Race has powerful effects on children’s perceptions of job status, study shows

June 26, 2003

AUSTIN, Texas—Children’s perceptions of job status and their own vocational interests are affected by racial segregation of the workforce according to a new study published in the May issue of Developmental Psychology, a journal published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

Dr. Rebecca S. Bigler, associate professor of psychology and Cara J. Averhart, M.A., at The University of Texas at Austin, and Dr. Linn S. Liben, professor of psychology at The Pennsylvania State University, found that although the jobs themselves were identical, children’s perception of status differed depending on the race of the worker.

“First grade African-American children rated occupations performed by white workers as more important and higher in status than occupations performed by black workers,” Bigler said. “However, we see a change in the early adolescent group when socio-economic status (SES) starts to play a factor. Although lower SES sixth graders still rated jobs performed by white workers as higher status than those performed by black workers, higher SES sixth graders did not. It is unclear why exactly SES makes a difference.”

To access the children’s occupational aspirations, they were asked to rate how much they would want to be one of 39 occupations. Of these, 27 were familiar jobs such as an airline pilot, schoolteacher, or janitor. The remaining 12 were novel jobs, that is, jobs that participants would not have known about previously. For example, one novel job included a higgler, a person who sells items such as clothing, watches, or candy on the street. To assess their knowledge of the racial composition of both familiar and novel jobs they were asked the race of the person that usually does each job.

“When children were asked which racial group ‘should’ perform the familiar occupations, the children responded in a highly unbiased manner,” Bigler said, “almost always answering that both whites and blacks should perform all occupations. However, findings suggest that black children have relatively modest occupational goals compared to white children. Black children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, may preferentially seek out low status jobs in which minorities are well represented.

“This may lead to two vicious cycles,” Bigler added. “Those lower status jobs will remain overpopulated by minorities, leading to a new generation of poor black children to select low status jobs. Second, those medium and high status jobs that do attract an increasing number of black workers may in time be viewed as lower in status simply because of the proportion of black workers, consequently decreasing levels of pay and prestige.

“The present findings suggest that it may be useful to devise interventions that address children’s knowledge about race and the workforce,” Bigler said, “as well as how racial schemas affect their aspirations to perform certain occupations in the future.”

The study included interviews with 92 black children from the first and sixth grades, including 47 girls and 45 boys from a racially mixed elementary school in the Midwest. There was an equal representation of children from lower socio-economic status and upper-middle socio-economic backgrounds.

Children were interviewed individually about their perceptions of job status, their own occupational aspirations and knowledge of racial stereotypes in various occupations. The interview included 39 occupations—27 familiar and 12 novel. The most compelling evidence for an effect of race came from the novel jobs. Standard job descriptions and color drawings of two men and two women performing the same job were provided for all novel occupations. Each job was depicted either with white workers, black workers or both. The children were asked to rate each job according to the level of how difficult it was to learn the job, how hard it was to do the job, pay and importance.

For more information contact: Dr. Rebecca S. Bigler, 512-471-9917.