“Where do you see yourself working in 10 years?” I ask 10 high school-age girls in a group-style interview. It’s part of efforts by Girl Scouts of Western Washington to explore the career aspirations of girls and the economic realities of our region.
“Flight attendant,” says one. “Teaching theater to little kids and having a puppy,” calls out another. “I hope to be a social worker, working on a master’s, financially stable and able to take care of at least one child,” offers a third.
Like these girls, most of the 100 girls from low-income backgrounds we interviewed see themselves working in the “helping professions” after getting a two-year or four-year degree. The girls see this as a way to make a difference in their communities, which is admirable.
Their responses inspire hope that these girls care about what happens to the next generation. But because they aspire to professions primarily in the helping fields, which pay less than other fields, their own bottom line tends to suffer (PayScale, 2014).
Even as many girls make amazing strides in their academic and professional achievement, one alarming trend remains:
Girls are leaving opportunities on the table, entering the workforce in lower-paying, lower-status professions that don’t reflect the careers of the future.
This is particularly true for girls of color and those of lower economic status. While 45,000 STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs in Washington state will go unfilled by 2017, I could count on one hand how many of the girls we interviewed mentioned working in a STEM job in 10 years.
And while it is hopeful that girls did not mention their current income status as a barrier to their career aspirations, the college debt average in Washington state is $23,000. Odds are these particular girls won’t benefit from the income bump that a college degree gives, as only 1 in 5 low-income girls is currently enrolled in a four-year degree program in Washington state.
The picture is not brighter at the national level. While 50 percent of all people from high-income families have a bachelor’s degree by their mid-20s, a mere 10 percent of people from low-income families can say the same.
National research on adolescent girls provides a window into how girls’ career aspirations are forged. Gender stereotypes and few role models in corporate leadership or STEM fields pose major barriers. Limited access to academic opportunity for some, little attention paid to health and mental health issues, and negative factors associated with poverty are other forces that diminish career aspirations.
Girls who have higher aspirations are encouraged by family, exposure to mentors in girls’ desired fields, and high-quality educational and youth development opportunities. And according to The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, 2014, women increasingly see themselves as providers for their families.
Using national and regional data such as these, we need to more closely examine the gap between girls’ abilities and aspirations, and the structural realities that keep them down. Building girls’ economic opportunity is not simply about them making different choices. Girls need to be better informed about the economic realities surrounding their choices.
We need to support girls by figuring out:
- How can we boost enrollment rates in public two-year and four-year post-secondary schools, especially for low-incomegirls of color, while also boosting the average wages of the jobs you can get if you hold two-year and four-year degrees?
- What programs, policies and people practices are effective at supporting girls to aspire to a broader range of professions?
- How can we better value the work traditionally done by women?
Conventional wisdom says that the more choices you have, the better. That depends. The reality for girls is less money equals fewer choices.
The choices and realities around girls’ career aspirations impact not only women, but also their families, their children and the next generation, from where you live and how much food you can afford to being more vulnerable to unexpected setbacks, and ultimately less capacity to build wealth.