Both boys and girls are reluctant to enter professions dominated by the opposite gender, leading to gender segregation later on in the world of work, the study from Lund University shows.
"We already knew that there's a large gender segregation in Sweden, but what we didn't expect to find was that girls still under-estimated their abilities in masculine stereotyped areas such as technology," Una Tellhed, who was project leader on the study, told The Local.
"Girls also underestimated how well they thought they would do in male-dominated professions such as engineering. Since Sweden is one of the most gender-equal countries in the world, we were hoping that maybe our 15-year-old girls would have moved past these stereotypes, but they're still alive and kicking!”
Researchers interviewed 2,600 15-year-olds for the study, at which age Swedish children begin choosing the subjects they will study in upper secondary school, which can be decisive for their future career.
Both boys and girls were less likely to choose subjects associated with the opposite gender, due to a range of factors, including their personal priorities (for example, whether they valued helping others over achieving high social status), concerns over fitting in within certain sectors, and perceptions of their ability to succeed in certain areas.
But among girls, Tellhed said that belief in their own abilities was the most important variable, followed by worries about fitting in. "Girls were slightly more likely to prioritize helping others over achieving a high status in their career than boys, but this had only a very small influence compared to these other factors," she explained.
Meanwhile, boys typically thought they would be able to do equally well in male-dominated and female-dominated fields. Like girls, however, they worried they would be less well accepted in a sector dominated by the other sex.
Tellhed hopes her research will be valuable in tackling gender segregation in Sweden's workforce, something she believes will benefit both Swedish society and individuals.
"We need more men to take an interest in nursing and more women to take an interest in technology, partly because it's important for the labour market to be able to recruit both men and women," she said.
"But it's also a problem because men and women are more similar than they are different psychologically, so it's sad that people may not find the career that would match them best, just because it's not associated with their gender. Hopefully we will start to talk more about gender similarity instead of gender difference."
Finding out which factors lead to gender segregation can help the government and educators tackle it more effectively, and encourage children to consider less gender-typical occupations.
"So now we know that ability-belief is the most important factor for women, we can work on ways to strengthen this self-belief. For men, we need to find out if it would be more efficient to raise the status of nursing to make it more attractive to them, or to try to make boys more interested in helping others -- this needs more research," Tellhed explained.
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