Beware of Gender Biases in Career Interest Tests

Choosing a university program can be stressful; the stakes seem high and there are so many options. Wouldn’t it be a relief if you could be absolutely sure that a particular program is the best fit for your strengths and interests? Career interest tests claim to offer just that kind of assurance. You answer a series of questions, and based on your answers, you are “matched” to a list of recommended fields of study and a corresponding list of careers. 

It almost seems too easy, and it is. Dig a little deeper, as I have, and what becomes clear is that career interest tests have inherent biases that perpetuate gender stereotypes. They do this in two ways: 1. In the kinds of questions they ask and 2. In the way they standardize the answers. In the context of STEM fields, particularly math-intensive ones, these biases are amplified.

A woman taking a career interest test is almost guaranteed to get lumped into the “caring professions” bin because her answers to the many caring questions will likely trump her answers to the few questions related to other areas, including math and math-intensive fields. As an example, consider my recent results from a career interest test I took online. Keep in mind that I have a degree in Mechanical Engineering. On my first try, of my 29 recommended fields of study, 17 were a subset of nursing. On my second try, of my 17 recommended fields of study, 10 were a subset of psychology.

 A woman taking a career interest test is also likely to get steered towards caring professions that don’t pay as well as professions traditionally dominated by men. The reason is that her answers will get compared with the answers given by women in a standardization sample that consists of women only, as in 1. “How do these answers match with the answers given by women in the sample?”,  and 2. “Where there is a match, what is the career held by that match?”.  To illustrate the effect of this bias, the third time I took the online career interest test, I identified myself as a man. This time, of my 13 recommended fields of study, 8 were a subset of medicine; still a caring profession, but a better paying one. Women have actually been going into medicine in large numbers for several years, but career interest tests (and their sample groups) haven’t caught up to that reality.

I am really good at math and physics, but one characteristic that I don’t share with the vast majority of mechanical engineers is a Y chromosome. I have taken many career interest tests and not one of them has pointed me in the direction of engineering, or any other math-intensive field. I went into engineering after a family friend gave me a summer job in his engineering firm when I was still in high school; if not for that experience, it never would have occurred to me.

 There are several good ways to explore program options and careers: talking to people in a wide variety of fields and asking them about their career paths is one; job shadowing is another; summer, coop, or volunteer work is a third. All of these will take more time and effort than a career interest test, but they will give you a much clearer (and unbiased) picture of which university programs are likely to be a good fit for your strengths and interests. 


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