By CELA on 11 Jun, 2021

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a common question asked to children of all ages, but did you know that how children answer that question is influenced by their gender, their environment and their socio-economic status?

Career education shouldn’t start in preschool – but there is a role for early childhood in broadening children’s horizons and building children’s aspirations. We share insights gathered from a recent study that shows how gender can influence aspirations, and tips on how early educators can help broaden children’s horizons.

What does the research say?

The Future at Five is a study of 4,000 five year olds in England and Estonia. The study shows how from an early age, children (in particular boys) aspire to roles traditionally occupied by their own gender.

The study showed that girls are most likely to aspire to roles involving caring, such as being a vet, a doctor or a hairdresser. Boys were found to aspire to roles in traditionally male dominated occupations, such as being a mechanic, a fireman or a builder. About half of all career roles are chosen by both boys and girls, although even then there are differences:

  • For girls, the top occupation was a teacher, while the fifth most chosen was a police officer.
  • For boys, the top occupation was a police officer, while the fifth most chosen was a teacher.

Not all children aspire to a career - boys in the study were more likely to choose options like 'someone who works' or 'someone who plays'.

In addition some children want to be royalty, ninjas, mermaids or siblings. Boys are more likely to want to be a superhero, whilst some girls aspire to be a fairy or a unicorn.

That’s ok! We want children to dream big.

Family background makes a difference to how big children dream

The study showed that boys from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to aspire to roles requiring tertiary education such as a doctor. Children’s skill development is also linked to their aspirations.

What is the role of early childhood education?

Children aspire to roles that are known to them. They cannot aspire to what they do not see.
Family, the community, books and television all play a vital role. Nearly one in six children aspire to their parent’s occupation.

Early childhood educators can help broaden children’s horizons . Here’s a few ideas:

1. Tapping into your local community

Think about who in your community you can reach out to that might speak to children about different occupations. Can you ask parents to share stories about their work?
Other community members, from maternal and child health nurses, to police officers, librarians and council workers might be willing to share their story. Think about how this could be engaging for children – perhaps relate it to a theme you are investigating. For example, getting an environmental engineer to talk about their work as part of a science theme.

Maybe you can invite a male nurse, or a police officer from a diverse cultural background, to show that you can be any role you want to be regardless of gender or background.

This video shows how one school sought to address gender stereotypes by inviting female surgeons, fire fighters and fighter pilots into a classroom.

2. Examining books with careers in mind

Take a look at the books and resources in your room. What types of career roles do they provide for children? Are boys and girls represented equally? Are children represented from diverse backgrounds?

If not, you can tackle the conversation about “Could the fireman be a girl? Let’s see if there are any firefighters that are female.”

Could you find books or other resources so children from different cultural and neurodiverse backgrounds can see themselves in a wide range of roles?

3. Reframe the question of ‘what do you want to be?’

We’ve been asking children what they want to be for a long while.

But now, more than ever, children are likely to have a range of roles throughout their lives.

Children do not need to choose one job, especially if jobs continue to change at a rapid rate. Knowing what they like is great but there’s no need to choose yet!

Different questions that could be explored include ‘What do you like doing?”, ‘What would you like to be good at?’

There is no wrong question here – but different questions can encourage children to keep their horizons broad, and to keep considering and including new options.

 Further reading/references


About CELA

Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

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