Predictors of Adolescents’ STEM Career Aspirations: Illuminating the Contours of Friendship Group Norms

What determines whether adolescents decide to pursue careers in STEM fields? This research suggests that friends play a huge role.

By Rachael D. Robnett and Campbell Leaper

Our interest in understanding how friends shape adolescents’ career aspirations evolved from our background in studying children’s gender development. Children’s peers play a critical role in socializing adherence to gender-role norms. Indeed, many gender-sensitive parents are dismayed to realize that their attempts to raise gender-flexible children are undone soon after their children begin interacting with peers at school. Among other things, children’s peers are responsible for transmitting messages about what types of academic pursuits are appropriate for girls and boys.

Guided by this knowledge and by social identity theory, we turned our attention to a question that has garnered increasing attention both in academia and in the broader social context: What leads students to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)? The recent focus on STEM career aspirations can be attributed, at least in part, to links between innovation in STEM fields and the economy. Specifically, STEM innovation is associated with competitiveness in the global economy, and the U.S. is currently struggling to populate the STEM workforce with qualified individuals.  Other researchers, ourselves included, focus on STEM career aspirations because women and members of some ethnic groups are underrepresented in STEM fields (e.g., Hayes & Bigler, 2013). This is a problem because STEM jobs are among the most prestigious and lucrative in U.S. society.

Past research has identified a host of factors that shape individuals’ career trajectories (see Halpern et al., 2007). Because peers and friends are remarkably powerful agents of socialization during childhood and adolescence, we focus on the role that friendship groups play in adolescents’ and emerging adults’ pursuit of STEM careers (see also Azmitia & Cooper, 2001; Crosnoe, Riegle-Crumb, Field, Frank, & Muller, 2006). Although it is clear from prior research that friendship groups can influence adolescents’ academic aspirations, many nuances of friendship group influence have yet to be explored. In the rest of this article, we describe findings from one of our recent papers that aimed to shed light on some of these nuances (Robnett & Leaper, 2013). We then close by highlighting several compelling directions for future research.

 Overview of Findings

 Our study included high school students in northern California who represented a variety of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Participation took place through a survey, which was administered during class at the students’ schools. Our main findings are detailed below. 

  1. Friendship group academic norms are a robust predictor of adolescents’ STEM career aspirations. Our results indicated that academic norms within the friendship group were strongly associated with adolescents’ own STEM career aspirations. That is, when the friendship group was rated as being more supportive of STEM, adolescents themselves expressed a greater interest in pursuing a STEM career in the future. Notably, this association remained significant even after controlling for grades and academic motivation, which have been linked to adolescents’ career aspirations in past research (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002). 
  1. The friendship group’s support of STEM is beneficial for both genders, but boys receive more of it. One aim of our study was to identify factors that might contribute to girls’ and women’s low representation in STEM fields. In particular, we wondered whether having a friendship group that supports STEM might be especially beneficial for adolescent girls. Our results indicated that this was not necessarily the case: When the friendship group was supportive of STEM, participants of both genders showed elevated STEM career interest. However, this finding is qualified by an important average gender difference. Specifically, relative to girls, boys reported that their friends were significantly more supportive of STEM. Thus, membership in a friendship group that supports STEM appears to be helpful for both girls and boys; the challenge is that boys are more likely than girls to be members of friendship groups that are high in STEM support.
  1. The impact of friendship group norms varies depending on how strongly participants identify with their group. Many adolescents identify quite strongly with their friendship group, but some adolescents do not. According to social identity theory, group norms are likely to be internalized when an individual’s identity is closely linked to group membership. Hence, we anticipated that the association between friendship group norms and career aspirations would be strongest for adolescents who had close ties to their friendship group. Results generally supported this prediction. For example, adolescents who strongly identified with a friendship group that did not support STEM were quite low in their STEM career interest, which is a pattern that persisted even among adolescents who reported that their own valuing of STEM was fairly high.
  1. It is worthwhile to assess friendship group norms in specific academic domains. Prior research illustrates that friendship groups vary in their general academic orientation. That is, some groups tend to support academic achievement, whereas other groups do not. However, we reasoned that friendship groups may also vary in the specific academic subjects that they endorse. For instance, some friendship groups may support achievement in domains such as math and science, whereas others may support achievement in domains such as literature or the fine arts. For this reason, we separately assessed group norms within the domains of STEM and English. Not surprisingly, results demonstrated that our measure of friendship group norms within the domain of STEM was an especially effective predictor of adolescents’ STEM career interest (see also Leaper, Farkas, & Brown, 2012). In contrast, friendship group norms in English were not significantly associated with adolescents’ STEM career interest.

Where to Go from Here 

  1. Explore the utility of social network analysis. Social network analysis (SNA) is an analytic technique that allows researchers to reliably identify social groups and their norms. SNA utilizes data from multiple members of a given social network, which can reduce some of the bias that is inherent in self-report methodologies. Furthermore, when paired with multilevel modeling and longitudinal designs, SNA can be used to identify causal implications of friendship group norms.  Indeed, a recent JRA special issue showcased research that used SNA to link peer influence to behaviors such as alcohol and drug use. Utilizing SNA to shed light on friendship group academic norms would be a logical and compelling extension of this prior work (see Ryan, 2001). This is because peers likely shape adolescents’ academic outcomes in much the same way that they shape behavior such as alcohol and drug use.
  1. Identify mechanisms of peer influence. In a recent review, Brechwald and Prinstein (2011) argued that future research should aim to provide insight into moderators and mediators of peer influence. The current study answered this call by demonstrating that the implications of friendship group norms vary based on the strength of adolescents’ identification with their friendship group (a moderation effect), and our other work sheds light on the importance of psychological mediators such as identity (e.g., Robnett, 2013). However, much less is known about a different type of mediation effect: Namely, how academic norms are actually transmitted within the friendship group. For instance, do adolescents use teasing to sanction group members who pursue an academic domain that is inconsistent with group norms, or are norms conveyed in more subtle ways? Insight into these types of questions would enable researchers to develop interventions that target specific peer socialization behaviors (see below), which would likely be an improvement over more general interventions.
  1. Develop interventions that target friendship networks. Interventions that seek to bring underrepresented students into the STEM pipeline are quite prevalent (e.g., Robnett, Chemers, & Zurbriggen, 2014). The results of the current study suggest that adolescents’ friendship groups are a powerful, yet largely untapped resource that could enhance the effectiveness of intervention work. For example, encouraging students to bring their friends along to STEM outreach events may enhance the effectiveness of some interventions. Similarly, interventions that directly target adolescents’ friendship groups may also be worthwhile.
  1. Consider gender disparities in other fields. Gender differences in occupational aspirations transcend STEM fields. For instance, women are also underrepresented in fields such as philosophy and political science, and men are underrepresented in fields such as psychology and education. Attaining a better understanding of what causes these disparities would be a fruitful avenue for future research (see Leaper & Van, 2008). In particular, insights derived from this research could be used to help adolescents feel comfortable pursuing a wider range of careers, thus enhancing the likelihood that they realize their full potential.

 

References

Azmitia, M., & Cooper, C. R. (2001). Good or bad? Peer influences on Latino and European American adolescents’ pathways through school. Journal of Education for Students Placed At Risk, 6, 45-71.

Brechwald, W. A., & Prinstein, M. J. (2011). Beyond homophily: A decade of advances in understanding peer influence processes. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21, 166-179.

Crosnoe, R. Riegle-Crumb, C., Field, S., Frank, K., & Muller, C. (2008). Peer group contexts of girls’ and boys’ academic experiences. Child Development, 79, 139-155.

Eccles, J. S., & Wigfield, A. (2002). Motivational beliefs, values, and goals. Annual Review of Psychology, 53,109–132.