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Opinion | The Most Common Graduation Advice Tends to Backfire

by Staff

As American high school and college students graduate and embark on the next phases of their lives, one piece of advice they will undoubtedly receive is to follow their passions or some equivalent sentiment. It seems like fine guidance, however clichéd: Do something that feels true to yourself rather than conform to expectations.

But following your passions often turns out to be a bad idea. New research that we and our colleagues conducted found that when asked to identify their passions, women and men tend to cite stereotypically feminine and masculine interests and behavior. Women are more likely to say they want to make art or help people, for instance, while men are more likely to say they want to do science or play sports.

In other words, when asked to identify their passions, people seem to do precisely what following their passions is supposed to discourage: They conform to societal expectations. This finding is especially troubling for anyone concerned about gender disparities in fields like computer science and engineering, in which women are significantly underrepresented.

In two surveys — one of more than 500 undergraduates nationally and the other of about 150 undergraduates at the University of Washington who had recently declared their majors — we found that “follow your passions” was the most common advice American college students heard and used when selecting their majors.

Then we asked hundreds of undergraduate students which majors and careers they would choose if they followed their passions and which majors and careers they would choose if they prioritized salary and job security. We found that when it came to pursuing male-dominated fields like computer science and engineering, gender gaps were greater when students chose to follow their passions, with men disproportionately choosing those fields. We also found that gender gaps in selecting future occupations were smaller when we asked people of both genders to prioritize nurturing and emotionally supporting other people.

That is, if you encourage women and men to follow their passions in selecting a major or career, there is a big gender gap. If you encourage them to make money, there is less of a gender gap, with more women skewing toward traditionally masculine fields. And if you encourage them to nurture and support other people, there is also less of a gender gap, with more men skewing toward traditionally feminine fields.

Are we suggesting that women shouldn’t pursue their passions and should enter fields that they don’t really care about just to close gender gaps? Of course not. For one thing, traditionally feminine work is important, and society needs people who are passionate about it and want to pursue it — including men.

But what strikes us, based on this and other research, is that for many young people, passions seem to be based in large part on internalized societal expectations about what is appropriate for their gender rather than complete and accurate information about what, say, studying computer science is really like.

Consider that most U.S. high school students do not take a single computer science, engineering or physics class. And girls are even less likely to take these classes than boys. That means that many girls who forsake these courses are doing so without ever trying them. Even when girls take these classes, research shows that they often encounter negative stereotypes about their abilities and interests — whereas giving girls positive experiences in these fields can increase their interest.

Our point is that the passions that young people are supposed to be following seem highly malleable and susceptible to influence. In several experiments that one of us (Dr. Cheryan) conducted, high school girls and college women expressed less interest in enrolling in a computer science class when the classroom was furnished with “Star Trek” posters, video games and other objects stereotypically associated with men than when the same classroom was decorated with nature posters, plants and other more gender-neutral objects.

If the presence or absence of a sci-fi poster can change your interest in a field of study, you’re probably not thinking about the field itself; you’re probably thinking about whether the culture of the field is one that you could fit into and be successful in.

In many non-Western countries, students are not encouraged to view academic choice as a form of self-expression. The results can be striking: In countries such as Malaysia and Kuwait, the gender disparities in computer science and engineering degrees are much smaller than they are in the United States. Students in those countries typically pick their majors for other reasons — income, job security, family obligation.

The “follow your passions” advice may appear to ask people what they want to do with their lives. But too often what they’re being asked to do is let their gender limit their choices. So let’s change what we say to high school and college graduates. Sure, you can follow your passions. But also keep an open mind and try things you may have ruled out without even realizing why. There may be more to be passionate about than you realize.

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