Experts say even the highest-achieving high school girls need more help finding their ‘dream’ jobs. 

Compared to boys, girls often excel in their secondary education results – but new research shows even the most gifted students may struggle to follow the best career path, pay grades and workplace progression to become leaders in their fields.

A new study on career development and outcomes for girls from Year 8, 10 and 12 grades has recommended further support and direction of high career aspirations among gifted adolescent girls.

It is important to provide the estimated 10 per cent of Australian students likely to be academically gifted with the best guidance, says Flinders University researcher Dr Rebecca Napier.

“Understanding early influences on the development of gifted girls’ career-related values and employment dreams can help us keep our girls on strong pathways to achieve equity with men in women’s long-term prospects,” she says.

“We see a range of interrelated influences on career values, goals and choices which reflect their relationships and experiences at home, school and the community plus their own personal traits, strengths and interests.

“High expectations from parents and teachers can also play a pivotal role in explaining any discrepancy in career outcomes.”

Issues discussed by the girls in the study included coping with high internal and external expectations, maintaining physical and psychological well-being in the context of a career, and balancing career pathways with family relationships and other aspects of adult life.

Some participants reported that the career information or support provided by the school was not expansive and conducive to steady development through high school and students’ personal journeys.

To help gifted girls fully realise their career potential, a series of targeted strategies are recommended. 

Personalised career advice is essential, encouraging young women to explore their interests and passions deeply and make informed decisions about their futures. This approach involves broadening the scope of career support from an early age, including practical work placements in influential industries and connecting these young women with mentors who can offer both formal and informal guidance.

It is also important to challenge the traditional career expectations placed on high achievers, by exposing them to a wide variety of fields and roles beyond the conventional paths like medicine. This exposure can help broaden their horizons and inspire them to pursue careers they are genuinely passionate about.

The experts say providing leadership opportunities within schools and communities is another crucial strategy, as it prepares them for future leadership roles in their chosen careers. These experiences can be pivotal in developing the skills and confidence needed for career success.

They also suggest integrating career-related education and support into the school curriculum systematically is also vital. This includes offering insights into entrepreneurship and emerging technologies, alongside traditional career paths, ensuring students receive a well-rounded understanding of the opportunities available to them.

Finally, career support should also address the psychological and social aspects of career development, helping young women navigate the challenges they may face in their journey towards achieving their career goals. Senior author Flinders Emeritus Professor John Halsey says while males tend to value high-profile career positions and salaries, some research indicates that adolescent girls tend to lower their career aspirations as they progress through secondary schooling, particularly if they aim for highly prestigious or non-traditional careers for women.

Narrowing of preferences over time may reflect girls focusing on future work-life balance and perceptions of gender, socio-economic and cultural differences in fields of work.

“However schools and outside influences such as mentors, work-integrated learning and changing perceptions on gender work can help to reduce these negative influences in girls achieving eminence in their chosen career paths,” says Professor Halsey, a former Fulbright exchange scholar in gifted education.

“Encouraging individuals to explore their strengths in light of multitude pathways in complex, changing workplaces is a powerful way to add to the influence of family, teachers and parents.