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Words In Review: 'Follow your passions!'

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Dear U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona:

As you prepare your commencement address for Husky Stadium this Saturday, consider not telling grads, “Follow your passions.”

Either because it’s a cliché or because it might perpetuate a bias.

University of Washington psychology professor Sapna Cheryan and her colleagues gave Americans different types of advice.

“When we told them to imagine they were ‘following their passions,’ women tended to list passions that are in health care or the humanities or the social sciences; whereas men tended to list passions in business or in tech or the ‘hard sciences,’” Cheryan said. “But when you give them different kinds of advice — for example, ‘find a career that's going to give you a good income and job security,’ women's and men's career options look a lot more similar.”

Cheryan is not advising graduates to pursue money at the expense of happiness.

“I don't think we should tell people, ‘Don’t do what you're interested in,’” she said. “The problem is, we don't get to try everything. We’re limited to the classes we end up taking or extracurriculars we end up doing. If we had a systematic way for everybody to try everything in a way that’s true to the field — you didn't have certain biases involved, or mistreatment from other people, if you saw people who look like you doing it — then I would feel more comfortable telling students to follow their passions. Most high school students don't even take a single class in computer science or engineering. How are they supposed to know if it's their passion if they're not even getting one class to try it? Students end up looking at what computer scientists look like in their minds based on the media. Girls, especially, end up not putting it on the table as an option.”

Cheryan does not believe we choose careers based on innate gendered preferences.

“In some countries, like Malaysia and Kuwait, there is no gender disparity in degrees earned in computer science and engineering. And in our own country, the original programmers were women and then it got taken over by men. What that tells me is that if these passions were fixed and innate, we wouldn't see these patterns throughout time and in other cultures.”

So, what's a better message for Cardona to deliver to UW grads?

“'Try different things before you decide'?” Cheryan offered. “Maybe if I had an ad agency, I could write a catchier phrase.”

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