In Switzerland, recent decades have witnessed increased entrance of female and LGB (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual) students into traditionally male-dominated fields of study (MDFS). The proportion of women embarking in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) in high schools and universities, for example, has increased from 16.5 to 31.6% between 1990 and 2016 (OFS, 2019a). However, despite such positive changes, female and LGB students are still underrepresented in MDFS. Although there is significant variation between disciplines with some being more strongly gender-segregated than others, male heterosexual students still predominate in most of them, including informatics, technology, and construction (OFS, 2019a). MDFS remain also a high-risk environment for female and LGB students who do engage in them. A large body of research has shown that these students are more likely than their male heterosexual counterparts to face a variety of obstacles in the course of their educational pathway in MDFS, possibly leading to school disengagement and dropout (e.g., Casad et al., 2019; Ceci et al., 2009; Hugues, 2017, 2018).

Discrimination is one of the hurdles that female and LGB students may confront in entering into traditionally MDFS. Research has extensively shown that typically male professional fields are hostile environments for women (e.g., Heilman & Wallen, 2010; Inzlicht & Ben-Zeev, 2000; O’Brien et al., 2016; see also Pew Research Center, 2018). More specifically, prejudice and discrimination against women are largely more prominent in most MDFS than in female-dominated fields of study or gender-balanced fields (e.g., Dresden et al., 2018; Robnett, 2016; Settles et al., 2006; Steele et al., 2002). Female students are regularly the target of sexist jokes, harassment (including cyberharassment), sexual assault, and physical abuse, because of their sex. For example, Settles et al. (2006) have shown that women enrolled in natural science fields, compared with women enrolled in social sciences fields, experienced more sexual harassment and discrimination. More specifically, a higher prevalence of discriminatory experiences in the course of women’ school careers, including negative remarks about their abilities, patronizing tones used by instructors, or poor efforts to help in case of need, has been reported in disciplines such as biology (Brown, 2008), engineering (Murray et al., 1999; Seron et al., 2016), or medicine (Kisiel et al., 2020). In turn, encountering discrimination is likely to undermine STEM self-concept (Robnett, 2016) and development of a sense of belongingness with the field (Good et al., 2010; Moss-Racusin et al., 2018a, b), which may constitute strong deterrents in pursuing male-dominated careers (see Ahlqvist et al., 2013).

Similarly, studying in MDFS may reveal to be highly challenging for LGB students. Past studies have shown that they are often victims of discrimination, harassment, and violence, because of their sexual orientation (e.g., Cech & Waidzunas, 2011; Hugues, 2017; Parnell et al., 2012; Yoder & Mattheis, 2016). Similar to female students, this has been found to reduce the development of a sense of belongingness and motivation for pursuing STEM fields (Stout & Wright, 2016). In contrast, traditionally female-dominated fields of study (e.g., nursing or education) are more welcoming and supportive for male heterosexual students, who can easily assimilate with the occupational culture and develop their careers (Cottingham et al., 2015; Simpson, 2004; Williams, 1992).

Despite that important research has documented experiences of discrimination among female and LGB students in MDFS, much remains to be discovered to improve our understanding of the reasons for their discrimination. Ultimately, this can contribute to uncovering the mechanisms underlying the attrition of female and LGB students in fields traditionally dominated by men. Although previous research has mostly focused on the influence of gender/STEM stereotypes to account for women’s discrimination (e.g., Carli et al., 2016), little is known about students’ ideologies related to masculinity and how they affect their attitudes toward women and LGB students. With this goal in mind, we sought to investigate endorsement of a culturally idealized conception of masculinity—hegemonic masculinity (HM)—along with sexism and homophobia, among samples of heterosexual males and females, and LGB students enrolled in MDFS. In parallel, we measured their discrimination experiences and expectations. By comparison, we also considered fields of study that are traditionally dominated by women (e.g., health, social care).

Hegemonic masculinity, sexism, and homophobia

HM portrays a culturally valued form of masculinity that preserves and legitimizes the dominant position of men over women, as well as the superiority of heteronormativity (i.e., a vision of sexuality which states that sexual desire is normal and natural only to the extent it is expressed for a person of the opposite sex) over other forms of sexuality (Kite & Deaux, 1987). Along with attainment of high status and dominance, one of the central aspects of HM is anti-femininity (Bem, 1981; Kimmel, 2012). What is masculine is not feminine. To be a “real man” implies repressing traits or behaviors that are culturally coded as feminine. Since men feel continual pressure to prove their masculinity and demonstrate they are “real men” (Vandello & Bosson, 2013; Vandello et al., 2008), stereotyped feminine traits and behaviors are actively avoided, notably by those men who endorse such a conception of masculinity, in a way to affirm their masculine identity (Bosson & Michniewicz, 2013). This may lead them to exhibit sexist attitudes and behave aggressively against women (e.g., Glick & Fiske, 1996; Kilianski, 2003; Smith et al., 2015), especially when their masculinity is threatened (Bosson et al., 2009; Michniewicz & Vandello, 2015). For example, O’Connor et al. (2017) have shown that, in response to a threat to masculinity, men endorsing HM seek to reaffirm their masculinity by expressing more amusement in sexist jokes.

Moreover, because homosexuals (and especially gay men) are symbolically associated with femininity and are perceived to possess more traditionally feminine traits than heterosexual men (Kite & Deaux, 1987), avoidance of femininity is closely related to the avoidance of homosexuality. Being “a real man” means not to be feminine and also to be straight. As a result, a consistent body of research has shown that greater conformity to hegemonic masculinity can result in increased anti-LGB prejudice, which, similar to sexism, allows heterosexual men to affirm their masculinity (Herek, 1986, 1988; Parrott et al., 2011). Thus, adherence to HM may entail sexism and homophobia, which both may serve as strategies for affirming heterosexual men’s dominant social status and distinctiveness of the masculine identity (Falomir-Pichastor & Hegarty, 2014; Falomir-Pichastor & Mugny, 2009).

Past research has shown that typically male occupational environments are characterized by high adherence to HM and willingness to protect men’s privileged status by excluding women and LGB people (Bosson & Vandello, 2011; Vandello & Bosson, 2013). However, only little research has been done in this respect regarding MDFS. Yet, MDFS nurture a masculine culture that valorises traits and behaviors matching well the definition of HM (e.g., dominance and competition; Cheryan et al., 2009, 2017). There is consistent evidence in research that STEM fields are strongly associated with stereotypically masculine traits (e.g., Cejka & Eagly, 1999; Nosek et al., 2009). Moreover, while a few studies have shown that female students perceive that there is sexism in STEM environments (Fernández et al., 2006; Kuchynka et al., 2018), and that LGB students perceive that there is a heterosexist climate (Cech & Waidzunas, 2011; Hugues, 2017), little research has examined endorsement of both sexism and homophobia from the perspective of heterosexual male students. In the present research, we contended that students in typically MDFS, and notably heterosexual male students, would adhere strongly to HM and, in turn, to sexism and homophobia, which would then account for female and LGB students’ experiences of discrimination. By creating overtly hostile climates against women and LGB students in MDFS, heterosexual men seek to make them feel that they do not fit in with the culture of the field and that they should not ‘intrude’ in typically male strongholds. In doing so, they find a way to protect masculine identity and heterosexual men’s higher status in the workplace.

Goals and hypotheses

This research has three main objectives. First, we sought to evaluate the ideological climate that prevails in MDFS in terms of HM, sexism, and homophobia. We hypothesized that students in these fields, and more particularly heterosexual male students, would report strong adherence to HM, sexism, and homophobia. Second, we examined students’ experience and anticipated discrimination. Owing to the hostile ideological climate that excludes female and LGB students from MDFS, one may expect that they perceive and anticipate higher levels of discrimination (vs. male heterosexual students). Even though the present research did not examine stricto sensu whether heterosexual male students’ sexism and homophobia affect female and LGB students’ perceptions of discrimination, we, however, expected that high levels of HM, sexism, and homophobia should be reported by heterosexual male students in MDFS, along with high levels of perceived discrimination by female and LGB students. Third, in line with the idea that enrollment in MDFS would lead to greater conformity with HM, which in turn would result in higher sexist and homophobic attitudes, we examined whether HM mediates the effects of study fields on both sexism (hostile and benevolent) and homophobia.

To our knowledge, this is the first study that concomitantly investigates the ideological climate prevailing in MDFS fields among heterosexual male students and discrimination perceptions among female and LGB students. By comparison, we also examined students’ beliefs and perceived discrimination in female-dominated fields of study. In contrast, we predicted that HM, sexism, homophobia, and discrimination should not differ by sex or sexual orientation, given that masculine norms are less salient in these fields and that the pressure for heterosexual male students to prove their masculinity is less acute.

The current research

The current research was conducted on a sample of students who had chosen a male-dominated or female-dominated career and who were enrolled in VET in Swiss upper-secondary schools. In Switzerland, VET is an educational system and school environment in which gender segregation is particularly noticeable and persistent. As an illustration, in 2017, less than 8% of secondary school students enrolled in the field of construction were women, while only 14% of students who enrolled in the fields of social care were men (OFS, 2019b). In Switzerland, most of VET students pursue a 3-year apprenticeship combining both work at school and in a company. It is worthwhile mentioning that previous studies have already addressed gender issues in VET in Switzerland and have notably pointed out forms of discrimination against women in STEM career fields (e.g., Lamamra, 2011; Makarova et al., 2016).



We recruited 331 students in vocational upper-secondary schools of Canton Geneva in Switzerland.Footnote 1 Mean age was 20.36, with a majority being aged 15 to 25. There were 114 females (34.4%) and 217 males (65.6%). 287 were heterosexual (86.7%), while 44 declared not to be heterosexual (13.3%). Most of them were 2nd year students (81.9%) and had Swiss nationality (65.3%). They reported that 34.4% (n = 114) of mothers had a baccalaureate-level degree and 20.5% (n = 68) a university-level degree, while 35.9% (n = 119) of fathers had a baccalaureate-level degree and 16.9% (n = 56) a university-level degree.

There was a higher number of male students in male-dominated occupation training disciplines (n = 173; 88.3%) than female students (n = 23; 11.7%). Conversely, female-dominated occupation training disciplines comprised more female students (n = 91; 67.4%) than male students (n = 44; 32.6%). There was a similar proportion of non-heterosexual students in male-dominated disciplines (n = 28; 11.9%) than in female-dominated disciplines (n = 16; 14.3%). In male-dominated disciplines, we also observed a nearly equivalent proportion of male non-heterosexual (n = 16; 8.2%) and female non-heterosexual students (n = 12; 6.1%). In female-dominated disciplines, the share of female non-heterosexual students (n = 12; 8.9%) is higher than that of male non-heterosexual students (n = 4; 3%).


The study was conducted within the students’ classrooms during the course of a normal school day. All the participants were provided with paper-and-pencil questionnaires and were asked to complete them individually. The questionnaire contained measures of HM, sexism, homophobia, and perceived discrimination. Finally, participants had to report demographic information, including sex and sexual orientation. They were told that confidentiality of their responses was fully guaranteed and their consent to participate was obtained prior to beginning the study. Participants’ responses were all anonymized and no personal identifiers accompanied the data so that participants’ identities could not be known at any stages of the research. Each completion session lasted approximately 20 to 30 min and was supervised by a research assistant whose role was to ensure instructions were correctly understood and to answer any questions if needed. Ethical approval for the present research, based on the voluntary participation of students, was obtained first from an independent committee of the education research service of Geneva Canton and then was validated by the education department of Geneva Canton. A committee of experts on youth-related issues was also consulted for further guidance.

Independent variables

Sex/sexual orientation

We asked students to report their sex (male or female), such as indicated on their identity card. We measured sexual orientation by asking whether students were exclusively attracted by either women or men, to a larger extent by women or men, or equally by women and men. By matching answers with their sex, we coded whether they were either heterosexuals or non-heterosexuals, with heterosexuals considered as those who are exclusively attracted by the opposite sex.

Study fields

In Switzerland, VET schools are organized by occupational disciplines (e.g., business, health). To compare MDFS with female-dominated fields of study, we recruited students from schools that differed by the sex type of the disciplines, based on the gender distribution at the time the study was conducted. An occupational discipline was labeled as male-dominated or female-dominated when the proportion of men or women enrolled in that discipline was above 70%.Footnote 2 For MDFS, we approached students who specialized in disciplines related to construction (e.g., carpenter) and technical occupations (e.g., electrician). For female-dominated fields of study, we surveyed students who specialized in disciplines related to health and social care occupations (e.g., social and educational assistant). In Canton Geneva in 2018, 95.2% of students enrolled in construction-related disciplines were men, while 74.3% of students in health and social care-related disciplines were women (OFPC, 2019).

Dependent variables

Hegemonic masculinity

To assess HM, we adapted the Conformity to Masculine Norms Inventory (CMNI-22), which is a short form of the original 94-item CMNI (Mahalik et al., 2003). This scale was designed to tap into personal adherence to the dominant masculine ideology. The adaption of the CMNI-22 to a population of students whose age ranges from 15 to 25 led us to remove several items that we thought were rather inappropriate (e.g., “I would feel good if I had many sexual partners”). In total, 18 items were retained, such as “My work is an important part of my life,” “I like to talk about my feelings” (reverse-coded; α = 0.76).Footnote 3 Responses were given on a 6-point scale going from 1 (= Do not agree) to 6 (= Totally agree).


To assess sexist attitudes, we used the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory (Glick & Fiske, 1996), which distinguishes hostile sexism (i.e., openly antagonistic and negative attitudes against women) from benevolent sexism (i.e., seemingly positive but inequalitarian attitudes toward women). We used the French-validated scale of Dardenne et al. (2006), which comprises 10 items and two subscales of hostile and benevolent sexism (αHS = 0.85; αBS = 0.76).Footnote 4 Each item was answered on 6-point rating scales ranging from 1 (= Do not agree) to 6 (= Totally agree). Examples of hostile sexism items are as follows: “Women exaggerate problems they have at work,” “When women lose to men in a fair competition, they typically complain about being discriminated against.” Examples of benevolent sexism items are as follows: “In a disaster, women ought to be rescued before men,” “No matter how accomplished be is, a man is not truly complete as a person unless he has the love of a woman.”


We measured homophobia with 10 items on 6-point rating scales ranging from 1 (= Do not agree) to 6 (= Totally agree). This was adapted from the Attitude Toward Homosexuality Scale (Anderson et al., 2018). Examples of items are as follows: “I would be embarrassed if a gay person made sexual advances toward me,” “I consider marriage between homosexuals is acceptable” (reverse-coded).Footnote 5 The Cronbach alpha was 0.86.

Perceived discrimination

Adapted from Schmitt et al. (2002), we measured experienced discrimination with two items: “Have you personally been a victim of discrimination in the context of your apprenticeship because of your sex?”, “Have you personally been a victim of discrimination in the context of your schooling because of your sex?” (r = 0.66, p < 0.001). Regarding sexual orientation-based discrimination, we used identical items as previously mentioned but changed “because of your sex” for “because of your sexual orientation” (r = 0.85, p < 0.001). Answers were given on scales ranging from 1 (= never) to 6 (= regularly). Anticipated discrimination was assessed with one single item (one for gender discrimination and one for sexual orientation discrimination): “Do you think you might be a victim of discrimination in your future occupational life because of your sex/sexual orientation?”. Responses were given on a 6-point scale going from 1 (= No, not likely at all) to 6 (= Yes, very likely).


Due to small sample sizes in some subgroups (e.g., there were only 4 LGB male students in female-dominated disciplines), it was statistically unreliable to cross sex and sexual orientation by the fields of study. Thus, for both male-dominated and female-dominated fields of study, we compared heterosexual male students with the other students by grouping together heterosexual women, LGB men, and women.Footnote 6

A MANOVA with study field and student groups (groups were coded as follows: male heterosexual =  + 3, female heterosexual = − 1, male non-heterosexual = − 1, female non-heterosexual = − 1) as independent variables was performed on HM, hostile and benevolent sexism, homophobia, and experienced/anticipated sex-based and sexual orientation-based discrimination.Footnote 7 Table 1 shows means and SDs by condition, while Table 2 displays the statistical values of the main effects and interactions.

Table 1 Means (and SDs) of hegemonic masculinity, sexism, homophobia, and perceived discrimination as a function of fields of study and student groups
Table 2 Main effects of student group and fields of study and their interactions

Main analyses

This analysis showed significant main effects of student groups on HM, hostile sexism, benevolent sexism, homophobia, anticipated sex-based discrimination, and anticipated sexual orientation-based discrimination. Main effects of student groups are marginally significant on experienced sex-based discrimination and experienced sexual orientation-based discrimination. Compared with female/LGB students, male heterosexual students reported more HM (M = 3.27, SD 0.43 vs. M = 2.82, SD 1.05), hostile sexism (M = 3.88, SD 1.18 vs. M = 2.90, SD 1.21), benevolent sexism (M = 3.46, SD 1.00 vs. M = 2.91, SD 1.06), and homophobia (M = 3.37, SD 1.05 vs. M = 2.47, SD 1.05).

Compared with male heterosexual students, female/LGB students reported more experienced sex-based discrimination (M = 1.47, SD 0.65 vs. M = 1.31, SD 0.51), anticipated sex-based discrimination (M = 2.30, SD 1.30 vs. M = 1.51, SD 0.86), experienced sexual orientation-based discrimination (M = 1.15, SD 0.58 vs. M = 1.08, SD 0.46), and anticipated sexual orientation-based discrimination (M = 1.89, SD 1.12 vs. M = 1.54, SD 0.93).

We also found significant main effects of study field on HM, hostile sexism, benevolent sexism, homophobia, and anticipated sex-based discrimination. Compared with their counterparts from female-dominated fields of study, students from MDFS reported more adherence to HM (M = 3.28, SD 0.45 vs. M = 2.81, SD 0.44), hostile sexism (M = 3.86, SD 1.27 vs. M = 3.02, SD 1.24), benevolent sexism (M = 3.60, SD 0.99 vs. M = 2.80, SD 1.05), homophobia (M = 3.39, SD 1.13 vs. M = 2.66, SD 1.01), and less anticipated sex-based discrimination (M = 1.77, SD 1.25 vs. M = 1.98, SD 1.07).

Moreover, we found significant interactions between study field and student groups on experienced sex-based discrimination (Figure 1), anticipated sex-based discrimination (Figure 2), and experienced sexual orientation-based discrimination (Figure 3). A marginally significant interaction was also found on anticipated sexual orientation-based discrimination (Figure 4). No interaction effects were found on HM, sexism, and homophobia.

Figure 1
figure 1

Experienced sex-based discrimination as a function of fields of study and student groups

Figure 2
figure 2

Anticipated sex-based discrimination as a function of fields of study and student groups

Figure 3
figure 3

Experienced sexual orientation-based discrimination as a function of fields of study and student groups

Figure 4
figure 4

Anticipated sexual orientation-based sex-based discrimination as a function of fields of study and student groups

Decompositions of these interactions showed that, in MDFS, female/LGB students experienced more sex-based discrimination than heterosexual male students, F(1, 323) = 19.93, p < 0.001, \({\eta }_{p}^{2}\) = 0.06, anticipated more sex-based discrimination than heterosexual male students, F(1, 323) = 59.60, p < 0.001, \({\eta }_{p}^{2}\) = 0.16, experienced more sexual orientation-based discrimination than heterosexual male students F(1, 323) = 11.24, p = 0.001, \({\eta }_{p}^{2}\) = 0.03, and anticipated more sexual orientation-based discrimination than heterosexual male students, F(1, 323) = 11.59, p = 0.001, \({\eta }_{p}^{2}\) = 0.04. In female-dominated fields of study, we did not find any differences between student groups on experienced sex-based discrimination, F(1, 323) = 2.33, p = 0.128, \({\eta }_{p}^{2}\) = 0.007, anticipated sex-based discrimination, F(1, 323) = 0.42, p = 0.520, \({\eta }_{p}^{2}\) = 0.001, experienced sexual orientation-based discrimination, F(1, 323) = 0.352, p = 0.554, \({\eta }_{p}^{2}\) = 0.001, and anticipated sexual orientation-based discrimination, F(1, 323) = 0.416, p = 0.520, \({\eta }_{p}^{2}\) = 0.001.

Mediation analyses

Given that we predicted that enrollment in MDFS would lead to greater conformity with HM, which in turn would result in higher sexist and homophobic attitudes, we tested whether HM mediates the effects of study fields on both sexism (hostile and benevolent) and homophobia. We run mediation analyses by using the PROCESS macro with 5,000 bootstrap re-samples (Model 4). As hypothesized, we found that HM mediated the relationship between fields of study and hostile sexism, B = 0.39, SE 0.07, 95% CI [0.267, 0.521], and homophobia, B = 0.36, SE 0.08, 95% CI [0.200, 0.539]; see Figure 5). The effect of benevolent sexism was not mediated by HM, B = 0.02, SE 0.06, 95% CI = [− 0.106, 0.142].

Figure 5
figure 5

Mediations. *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01, ***p < 0.001


The present research examined the endorsement of HM, sexism, and homophobia, and perceived discrimination among heterosexual male and female, and LGB students enrolled in typically male-dominated study fields (vs. female-dominated) in VET upper-secondary schools. Our results showed that heterosexual male students adhered more to HM, sexism, and homophobia than female and LGB students. This is in line with extensive past literature (e.g., Glick & Fiske, 1996; Herek, 1986). Moreover, we found that students from MDFS reported higher adherence to HM, sexism, and homophobia than those from female-dominated fields of study. This is also consistent with previous studies showing that male-dominated occupational environments tend to promote a masculine culture and typical masculine traits (e.g., Cheryan et al., 2017), and cultivate sexist and heterosexist climates (Cech & Waidzunas, 2011; Fernández et al., 2006; Hugues, 2017; Kuchynka et al., 2018). Interestingly, MDFS students were found with higher HM, sexism, and homophobia, regardless of their sex and sexual orientation. This suggests that MDFS are environments sharing a consensus about masculine ideologies and attitudes toward women and LGB people. Not only heterosexual men hold and accept them, but also female and LGB students who equally seek to defend a widespread conception of masculinity and, more broadly, gender differences (see Connell, 1995). Through the endorsement of HM, sexism, and homophobia in MDFS, it may well be that female and LGB students internalize their stigmatization and justify heterosexual men’s dominance in male-dominated occupational domains (see Glick et al., 2000; Jost & Kay, 2005; Pacilli et al., 2011). Moreover, we found that adherence to HM mediated the relationships between fields of study and both hostile sexism and homophobia. This indicates that explicitly sexist and homophobic climates in MDFS partly result from conformity to a broader cultural ideology that defines masculinity through rejection of femininity and homosexuality in a way to legitimize masculine domination and maintain gender differentiation.

As predicted, we found that female and LGB students who were enrolled in MDFS experienced and anticipated more discrimination than heterosexual male students. This is in line with a large body of research emphasizing high levels of discrimination among women (e.g., Dresden et al., 2018; Settles et al., 2006) and LGB students in STEM fields (e.g., Cech & Waidzunas, 2011; Hugues, 2017). Despite that we did not examine directly whether heterosexual male students’ sexism and homophobia predict female and LGB students’ perceived discrimination, we nevertheless add to the literature by showing that discrimination occurred along with an overall sexist and homophobic climate prevailing in MDFS. Paradoxically, although female and LGB students may adhere to and contribute to the maintenance of this climate as much as heterosexual men do, they are more likely to suffer from its consequences and to be rejected. In female-dominated fields of study, in contrast, perceived discrimination did not differ between heterosexual male students and the other students. Because traditional male identity is less salient in these fields and there is a reduced need to defend masculinity, sexist, and homophobic attitudes are then less prominent, which, in turn, reduces discrimination experiences among female and LGB students.

Taken as a whole, these results suggest that not only stereotypes about MDFS may come into play in women and LGB students’ experiences of discrimination, but also sexist and homophobic attitudes that most students share within MFDS and that create a hostile climate for the minority student groups. In addition, our research has demonstrated that masculine ideologies are important factors to understand why such attitudes and climate develop in MFDS. In traditional masculine environments, both women and men seek to defend an idealized definition of masculine identity that rejects women and LGB people in order to maintain gender differentiation and status quo.

By shedding light on the psychological factors that contribute to slowing down the pursuit of female and LGB students in MFDS, the present work has also important practical implications on aspects of career development and may reveal particularly useful for career counsellors. Even though the current investigation did not address students’ career trajectories, we reasonably assume that a discriminatory climate can lead female and LGB students to increased school disengagement and dropout (e.g., Casad et al., 2019; Ceci et al., 2009; Hugues, 2017, 2018). In this perspective, students’ normal career advancements may be strongly jeopardized by discrimination experiences encountered at school, and also, more generally, by the beliefs that underlie discrimination. Therefore, in the prospect of promoting the integration and retention of female and LGB students in MFDS, particular attention should be paid to gender-based and sexual orientation-based discrimination, and significant efforts should focus on tackling students’ endorsement of homophobic and sexist ideologies.

More specifically, the current findings suggest opting for the development of interventions aimed at deconstructing traditional conceptions of masculinity and raising students’ awareness of how such conceptions end up affecting the health and educational background of the minority student groups. We recommend implementing educational programs that can be able to modify hostile and stereotypical beliefs against women and LGB people as a means to create a favorable climate for them and, ultimately, help them develop a greater sense of school belongingness and pursue successful careers in MDFS. For example, Moss-Racusin et al. (2018a, b) demonstrated that the use of short videos that depict empirical findings from gender-related scientific research can be effective in improving awareness of gender bias, fostering better attitudes toward women in STEM, and supporting gender parity in STEM. Similarly, educational resources or interventions designed to raise teachers’ or any instructors’ awareness about discrimination and give them instructions about how to act to prevent the spread of sexism and homophobia should be provided. This would allow them to be adequately equipped to counteract discrimination, hinder the development of a sexist or homophobic climate in the classroom, and reduce the risks of disengagement and dropout among the minority student groups.

Limitations and future research directions

Our research must be considered in light of some limitations. A first limitation is that our participants were upper-secondary students, enrolled in VET-schools in Switzerland (where men and socioeconomically disadvantaged students are overrepresented, regardless of the sex-type of the fields). Therefore, it may be imprudent to generalize our results to the general population of students. Future research would need thus to be conducted on other populations and in other school settings. A second limitation pertains to our sample sizes. Due to low initial samples sizes, we decided to group together heterosexual women, LGB men and women. However, this has prevented us from considering an intersectional approach including sex, sexual orientation, and field of study. Yet, one may assume that perceived discrimination in MDFS may differ between gay men and lesbian women for example. As lesbian women are more associated with masculine traits than gay men (Kite & Deaux, 1987), they may not transgress norms in accessing a MDFS to the same extent as gay men, and may therefore be better accepted. It is important to note that this limitation could hardly be addressed. These low sample sizes are a reflection of reality in vocational schools in Switzerland and the results of gender inequalities in students’ career choices. Moreover, achieving larger sample sizes with these populations would probably require recruiting students outside VET, which did not match our prior research objectives. A third limitation is that our research was not able to probe whether endorsement of HM, sexism, and homophobia results from a self-selection or socialization effect. Do students with greater conformity to HM self-select into MDFS, or does entering a MDFS incite students to conform to HM and develop sexist and homophobic attitudes? Further research with longitudinal designs is needed to address this issue and differentiate between both effects. Finally, it should be noted that we exclusively used a quantitative methodology and self-reported measures, which can increase the risk that participants respond in a way “to look good”, that is, in line with egalitarian gender norms. Using alternative methods, such as qualitative methods or implicit measures, should be considered for future research to enrich the understanding of issues of concern and bypass the problems of social desirability.


Despite positive evolutions, the choice of MDFS remains marginal for female and LGB students. It has therefore become a necessity for education policies to invest further efforts into promoting diversity. Indeed, MDFS, as well as all fields in general, can receive numerous benefits to be more inclusive of students from minority groups. Fostering diversity in the classroom is important for minority students to create safe learning environments (Juvonen et al., 2018) and, as a result, improve a sense of school belonging, performance, and graduation. By bringing divergent opinions and perspectives, the presence of diversity can also be beneficial to students from majority groups for developing critical thinking and cognitive skills (Pascarella et al., 2014). For example, Nielsen et al. (2017) have shown that the integration of women in science has been profitable for developing scientific knowledge and encouraging innovation and creativity within work teams. More broadly, diversity and inclusivity allow tackling inequalities in the job market by offering opportunities for minority groups to access highly valued positions and to reduce prejudice and discrimination practices.

Another concern is to encourage the retention of minority populations in MDFS and prevent them from dropping out. As our results showed, discrimination that women and LGB students experience in these fields is particularly strong. This may then be decisive in students’ motivation for leaving school. Therefore, it is central to question students’ discriminatory experiences in order to limit the risks of dropout. As we have demonstrated here, taking into account the role of the ideological climate is fundamental to improving our understanding of the causes of discrimination and dropout motivations. Dropping out from MDFS does not only reflect an individual choice or a personal disinterest in the career but may also reflect the adverse consequences of social norms and hegemonic conceptions about gender and masculinity.