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Socio-cultural factors contributing to adolescents’ gendered education and career exploration in STEM

In Finnish education and labor market, occupational gender segregation is a persistent phenomenon. Segregation levels are high and stable especially in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), which are strongly male-dominated. Finland is, however, in an ever-growing need for STEM-skilled workers to sustain economic growth, correct the demographic dependency ratio and finance the welfare state. Labor markets in many other states in Europe and the United States of America have similar characteristics than those of Finland. Research into gendered career choices has concluded that rather from differences in innate aptitudes only, gendered choices in STEM originate from a complex system of intellectual abilities, achievement motivations, the influence of family, school and friends, as well as other socio-cultural factors. 

The doctoral dissertation of MA Kirsi Ikonen addresses the contribution made by socio-cultural factors to adolescents’ gendered education and career exploration in the fields of STEM. The present study has been designed to help to develop knowledge in this area by examining some of the ways in which social influences and cultural perceptions of gender-appropriateness of occupations affect Finnish adolescents’ education and career exploration. The study is composed of three sub-studies, each of which aims to explore the main topic from a particular viewpoint and also to complement each another. The expectancy-value theory of achievement-related choices was chosen to act as the main theoretical framework of this present dissertation, as it is one of the most successful theoretical contributions in the research into gendered academic and vocational choices.

The first sub-study deals with understanding the role of socializers, such as parents and teachers, in Finnish ninth-graders’ education and career exploration. The second sub-study is an investigation of the kinds of gender-related perceptions of occupations that Finnish ninth-graders have, according to themselves and according to their school guidance counsellors. With regard to sub-study 3, its aim was to investigate how parents consider the role of gender in the education- and career-related discussions that they have had with their children, how much parents know about STEM career opportunities,  and how aware they may be of the individual and societal consequences of occupational gender segregation.

These three sub-studies were conducted in 2014-2018 in the Eastern Finland region. A mixed-methods research approach was employed, making use of both qualitative and quantitative data-collection and data-analysis methods and multiple data sources. A statistical analysis was made of the ninth-graders’ quantitative survey data and the principles of qualitative content analysis research were used in the analysis of the ninth-graders’ survey responses, guidance counsellors’ interview responses, and parents’ survey responses.

Sub-study 1 revealed that parents play the most important role in adolescents’ education and career exploration and are also potentially the main mediators of gender stereotypes concerning occupations. School guidance counselling plays second fiddle to parents with regard to¬ the amount of education- and career-related discussion that adolescents have with these two groups of socializers. Education- and career-related discussions between subject teachers and ninth-graders seemed to be minimal; only a couple of ninth-graders reported heeding their teachers’ advice to any significant extent when making such decisions, and most of the guidance counsellors interviewed supported this claim.

Sub-study 2 documented the fact that ninth-graders mostly referred to masculine physical dimensions when justifying certain occupations as more suitable for men than for women. Respectively, they generally referred to gender-typical interests when justifying certain occupations as more suitable for women than for men. One positive signal in this study was that no stereotypes regarding male superiority in maths, science and technology occurred in ninth-graders’ views. Boys presented more gender-stereotypical perceptions of occupations than did girls, and boys also considered that their own gender affected their occupational preferences more strongly than did girls. According to guidance counsellors, ninth-graders’ perceptions of occupations are still frequently highly gender-stereotypical in their impact on education and career choices. 

In sub-study 3, a majority of the parents participating in the study did not consider their adolescent children’s gender to have an influence on the discussions of future education and careers that they had together. A majority of the mothers reported having discussions with their children about the influence of gender on educational and career choices. In contrast, a majority of the fathers had not brought up the gender aspect in their discussions with their children. Half of both the mothers and the fathers had discussed educational pathways and career opportunities in the fields of science, mathematics and technology with their children, even though the mothers felt that their personal knowledge of such careers was less than that of the fathers. Mothers were able to mention several of the consequences of occupational gender segregation on an individual and a societal level.  They mentioned, for example, the gender pay gap and the problems involved in national competitiveness and in unleashing the full innovative potential of the country. The present study also reveals that some of the fathers were practically dismissive in their attitudes to occupational gender segregation and its consequences.
Thus, this study is intended to contribute to existing research into the underlying socio-cultural influences on adolescents’ gendered education and career exploration and choices, especially in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The results of the study may prove to be of use in the development of interventions related to career education that encourage adolescents to examine and challenge traditional gender roles and occupational gender stereotypes. In doing so, they may become more aware of the wide range of opportunities that careers in STEM have to offer. In addition, the present results may be helpful in the development of interventions that promote parents’ readiness to talk with their children about jobs in STEM, thus promoting conscious educational and career choices.

The doctoral dissertation of MA Kirsi Ikonen, entitled Socio-cultural factors contributing to adolescents’ gendered education and career exploration in STEM will be examined at the Faculty of Science and Forestry. The opponent in the public examination will be Professor Jari Lavonen (University of Helsinki and the custos will be Docent Mervi Asikainen (University of Eastern Finland). 

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