Do what you’re good at – revisited

Last year I wrote this – and I guess I was being deliberately provocative with the title – but my broad theme was – how can we (as adults) best advise young people making subject choices? Recently I came across some new data which prompted me to think further.

It is very easy to say ‘do what you enjoy’, ‘do what you are good at’ – but for a number of reasons I question whether that really is as constructive as we would hope.

Am I saying that we should be advising young people to avoid doing what they feel they are good at? No, of course not. Nor am I suggesting we urge them to assess which subjects they are worst at and then perversely choose just those subjects. However, does ‘do what you are good at’, in isolation, support all our young people to make genuinely informed choices?

I previously made passing reference to girls and their lack of self-belief in their abilities, in STEM in particular. I was thinking of a statement from the 2015 OECD report on gender equality in education:

In general, girls have less self-confidence than boys in their ability to solve mathematics or science problems. Girls – even high-achieving girls – are also more likely to express strong feelings of anxiety towards mathematics. OECD (2015)

And yet – even knowing this – I was still genuinely shocked by some of the statistics in a recent Scottish Government report presenting data on the choices and stated reasons for the choices young people make regarding STEM and language subjects in school.

The survey included young people ages 11 – 18 (sample size 1781).

Of the young people who did not choose or intend to choose a STEM subject (10%):

Girls were significantly more likely than boys (40% vs 17%) to report that they didn’t think they were very good at STEM subjects.

These are students not intending to choose STEM subjects – so we might expect them to have less confidence in their abilities. But, for me, that gender difference is very concerning. For this group of students, girls (40%) are much more likely to feel they are not good at STEM subjects than boys (17%).

Even of those choosing STEM, girls are less likely to express confidence in their abilities. Girls were less likely than boys to select ‘I’m good at it’ as a reason for doing it (33% vs 45%). Despite the fact that, on average, they perform better in national exams.

I.e. girls, whether they plan to continue with the disciplines or not, are less likely to express confidence in their STEM abilities.

In comparison, asked reasons for not choosing or intending to choose a modern foreign language, girls were still significantly more likely than boys to report that they didn’t think they were very good at it but at a less alarming rate of 36% girls vs 27% boys.

These data show that girls tend to underestimate their abilities in general and more so in STEM subjects. Therefore, by encouraging them to use solely their own estimations (without any discussion about their actual strengths and future desires), they are likely to make choices that might be overly cautious.

More often than not, that cautious choice will steer girls away from STEM, thereby contributing to the findings of the 2014 report into Scottish youth employment which stated:


Too many young people continue to make choices which conform to gender stereotypes which in turn limit their longer term career opportunities. (Commission for Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce, 2014)

‘Do what you’re good at’. Too many of our girls don’t believe they are good at STEM. There are real issues around the effects of gender stereotyping on self-belief. Our perception of what we are good at and what we enjoy comes clouded by so many other influences, expectations and pressures. How can students possibly make an objective decision? I worry that without being supported to challenge those stereotypes too many of our young people will tend to choose what they FEEL they are good at.

So what should we do? There is much work to be done in developing everyone’s understanding of the enormous breadth of opportunities that STEM provides. We need to find creative ways of showing that STEM is ‘for me’. And we need to support young people in becoming more aware of pervasive gender stereotypes and provide them and schools with strategies for challenging their implications in general, and impacts on self-belief in particular.

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Heather Earnshaw

Heather Earnshaw

Improving Gender Balance Scotland project manager
Heather Earnshaw

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