so ingrained, we often don't realize they're there. If you're able to identify and analyze why stereotypes are impacting your decisions, you're able to make yourself more autonomous.   
  • Challenge stereotypes- When someone says, "that's a women's job," ask them why. If someone makes a blanket statement that "men make better carpenters," ask them to explain their comment.  Don't be afraid to have conversations that challenge staid beliefs.  
  • Showcase real-world role models- Highlight a diverse range of professionals in non-traditional careers. Male nursesfemale football coachesblind research associates, and women of color in STEM are probably also breaking barriers if they are breaking stereotypes! 
  • Use inclusive language- Inclusive language avoids biases, slang, and expressions that discriminate against groups of people based on race, gender, or socioeconomic status. An example is using "they," instead of "he" or "she" to avoid gendering a particular career. 

The easiest way to start combatting stereotypes? Start with you. Hold yourself accountable. Be mindful of how you're perpetuating stereotypes, whether intentionally or subconsciously. Challenging and changing your behavior is the first step in challenging and changing the greater narrative. 

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