We’re missing more than half the picture

I was at an elementary school science fair last night. There were several volcanoes, a coke & mentos experiment, some plants grown in various conditions, and so on. As behooves a Silicon Valley school, perhaps, one kid looked into what materials block WiFi most effectively. (Note to self: aluminum foil is not the best material for wrapping your laptop or your head in.)

But there was one in particular that really stuck with and saddened me. It looked at boys’ and girls’ perceptions of traditionally “gendered” occupations, specifically whether they thought of a man or a woman when given the name of the occupation. The experiment was conducted by surveying the student’s peers, so mostly 9 and 10 year olds.

The results were fairly predictable, and probably pretty reflective of the actual occupations’ current gender balances. For better or for worse, boys and girls largely agreed on the makeup of those occupations.


Careful examination, though, will show you that in every case–whether the occupation tends to be male- or female-dominated, the girls were slightly more likely to assume that the opposite gender could or would be found doing the job.

There was one profession, though, that showed a very noticeable perception gap between boys and girls: tech worker.

  • Slightly more than half of the girls thought of a woman when they heard the profession. That’s huge. That bodes well for the pipeline problem, right?
  • But almost 80% of the boys — 9 and 10 year old boys, living in Silicon Valley, many with one if not two parents who are tech workers — assumed a tech worker would be male.




When I shared this on Twitter, a couple of people suggested the boys were responding to the reality around them. But no one had an answer for why the girls weren’t responding to the same reality.


All of this suggests to me that parents are doing a fine job of telling their daughters that girls can be anything they want to be (and for now, at least, the girls are buying it). But maybe not such a good job of telling their sons that girls can be anything they want to be. And guess who will likely be the gatekeepers of high-status, highly paid professions as these kids come of age?

Granted, it’s a lot to put on a n=29 survey…but as an indicator, it’s concerning.