Teens' dreams limited by gender, racial stereotypes - study

Close up of elementary student typing text message on smart phone while sitting at the desk in the classroom.

The dreams New Zealand teenagers have for the future are limited by gender and racial stereotypes, according to new research.

More than 400 13-year-olds participated in the study which looked into students' attitudes towards physical education (PE) and maths.

University of Canterbury education researcher David Pomeroy, who has done previous research on implicit racial bias in streaming of maths, was alarmed by the findings.

"I wanted to understand why students from different backgrounds - different ethnic, socioeconomic and gender backgrounds - seem to approach school subjects in such different ways and why we end up on such different paths depending on those backgrounds.

"I was trying to understand that connection between those parts of our identity that have nothing to do with what jobs we might be good at or what school subjects [we might be good at] and yet they seem to have such a strong influence."

Despite PE being liked across the board, the study found it was mostly Māori and Pasifika or lower socioeconomic status Pākeha male students who assumed they would go on to have careers in the field, rather than "professional" ones.

In comparison, socially privileged Pākeha male students were overall more than twice as likely than lower socio-economic Pasifika and Māori male students to aspire to careers in law and medicine, according to the study.

Female students who were Māori, Pasifika or Pākeha from low socioeconomic backgrounds also had gender-dependant aspirations, citing preferences for service jobs such as beautician or air hostess.

Dr Pomeroy said as a result, this influenced and limited students' attitudes to school subjects.

"The situation is that we feel that we've moved on from the old days of blatant racism, but we still often think about our lives in ways that reflect racist and sexist assumptions about who is talented at what."

However, Dr Pomeroy said there was nothing wrong with students wanting a 'physical' career or their enjoyment of PE, rather that they saw themselves as being on the margins of academic subjects even when achieving good results.

He told Morning Report the findings reflected the intergenerational reproduction of income inequalities and educational inequalities.

It also "poses some difficult questions about our national hero-worship of mainly male sports stars".

"We need to be careful not to slide into the assumption that Māori and Pasifika boys won't be interested in or have 'ability' in academic learning.

"My research shows that young people's views of themselves are in line with these harmful stereotypes, so that makes it even more important to break this cycle and change the narrative."

Dr Pomeroy suggested that schools at the leadership level needed to take more responsibility and provide clearer information about NCEA standards, which could often seem complicated.

"The choice of one standard over another can make a real difference to what pathways remain open in the future."

Schools also needed to reflect on their own unconscious bias when advising students about their career, he said.

Unconscious bias had a long history, so schools needed to be very careful in assumptions about the future prospects of students and "trust children to handle a bit of a challenge", he said.