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Race has powerful effects on children's perceptions of occupations, study finds

American Psychological Association

WASHINGTON -- Children's perceptions of occupational status and their own vocational interests are affected by the racial make-up of the workforce, according to a new study involving first and six grade African American children. For both real and made-up jobs, children ascribed higher status to those occupations that are or were depicted as having all or mostly European American workers (and no or low numbers of African Americans workers) than to those jobs with no or low numbers of European American workers (and all or high numbers of African Americans workers). The findings appear in the May issue of Developmental Psychology, a journal published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

Ninety-two African American children (47 girls and 45 boys) from a racially mixed elementary school in the Midwest took part in the study. Approximately half of the children were from lower socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds and the other half were from upper-middle SES backgrounds. The children were interviewed individually by one of four African American experimenters. In the first session, children were asked about their perceptions of occupational status and their occupational aspirations. In the second session, the children were asked questions designed to assess their knowledge of racial stereotypes in occupations.

Each interview session involved 39 occupations - 27 of which were familiar occupations (like airline pilot or janitor) and the remaining 12 were novel occupations that the children would not have known about previously, including newly coined job titles. For example, one made-up job was a "tenic" - a person who is in charge of creating handicapped parking places for city buildings and stores. The children were randomly assigned to conditions in which the workers shown in a drawing were either (a) four African Americans, (b) four European Americans, or (c) two African Americans and two European Americans.

Results of the study show that although the jobs themselves were identical, children's ratings of the status of both familiar and novel jobs differed in relation to whether the jobs were depicted with only European American, only African American, or both, according to study authors Rebecca S. Bigler, Ph.D., and Cara J. Averhart, M.A., of The University of Texas at Austin and Lynn S. Liben, Ph.D., of The Pennsylvania State University.

The most compelling evidence of the role played by race in children's assessment of occupational status comes from the results of the novel occupation part of the study, according to the authors. African American children rated occupations that had been depicted with only European American workers as being higher in status than the identical occupations depicted with only African American workers. More specifically, African American children in first grade and from lower SES backgrounds rated jobs performed solely by African Americans as lower in status than jobs performed solely by white workers.

"The results clearly indicate that race has an independent effect on occupational judgments and thus that it cannot be only the qualities inherent in occupations themselves that affect children's judgments about job status," said Dr. Bigler. Despite this finding, the children's occupational interests did not appear to be affected by stereotypic beliefs concerning the appropriateness of various occupations for the two racial groups. "When children were asked which racial group 'should' perform the familiar occupations, the children responded in a highly unbiased manner, almost always answering that both Whites and Blacks should perform all occupations, " added Dr. Bigler.

The relation between race of workers and the status assigned to the jobs may lead to two types of vicious cycles, according to the researchers. "African American children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, may preferentially seek out low-status jobs in which minorities are well represented and thereby ensure that such jobs remain overpopulated by minorities, leading a new generation of poor African American children to select low-status jobs," said Dr. Bigler. "Second, those medium-and high-status jobs that do attract an increasing proportion of African American workers (perhaps from more advantaged households) may, across time, be viewed as lower in status simply as a function of the race of the worker, and consequently show decreasing levels of pay and prestige."

Future research on this issue should include children from other racial and ethnic groups, say the authors, to better understand the process of using racial cues as a factor in determining occupational issues. They also call for more research on how financial constraints within families shape vocational goals and expectations.


Article: "Race and the Workforce: Occupational Status, Aspirations, and Stereotyping Among African American Children," Rebecca S. Bigler and Cara J. Averhart, The University of Texas at Austin and Lynn S. Liben, The Pennsylvania State University; Developmental Psychology, Vol. 39, No. 3.

Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office or at

Lead author Rebecca S. Bigler, Ph.D., can be reached at (512) 471-9917 or by e-mail at

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 150,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting health, education and human welfare.

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