Dr Kimberley Horton, Education, WISERD Education Project

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

By Kimberly Horton.

In my last post, I wrote about what year 10 pupils were going to do post-year 11. Of course there are many other aspects of the future that pupils consider. One question that children get asked a lot is, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” – a question about life, identity and which is of cultural significance. We asked all the pupils in our study, over 1100 pupils in years 6, 8 and 10, what kind of job they want to have when they are an adult. This was an open-ended question which the majority of the pupils answered. I want to share some of their responses with you here.

Career aspirations vary with age, gender and culture. There are traditional gender-based assumptions regarding who should do what role. These assumptions have changed with time and many male dominated roles have become more gender neutral or female dominated as more women have entered the work place. However, there are still a number of sectors that see a substantial difference in gender.

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The responses to the question ‘what kind of job do you want when you are an adult?’ (or ‘what would you like to be when you grow up?’ for those in primary school) were broad ranging. Some were very specific, such as doctor or actor; other were quite vague, such as ‘something to do with sports’, or gave two or three different occupations. While some pupils gave what I would call ‘dream’ jobs, such as ‘professional footballer’, others gave more modest, and possibly more realistic, answers, e.g. ‘hairdresser’ or ‘teacher’.

The most popular responses were to do with sport, with 124 pupils (10 per cent) putting sport in at least part of their answer. More than 30 per cent of those pupils who said they want to do sport stated that they want to be involved with football in one way or another, and 15 per cent said that they wanted a rugby related job, mostly as professional players.

In fact, out of all of those pupils who wanted to have a job that involves sport, 82 per cent wanted to participate in the sport they chose – i.e. to be a footballer, or a gymnast. The others wanted to coach, do therapy, commentate on the sport or be a sports journalist.  Both boys and girls stated their intent, or hope, to include sport in their future occupation, but there was a significant difference between the genders. From those who stated they would like to be involved in sport in adulthood, about 72 per cent of them were boys.

The next most popular occupation for these pupils was the performing arts, as about 8 per cent of pupils wrote this as some part of their answer. Most of those wanted to be an actor (39 per cent) or a singer (30 per cent).  Like sport, there is a gender difference here as over three quarters of those pupils are girls, whilst 23 per cent are boys. Indeed, in the top five jobs that the pupils wanted, all of them have significant gender differences: 85 per cent of those who want to be a teacher are girls; 82 per cent who want to work with animals are girls; and for STEM (science, technology , engineering and mathematics) related careers, 68 per cent are boys.

It seems that gender stereotypes of certain careers are holding. The types of career areas listed above represent about 40 per cent of the pupils in our sample. Performing arts careers, jobs that involve animals and teaching careers are more popular with girls, and sport and STEM careers are more popular with boys. In one way, these results do not surprise me. The majority of teachers are women, the majority of sports persons represented in the media are male, and STEM occupations are consistently taken up by more men than women. Caring professions, such as veterinary practice, are dominated by females.

However, I think there is a discrepancy here in terms of occupations within the performing arts careers. Film, television and the music industry are represented by both men and women; yet more females than males aspire to that kind of career. Drama, music and other aspects of the performing arts, and the creative arts, are possibly seen to be ‘feminine’ subjects at school. This brings into focus the kinds of things that influence pupils’ career aspirations. It could be the case that experiences and norms at school have more of an impact on aspirations than external forces, for example government policies that include attempts to encourage more women to enter STEM related careers and take part in sport.

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