Family, gender and young people’s aspirations to get into science

This project investigated young people’s interest in careers in science, engineering and technology (SET), by conducting a secondary analysis of data from 11-15 year olds in the British Household Panel Study (BHPS). The researchers used quantitative and qualitative approaches to explore three main questions:

1) How far does gender and family background influence young people’s aspirations concerning SET related careers?

2) Does an early interest in science lead young people to pursue scientific studies and SET related jobs?

3) To what extent are young people who enter science reproducing family patterns or ‘inheriting’ a SET route from their parents?


  • More boys than girls aspire to SET jobs.
  • Boys also aspire to work in all SET sectors, whilst girls are mainly interested in health-related occupations and science professions.
  • Aspirations for SET jobs have increased since 1994, although this is more pronounced for boys than for girls.
  • Career aspirations are reasonably stable during adolescence. However, for those who do change aspirations, the change is gender specific, with boys increasing SET aspirations as they grow older and girls losing their earlier interest in SET jobs. This points towards an early divergence in the interests of boys and girls at around age 13.

While the dip in students’ interest in science in the early years of secondary school has been established in previous studies, this is the first to idenfiy an important gender difference in job aspirations. It should be noted that the data do not allow analysis of attitudes towards subjects studied at school.

What do the results mean?

The results initially indicated that the educational level of parents is not related to young people’s aspirations to follow SET. However, when the SET Trade skills category is excluded (car mechanics, electricians etc.), the educational level of fathers in particular is positively related to SET aspirations.

Similarly, children whose father works in SET are more likely to aspire to work in SET themselves. The data also suggest that a mother working in SET has a positive relationship with girls’ aspirations for SET, but not to boys’. However, this should be interpreted with caution as the numbers of mothers in SET careers are very small.

Once these young people become adults there are very strong gender differences in their choice of occupation. Of the boys who answered the question on job aspirations, 25% are working in SET once adults, compared to only 2-4% of girls. Both boys and girls who expressed an interest in SET in adolescence are more likely to have a SET job in young adulthood, but this relationship is far stronger for boys.

The full findings will be presented in a chapter in the forthcoming (2013) publication ‘Gender differences in aspirations and attainments – a life course perspective’ edited by I. Schoon and J. Eccles (Cambridge University Press).

Project details



Professor Jacqueline Scott, University of Cambridge

Grant amount and duration


1 January 2010 – 30 April 2010