Despite all the ways in which young women are shifting perceived social bias in the workplace, there are still many careers and industries that remain unbalanced.
That’s because biases take a long time to evolve — adolescents growing up in a patriarchal society take their clues about the world of work from their environment and caregivers. They’re still receiving highly gendered messages — that caregivers, teachers, and secretaries are in female roles, while science, technology, and leadership roles are male positions associated with prestige and high earnings potential.
While the media is full of progressive messages about what women can do, many young girls still in school haven’t yet decided on a career and are considering options based on their interests. If they haven’t been exposed to scientific and technical careers, they’re less likely to self-report an interest in those job paths — after all, it’s hard to be interested in something that you know nothing about.
How Exposure Affects Aptitude Perception
Recent research has produced some important findings about the way young men and women perceive their fit for different careers.
The study found that self-reported interest scores, which dominate career guidance efforts, can limit a young woman’s career potential. These interest-based surveys reinforce social bias and take these young women out of contention for high-wage, high-demand career possibilities by narrowing their vision toward traditional roles to which they’ve been exposed.
The positive news is that the study also found that aptitude fit across all industries was comparable between boys and girls. That is, young women and men have equal talent, understanding, and potential to succeed in technical careers, regardless of gender. If natural aptitudes were made a bigger part of career guidance and adolescents had broader exposure to women in a wide variety of careers, they would likely make different decisions.
States that are becoming aware of this “exposure bias” limitation are shifting their focus and are having great success. Georgia, for example, is using its Perkins dollars to fund an aptitude-based assessment called YouScience. The program is designed to identify students with the aptitude for underrepresented pathways, such as young women for technology fields who might not even know they have an inclination for tech.
Armed with this information, how can female professionals help other young women increase their exposure to amazing careers? There are a few things you can do:
1. Advocate for Aptitude
Aptitudes aren’t determined by exposure or tradition; they are natural talents and a great indicator of how well someone will perform in a particular career. But women can go their entire lives without realizing they have an aptitude for high-demand, high-paying careers in industries like technology, engineering, or construction because they were never given the chance to explore those fields. Aptitude testing has long been ignored in career development in schools and hiring departments — but that’s changing.
Women have the power to change this status quo. The first step is to take the aptitude assessments yourself and familiarize your counterparts — especially your male ones — with the advantages of using aptitudes to uncover talent.
2. Seek and Serve as Mentors
Get involved with programs and education facilities near you. Meet with career advisors and counselors and ask to be introduced to young women with aptitudes similar to your own. Explain “exposure bias” to help others recognize factors limiting their options.
A strong mentorship network is vital for connecting the next generation of women to their potential. Female professionals can expose other women to new possibilities in historically male-dominated careers. They can share the truth — backed by data — that women leaders in Fortune 1000 and S&P 500 companies actually earn higher ROI for their businesses.
3. Look for Opportunities to Strengthen Your Talents
Practice what you preach by looking outside your wheelhouse to develop and hone skills adjacent to your aptitudes. Accountancy is a learned skill; numerical reasoning is an aptitude that is critical to the speed and accuracy of learning accountancy. Seek opportunities to grow your skills both inside and outside of work. By expanding your own potential, you’ll be able to model and help younger women expand theirs.
There are plenty of free or low-cost resources out there for self-training, like Lynda. Once you’ve explored them, you can encourage young women around you to do the same. Help women apply for a scholarship to local events like space camp or join an online STEM Girls network. Gaining new experiences and building technical skills expands exposure, and it also helps women align with the economy’s needs.
All industries are stronger when filled with talented, passionate people, and all people have a greater chance of success and happiness when they’re pursuing a path that uses their competitive advantage. It’s up to all of us to make that ideal a reality.
Rich Feller, Ph.D., is a Professor of Counseling and Career Development and University Distinguished Teaching Scholar Emeritus at Colorado State University. Previously, Dr. Feller served as president of the National Career Development Association.