Sixth-form girls less career confident than boys, which can affect the types of jobs they secure, Oxford University research shows

Research undertaken by Oxford University’s Careers Service shows that girls are significantly less confident about their career prospects than boys, and have very different attitudes to what they seek in a career – attitudes that significantly affect the types of jobs they secure.

The survey of nearly 4,000 sixth-formers in a range of schools also reveals sixth-form students are already internalising gender stereotypes when it comes to their career choices. Sixth-form boys are much more confident about their job prospects, while girls show greater anxiety about their ability to land a good job. Both genders already perceive the job world as one where men are paid better and face better prospects.

The research findings are being presented by Jonathan Black, Director of the Oxford University Careers Service, at the Girls Schools Association annual conference on 24 November. The research follows on from a survey of university graduates last year that showed a ‘gender gap’ in the jobs male and female students attained after leaving university. The findings will be published in the Oxford Review of Education.

Jonathan Black, director of Oxford University’s Careers Service, said: ‘We surveyed sixth form students after identifying gender as the single biggest factor in whether graduates from top universities secured a graduate-level job. Having seen that women students were less confident, we extended the research to sixth form pupils to learn if they had the same attitudes and behaviours.

‘Our latest research has confirmed that gender-based differences in career confidence start early. Sixth form girls have lower confidence about their career and, compared with boys, are more concerned about each aspect of job application, and are more interested in careers that offer job security, in a cause they ‘feel good about’. This has the knock-on effect that girls may be self-limiting their choice of careers, especially because the types of jobs they seek often have informal entry processes (via networking or low and unpaid internships, for example). We are exploring ways to intervene and equip school pupils to improve their career confidence and are piloting a new programme, Ignite, as one possible solution.’

The research found that sixth-form girls’ career ambitions are significantly more influenced by lifestyle factors and finding a job deemed 'worthwhile' than boys, whose main focus is salary. One implication of this is that the types of jobs that girls favour tend to have more informal processes of entry, often at junior levels or via a succession of volunteering or internships.

Looking at students’ interest in university subject areas, the research suggests that girls’ preference for doing something ‘worthwhile’ translates into a strong interest in studying medicine among those who are scientifically inclined. Meanwhile boys in all-male educational environments feel more able to pursue ‘arts’ degrees compared with boys in coeducational schools.

The research was conducted through a survey of 3,698 students from 63 different schools and colleges across the UK, including 31 coeducational and 32 single-sex schools. 31 of the schools surveyed were state schools, while 32 were independent schools. Its findings include:

  • 56% of boys and 75% of girls think men receive higher pay in their jobs after university
  • On a scale of 1 to 6 (with 6 being most confident), girls average 3.7 and boys average 4.3 when asked to rate their personal job prospects after university
  • Using the same scale, there was no significant difference in confidence between girls in single-sex schools vs coeducational ones (3.7 vs 3.8 respectively), but a significant benefit for boys in all-boys’ schools (4.5 compared with 4.2)
  • 57% of boys in all-boys’ schools expressed an interest in arts & humanities subjects at university compared with 49% at coeducational schools; girls in single-sex schools show the strongest preference towards medicine of any group (24% compared with 20% of girls at coed schools, 17% of boys in coed schools and 16% of boys in single sex schools)

Oxford’s Careers Service is also developing a careers confidence programme that is being piloted in schools called Ignite. The programme, developed with support from Newnham College, Cambridge, and the GSA, will help develop pupils’ assertiveness and confidence in academic, extra-curricular, family, social and eventual career activities and is currently in the second phase of being piloted in schools.

For more information, contact Julia Paolitto in the University of Oxford News Office at 01865 280531 or email