Our girls need guidance

Dec 31, 2012 at 2:00 p.m. ET

Telling your daughter she can do whatever she wants with her life might seem like the kind of encouragement she needs.

But a new study says that what girls really need is career direction — and to truly understand that all career paths are open to them. That means it's time to get specific.

Remember when you were a young girl and everyone asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up? The ubiquitous question is both hard and challenging, as girls get to know themselves — and explore what they may or may not like.

As a parent, it's tempting to tell our daughters that they can be whatever they want to be and leave it at that. However, a new study is showing that girls need more than that — they need parents to help them head in a direction of the right career for them.

Studying career thoughts

The study by Simmons College and the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts looked at more than 1,600 middle school students in New England, New York and Pennsylvania. What researchers found was that middle school girls were less likely than boys to choose careers in STEM fields (that's science, technology, engineering and mathematics) — only 10 percent of girls compared with 32 percent of boys.

What's more is that many of the girls didn't think their parents would want them to have a career in a STEM field — only 11 percent thought that would be something their parents would want for them.

Gender stereotypes

And perhaps most disturbing, 27 percent of girls and 35 percent of boys agreed with the statement that "boys have more career options than girls." Worst of all though, 55 percent of girls and 73 percent of boys also agreed with the statement that "there are some jobs that boys are better at than girls."

Seriously, is this 2012 or 1950?

"Despite 40 years of progress by women in the workforce and the best intentions of parents to encourage broad career aspirations, societal messages still have a major influence on attitudes about job opportunities based on gender," study co-author Mary Shapiro, a professor at the Simmons School of Management, stated. "When parents tell their middle schoolers 'do whatever makes you happy,' this message is being heard through gendered stereotypes about careers."

Telling girls that they can do anything simply isn't enough. We need to give them concrete ideas and show them that their strengths — whether it's in writing, science, engineering or something else entirely — can lead to a successful career. And moreover, we need to do this so that girls can look at all careers with an understanding that they can do anything boys can do.

Go for the strengths

When kids show an aptitude for something, that's a great place to start in guiding them toward a career they'll be successful in. "Parents can best offer guidance to their teenage daughters by letting them know what they and their teachers have noticed over the years as their natural abilities and strengths," says Meredith Liepelt, owner of Rich Life Marketing, a personal branding and marketing consultancy.

In the end, Liepelt says this can lead your daughter to a more rewarding career. "While it's possible to do most anything, finding a career that fits a girl's natural strengths, skills and talents will be much more rewarding to her than simply chasing a job because she has been told that she can do anything," says Liepelt.

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