Donald Trump’s “America first but not alone” speech at last month’s World Economic Forum meeting in Davos may have hogged the headlines, but the meeting of world leaders was also chosen to launch the largest ever global survey of primary schoolchildren’s career aspirations.
They were also asked about their gender, ethnicity, favourite subject and if they knew anyone personally who did the job and, if not, why they had chosen the job.
In his foreword to the survey report, David Cruikshank, chair of trustees at Education and Employers, the UK charity that undertook the survey, describes the outlook for STEM-related professions as positive, at least in the UK. “Scientist” ranked seventh overall, below vet (third), and doctor (sixth). But almost twice as many boys wanted to become scientists compared to girls.
The most popular job for UK children was sportsman/sportswoman. More than 21% drew it as the job they would like to do when they are older.
Predictably parents and other family members are the most influential sources of career aspirations, alongside online celebrities.
Gender stereotyping is also a factor, with most boys wanting to be sportsmen, and most girls aspiring to become teachers.
This is despite the fact that maths or science is in the top two favourite subjects among all children, across all of the 20 countries included in the survey apart from children in Australia (art and design ranked highest, with maths second and science fifth) and China (again, art and design came top, maths came fourth, and science sixth).
Scientists (particularly women) who give career talks at schools might heed either the Jesuit motto (“Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man”), or to the mantra of Muriel Spark’s Miss Jean Brodie (“Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life”).
Drawing the Future found that less than 1% of children globally had heard about the jobs through people from the world of work coming to their school.
If your outreach programme is confined to high schools, including primary schools might help inspire the next generation of scientists sooner rather than later.
A 2013 study led by Louise Archer at King’s College London found that students who do not express STEM related aspirations at age 10 are unlikely to do so by the age of 14 and so are less likely
to pursue science subjects.
The survey report summary states: “When they engage with children, volunteers are routinely perceived as speaking from a vantage point of real authority: who better to testify how numeracy is used outside of the classroom, after all than someone who earns a wage to apply it in a workplace?”
“Volunteers from the world of work can also play a key role in providing children with role models and tackling stereotyping around gender and ethnicity and help ensure that children at a young age don’t start ruling out options for themselves.”
Or as Andreas Schleicher, Director of Education and Skills at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) puts it: “Career counselling in secondary schooling comes far too late.”
Schleicher also detects a clear male preference for working with things, whereas girls tend to prioritise working with people.
How much is this to do with gender stereotyping? The Drawing the Future report cites a 2016 survey by the UK Institution of Engineering and Technology, which found that boys are almost three times more likely to receive a STEM toy for Christmas than girls, and stereotypical girl‘s toys focus on relationships, housework, beauty and fashion.
Schleicher concludes that a key challenge is understanding “how to make science learning more relevant to children and youths, including through broadening their views of the world by given them greater exposure to a wider range of occupations.”
David Payne is chief careers editor, Nature.
Education and Employers is a UK based charity created in 2009 which aims to provide young people with the inspiration, motivation, knowledge, skills and opportunities they need to help them achieve their potential.