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Childhood Career Dreams and ‘What If’ Scenarios

Naureen Bhullar

- June 19, 2017

“What did you want to be when you grew up?”  In 2015 – 2016, we conducted an extensive qualitative study examining the aspirations young professional women have to pursue engineering careers in Bangalore, India, the IT capital of India.  The eight women in the study described their childhood dreams – from being a doctor to a journalist to a lawyer.  Interestingly none of them mentioned IT or engineering, despite the fact that all of them had a degree in one of these subjects.  They were perhaps not socialized to enter an engineering field until later in their educational careers.   

In 2012, LinkedIn, the world’s largest professional network, surveyed 8000 professionals from around the world on their childhood career aspirations.  415 of these professional were from India.  While the majority of men surveyed in India dreamed of becoming engineers, the women in India surveyed grew up thinking they would be teachers, doctors or nurses [1].

Research shows that prestige and respectability play a vital role in career planning in middle-class Indian families (Desai & Whiteside, 2000) as well as people of Indian origin outside India (e.g. Lightbody, Nicholson, Siann, & Walsh, 1997).  The eight women interviewed in our study were from middle-class families and in the second year of their STEM careers.  These women were from bigger cities as well as the smaller towns across India.  Out of the eight women, five of them reported that they wanted be a doctor when they were younger.  Interestingly the women’s responses closely reflected the LinkedIn’s survey.  In our study we were able to qualitatively delve into why the women thought this way – what shaped their dreams at that young age?

One of our participants said, “We know two things only – doctor or engineer. Who takes maths, he will be an engineer; who takes biology, she will be a doctor. Girls [are] basically doctors.” This clear gender demarcation between referencing an engineer as a “he” and a doctor as a “she” stood out to us.  Other women in the study mentioned that in their early schooling careers their parents did push them towards a science-related career, but not necessarily engineering. The fact that they chose engineering later in their schooling careers could also be a process of elimination within the science stream, but also because currently the IT and engineering fields have better and more immediate job prospects in India.  

Further, we put two hypothetical questions for them to see if their degree choices would have altered their career choices based on the country or context they grew up in:  The first hypothetical question was to imagine that they were born and raised in another country with more limited career choices for women than India (e.g., Saudi Arabia). Would their career choices be similar or different in this scenario?  The second hypothetical question veered towards the other extreme. If they were born and raised in another country with more career choices (e.g., a Scandinavian country), would their career choices be similar or different in this scenario?

Interestingly, we got varied responses from the women for both questions.  Two of the women said it would not change their career choice because of their inherent interest.  One of the women emphasized the bigger role of her parents and she said that they were the biggest influence on her career choice, and the environment may not have mattered as much, as long as they had pushed her. Another woman said she may have chosen from the career choices available and her small town had limited possibilities.  The two remaining women were on the fence about this question.  

When the women were asked the second question, about the greater availability of career choices, three of them stuck to their current choices.  The five other women expressed interests in art, music, dance, journalism, or a sports career.  

However, despite this hypothetical choice, these women did mention that fields outside IT, engineering, or STEM are more like “hobbies” and not professions.  From a young age they were dissuaded from these fields as it would not give them a secure career.  

The responses of the women to these questions throws some light on their career choices, which seems to be a mix of their intrinsic interest in their respective fields plus the socialization, associated with these choices. The emphasis on parental support and society illustrates their dependence of their goal formation on the people around them. Parents play a vital role in career choices all over the world but it is emphasized less in individualistic cultural context, where adolescents are expected to differentiate and maintain their own sense of self, separate from their family.  One of the women who was persistent in her career choices across the two hypothetical situations mentioned explicitly that she wanted to be in a career which keeps her ‘brain working,’ instead of her earlier interest in writing. This notion that the IT or STEM careers are more cognitively challenging seems to be a popular perception.  This may be attributed to the Indian education system as well as the social structures, which view professions or careers outside STEM or medicine as relatively easy, less challenging and hence probably less deserving of economic rewards.  

What is particularly interesting is that none of the women mentioned their childhood dream career in response to the second hypothetical question with greater availability of choices.  Interestingly the women only fantasized about their “hobbies.”  One of the women mentioned taking dance classes, but said now was not the right time to pursue it.  Another woman showed off pictures of her sketches she had done over summer breaks, but said now she did not have time.  These leisure activities were not seriously pursued by anyone in this study. This may be related to limited time they had after the long commutes and sometimes even work on weekends.

Vocational development literature also describes this transition of children from the fantasy world and assumptions of adult work to realistic knowledge about the training requirements, salaries, and more accurate nature about these careers.  The women may have grown more pragmatic over time.   

In America the top dream jobs for men were a professional or an Olympic athlete, and women wanted to be a teacher, veterinarian, or doctor

About the Author and References

Dr. Naureen Bhullar, Behavioural Lab Manager & Research Coordinator, Indian Institute of Management Bangalore (IIMB) & Dr. Deepa Srikantaiah, Senior Researcher with the Global Reading Network; former Fulbright Scholar to India (2015-2016)

Desai, G., & Whiteside, T. (2000). Vocational higher secondary education graduates in the state of Gujarat. Journal of Vocational Education and Training, 52, 49–61.

Lightbody, P., Nicholson, S., Siann, G., & Walsh, D. (1997). A respectable job: factors which influence young Asians’ choice of career. British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 25, 67–79.

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