Don’t Allow Stereotypes to Limit Your Child’s Career Opportunities

Posted February 6, 2023

You just boarded the plane and are settling in for your cross-country flight. The flight attendants have gone through the safety announcements, and you’re all buckled up. The captain comes on to indicate you are next for take-off. Wait, that sounded like a woman? Do we have a female pilot?

We all have times when the picture we have in our head does not match reality. Unfortunately, sometimes those expectations are based on stereotypes. Occupational stereotypes are overgeneralized perceptions about a group of people in a career area; in other words, expecting that all pilots are men and all nurses are women. To counter stereotypes, some career areas have updated their job titles to be more inclusive – stewardess is now flight attendant, fireman is now firefighter, actress is now actor, weatherman is now meteorologist.

Why is this important? Because children pick up quickly on stereotypes that are used by authority figures, the media, literature and the like. Accepting stereotypes means that your child may limit their career choices before they even know anything about that occupation. In addition, your child’s performance in school may be impacted by stereotype threats that cause them to perform worse on some assignments than they might otherwise. For example, if a girl does poorly on a math test, she may not realize that her performance might have been negatively impacted by a perception that girls “can’t do math.”

So what can you do as a parent, teacher or caring adult to counter occupational stereotypes and encourage openness to a range of career possibilities?

  • Encourage your child to try out a variety of pursuits. Expose your child to all different kinds of sports, arts, music, cooking, gaming and other activities before diving deeply into one area.
  • Participate in camps and clubs that build career awareness and experience. Consider something like K-State’s GROW program, aimed at increasing girls’ interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, or an online resource like Girls Who Code.
  • Use pronouns intentionally and talk about diversity or lack thereof in images. Throw in a non-traditional use of pronouns at any opportunity, e.g., him as a nurse, or her as a construction manager. When watching television, notice the race, ethnicity and gender types portrayed in shows and share statements like, “I wonder what it’s like to be the only ___ to be in ___ .”
  • Watch movies and shows that challenge stereotypes. A couple of all-time favorites are “A League of Their Own” and “Hidden Figures.”
  • Show that you value challenge and persistence. A growth mindset as suggested by researcher Carol Dweck is increasingly used in our school settings. To pursue non-traditional career pathways, your child will need resilience, the willingness to try new things, and other growth mindset competencies.

For more information on stereotypes, check out Adam Grant’s ReThinking podcast episode called “Breaking Free of Stereotype Threat with Claude Steele.”  It’s available on several platforms including Spotify. A transcript is available here

Kerri Day Keller joined the staff of Career and Employment Services at Kansas State University in 2002.  She has been director since 2003 and now leads the Career Center with over 40 professional and student employees.  Her over 20 years of tenure in career services also includes work at University of North Carolina Asheville, Denison University in Ohio, Northwest Missouri State University and Indiana State University.  Kerri received a bachelor's degree from Pittsburg State University, a master's degree from Indiana State University and a Ph.D. in Higher Education from K-State in May 2012.