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.


6 comments on “We’re missing more than half the picture

    • The student described the survey process as asking people what they thought of when each occupation was mentioned. IIRC the posterboard didn’t give the exact question asked, and this being a 5th-grade science project, I’d be willing to guess it got asked slightly differently every time. =)

    • You’ll notice that “I don’t know” or “Either/both” aren’t listed as a category of responses, though there were probably several of those too.

      • I think you’re reading my mind here. 🙂

        One of the things that strikes me as crucial for interpretation – even for 5th graders , actually *especially* for 5th graders – was whether or not the questions were given verbally or if this was simply a survey to be filled out.

        There is so much statistical error (I use that term clinically here) that it’s difficult to offer an interpretation, but leaving aside investigator bias (which is entirely probable, given the nature of the subject matter) one possible explanation is that boys might offer an explanation of the reality they see while girls offer a vision of what “could” or “should” be.

        For instance, there has been a *lot* of emphasis of pushing girls into STEM fields for gender balance *in the future*, but that does not reflect the current situation. Girls may easily interpret the question in this way and respond as a natural result of that push, whereas boys might more naturally examine the question as a historical/current situation.

        Occam’s razor, however, suggests that this is simply a matter of communication styles between girls and boys when answering questions. That is to say, girls are more likely to ask clarifying or qualifying questions where boys are more likely to assume they understand what the questions mean.

        It seems to me, however, that you are right to question the atypical response of this particular subject. It certainly would be interesting to examine whether this is a real issue or a measuring error.

      • All possibilities (though you’re probably being a bit tough on a kid doing their first-ever sociological research!). But there have been several serious studies of college kids along these lines, with depressingly similar results–enough to suggest that our 5th grader’s findings are directionally correct if not statistically valid.

      • Well, I want to be clear. I’m *not* making any criticism of the students. I think that what they did was very good and well-thought out for the scope of what they were trying to do.

        On the contrary, it’s *our* interpretation that I’m cautioning. 🙂 I’ve read many of those studies of college kids of which you’re referring, and nearly all of them are methodologically problematic and tautological. Because of this, we (as adults) are starting to condition ourselves to unconsciously expect these kinds of discrepancies because the bad “academic” studies have fueled the “conventional wisdom.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s