A Message to High School Students: Ignore Gender Stereotypes and Do What You Love

As a grade 12 student, I can clearly remember the stress of having to decide where I was going to apply to university. Would I apply to schools close to home, or to schools far away? Maybe even outside of Canada? It was a busy time, but one area in which I didn’t have any stress was what major I was going to apply for. I knew very clearly that I was going to study engineering.

You see, I had been told since I was young that I’m good at math and science, and therefore, I should go into a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) related field. I took great pride in the fact that I planned to study engineering. However, there was a negative side to this STEM encouragement. The praise for my early success with math and science courses often went so far as to mock those who excelled in English, sociology, or art.

Many adults in my life celebrated my skills in STEM by devaluing other areas of study – often those considered to be “traditionally female” areas of study. Even those adults with leadership positions in the school would routinely emphasize the importance of STEM while downplaying the importance of the social sciences. This values shift is clearly demonstrated In the American classroom – in the 1993-1994 school year in the US students spent 9.5 percent of their time in social studies, but by 2003-2004 that percentage had dropped to 7.6, despite an increase of total instructional time.

While I am happy to see more young women being encouraged to study and work in STEM fields, I think it is critical that we do so without downplaying other areas of study and work.

If we use this tactic to encourage young women to enter STEM it helps no one. It not only limits young women but it limits all young people. It teaches them that studying courses considered to be “traditionally female” is not only easy, it’s shameful.

I saw this myself when I made the transition from engineering to the non-profit sector. As I considered my options one of the areas I thought about was social work. When sharing this idea with people in my life, I was often given the response of “…really? Social work? Are you sure you want to give up engineering for THAT?”

It seemed that many people worried for my loss of legitimacy. They feared I would lose my credibility as a “smart person” if I made this change.

New research suggests that careers considered to be “traditionally female” simply aren’t valued or paid as highly. Furthermore, when women do begin to enter “traditionally male” areas of work, we see that the pay for this work goes down. In the US for example, in the field of recreation – including working in parks or leading camps – the gender divide went from mostly male to mostly female from 1950 to 2000. However, the median hourly wages in this field declined 57 percentage points, accounting for the change in the value of the dollar.

This obvious devaluing of work deemed female shows how big the problem is. It’s not just about encouraging young women to study STEM, it is about encouraging everyone to value the work that women do – whatever that work might be.

In Canada, the most male-dominated industries are construction, forestry, fishing and hunting – in all of these women make up less than 20% of the workforce. In turn women make up more than 95% of Canadian dental assistants and hygienists, early childhood educators and administrative assistants.

As disappointing as the devaluation of feminized work is, the adults and mentors in young peoples’ lives have the power to tell young people that this is not okay. Regardless of your gender, if you have a passion for nursing, sociology, teaching, or any other “traditionally female” area of work, then go for it!

I want young women in high school today to understand that you can absolutely go into any area of study – including STEM. But if you choose to study an area which traditionally has a high percentage of female students, that’s okay too. Being truly free of gender stereotypes often means ignoring them altogether. It also means accepting young people’s decisions about what they choose to study – without any belittling or stereotypical comments. Following your passion is hard enough to do without all that background noise, but it is definitely the best pathway to a fulfilling work life.

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