How many of us are told as children that we can grow up to be whatever we want to be?
A new study has revealed that many workers feel their career paths may be set out for them before they are even born, with our route determined by our gender.
Dr Ernesto Reuben, a researcher in the Social Science Division at New York University Abu Dhabi, is putting the issue in the spotlight by looking at how gender stereotypes might develop. It's an understanding that could, in turn, offer insights into how to address the balance.
The perception that certain roles are for men and others for women is often deep rooted. This week a member of the Federal National Council caused a stir when he said that school girls in the UAE should be taught cooking classes, rather than rugby – which he claimed was "too rough" – so they had the necessary skills to become a "perfect housewife".
Exposure to such stereotyping, particularly at a young age, can seemingly influence peoples’ future career choices and job statistics do show that some roles attract a specific gender. Figures from the US, for example, show that 97.5 per cent of preschool and nursery teachers are female, while 97 per cent of construction and mining workers are male.
“Even though men and women make different career choices, it might be because they anticipate some different treatment based on stereotypes. Stereotypes can have this indirect effect on labour market outcomes,” said Dr Reuben.
Dr Reuben, from Costa Rica, said that being in the exceptionally diverse environment of the Emirates and meeting people with a variety of views has been particularly enlightening and has offered insight into the subject of gender stereotypes.
“A lot of these gender stereotypes vary between different people and cultures,” he said, adding that this indicates that they are largely the product of particular cultural contexts.
Dr Reuben put this theory to the test in a laboratory study.
He asked male and female participants to carry out tasks such as typing a sequence of numbers and letters, or recognising faces and numbers.
Participants had not carried out the tasks before, and were unlikely to have any preconceived ideas as to whether men or women were better at them.
They could choose whether to invest time and effort in making themselves better at a particular exercise.
“It only makes sense to improve your performance if you think after that you will be chosen to perform that task,” said Dr Reuben.
The view of participants about whether men or women were better at the task was manipulated by giving them information about the relative performance of the two genders.
“But what you don't tell them is whether men or women perform better because they're better intrinsically or they were trained on that task,” said Dr Reuben.
The results showed that if a stereotype suggested that men were better at a particular task, women tended to choose not to gain the skills necessary to carry out that exercise. The mere suggestion that a stereotype existed was enough to influence decisions.
“What I found was that it was easy for this type of logic to kick in. If people saw in the past there were more men performing task A, it would be easy to get men to train on task A,” said Dr Reuben.
“This perpetuated the system, even though it's the case that there's no real difference in ability between men and women at these tasks.”
The effect worked both ways, so that just as women were less inclined to train in tasks seen as being more suited to men, so men were less likely to train in a task if it was regarded as being more in line with women's skills.
Aside from the implications for the individuals, stereotypes can, said Dr Reuben, result in a “misapplication of talent” because employers are missing out on potentially capable employees.
He said that efforts to eliminate stereotypes require both individuals to change their view in terms of what careers they are prepared to consider, and employers to modify hiring practices. Unilateral changes by either party are not enough.
One particularly notable finding was that once a stereotype was in place, clearly telling people that there is no difference in ability between the genders had no effect on their behaviour in terms of the task they chose to invest in. This has implications for efforts to eliminate stereotypes.
Despite the difficulties in challenging stereotypes, which Dr Reuben said can disadvantage men as well as women, change can happen.
Evidence, again from the US, demonstrates this, because certain professions flipped from being majority male in 1950 to being majority female in 2000.
While increased female participation in the workforce partly explains the shift, changing views are also likely to have played a role.
Figures published by the statistician Dr Nathan Yau show that in 1950 around 90 per cent of opticians in America were men, a proportion that by 2000 had fallen to around 40 per cent, while the number of human resources assistants that were male dropped from 70 per cent to 20 per cent.
So gender biases, even if the stereotypes that help to create them are easily formed, are not fixed.
The next step for Dr Reuben will be developing a better understanding of what measures could be effective at dealing with gender stereotypes, making for a more open job market for all.