Gender and Careers

Gender and CareersGender influences a wide range of career-related attitudes, behaviors, and outcomes. This includes career choice, career experiences, occupational health, work attitudes, other people’s perceptions, and career outcomes. Therefore, to understand individuals’ careers, it is important to consider gender.

Gender and Career Choice

Men and women differ considerably in their career choices, and many factors contribute to these differences. Socialization experiences, which refer to the lifelong social learning experiences that people have when interacting with others, play a major role here. Parents, siblings, teachers, school guidance counselors, other adult role models, peers, the media, and many other sources greatly influence how individuals view themselves based on their gender.

From an early age, parents tend to treat boys and girls differently and encourage children to engage in gender-appropriate play (e.g., boys play with trucks; girls play with dolls) and extracurricular activities (e.g., football for boys, dance for girls). Teachers and other adult role models such as guidance counselors, extended family members, and family friends also act differently toward boys and girls and hold different expectations for children based on their gender. Boys are expected to be more rambunctious and physically active, whereas girls are expected to be more sensitive and sociable. Thus, people in children’s social environments reinforce and send consistent messages as to what is expected of them according to their gender.

Materials used in primary educational settings also contribute to the socialization experience. For instance, textbooks often depict men and women in stereotypical occupations (e.g., men as doctors and women as nurses) and social roles (e.g., working fathers and stay-at-home mothers). Furthermore, children’s stories are more likely to use men than women as story characters. The media plays a role in its portrayal of men and women in sex-typed occupational and societal roles, television shows, movies, and advertisements. Peers also exert considerable influence and contribute to the socialization process, particularly during adolescence. Because adolescents want to fit in with their peers, the decision to pursue activities that are not consistent with sex-role expectations is a difficult one. This might include choosing to participate in activities that are gender typed (e.g., a boy choosing to pursue art, a girl choosing to join the wrestling team) or expressing vocational interests that are viewed as less appropriate for one’s gender (e.g., a boy interested in nursing, a girl interested in auto repair).

Although such socialization experience influences both genders, it is presumed to have greater negative effects on girls because it tends to limit and restrict their options and achievements more so than boys’. For example, healthy adult men are expected to work, but the decision to enter the labor force is presented as a choice for girls. In this way, gender influences the initial decision of whether or not to pursue paid work outside the home. Likewise, socialization experiences strongly influence vocational interests and career choices. Both adolescent boys and adult men report greater interest in scientific, technical, and mechanical pursuits. Adolescent girls and adult women indicate greater interest in social and artistic endeavors. Thus, it is not surprising that men are generally encouraged to pursue careers in engineering, business, and science, whereas women are encouraged to pursue careers in social and helping occupations. It is also noteworthy that male-typed careers tend to offer higher status and pay than female-typed careers, contributing to the observed gender inequities in pay.

The availability of same-sex role models also influences vocational interests and subsequent career choice. Due to the differential representation of men and women in various occupations, girls are less likely to have female role models in male-dominated occupations, such as engineering, police and detective work, and construction trades. Girls are more likely to have role models in traditionally female occupations, such as education, nursing, and social work. The opposite is true for boys. Parental role modeling also influences occupational preference and career choice, since children tend to identify most with their same-sex parents and working adults are also segregated occupationally to some extent. Maternal employment also relates to career choice. In particular, working mothers can facilitate their daughters’ career aspirations by providing female models of career pursuits and by demonstrating how women can successfully integrate work and family roles.

Another reason for male-female differences in career choice relates to career-related self-efficacy perceptions, or beliefs in one’s ability to be successful in a wide range of career pursuits. Women have less access to the types of experience necessary for developing strong beliefs in their abilities to master career-related tasks, particularly tasks in male-dominated occupations and majors (e.g., math, science). Individuals develop career-related self-efficacy through vicarious experience (role models), verbal persuasion (encouragement from others), and actual experience (having opportunities to master tasks). Women tend to have less opportunity for these experiences and therefore tend to report lower career-related self-efficacy than men. These lower self-expectations can lead to further occupational sex segregation, as individuals are less likely to pursue certain jobs and/or careers if they believe that they will not be successful. Interestingly, there are few consistent differences in actual ability between men and women, and when differences are found, they tend to be small in magnitude. Moreover, there is greater within-gender than between-gender variability in abilities such as overall intelligence, verbal ability, mathematical ability, and visual-spatial ability.

Gender and Career Experiences

Gender also influences individuals’ career experiences. Women face unique barriers in the workplace, which, in turn, shapes their work and organizational experiences. One barrier consists of practices that intentionally or unintentionally exclude women from jobs and developmental experiences based on gender. This includes overt sex discrimination in hiring, being overlooked for high-visibility or high-stakes job assignments, and not being targeted for domestic or international relocation opportunities. Gender differences are also found in developmental assignments after individuals are hired by organizations. Women are more likely to be hired into staff positions and have less access to line experience, which is often a steppingstone to higher-level management positions. Women tend to report that their initial job assignments are less challenging than men’s assignments. In addition, unlike jobs that tend to be held by women, jobs held by men tend to exist in job ladders that lead to positions of greater power and influence. Gender also influences access to information within organizations. Men tend to be more politically connected and have access to more powerful organizational members than do women. This is important since managers develop impressions about an individual’s career potential though both formal and informal interactions. There is also some evidence that men receive more favorable performance feedback than do women and that the quality of such feedback provided varies by gender (e.g., more specific and developmental feedback tends to be provided to men). All of these factors can influence the availability and quality of career opportunities in an organization.

Another way in which men’s and women’s career experiences differ is that women are more likely to experience career interruptions, and gaps in employment can slow down their career progress. Men and women also tend to interrupt their careers for different reasons, with women being more likely to temporarily leave the workforce for family reasons and men being more likely to do so for job-related reasons (e.g., inability to find suitable employment). Interestingly, career interruptions for family-related reasons have less negative impact on one’s career progress than interruptions that occur for other reasons, such as gaps in employment due to temporary unemployment. The explanation for this is that women are expected to leave the workforce temporarily after childbirth, and by doing so, they are actually conforming to gender-based societal norms. Compared with men, women are also more likely to go from school to a full-time family role, and then return to school or enter the workforce for the first time after starting a family. Therefore, some women get a later start in their careers than do men. There are also gender differences in full-time versus part-time work, with married women being more likely than men to opt for the flexibility afforded by part-time work. Unfortunately, part-time work provides individuals with less visibility and exposure in organizations, which has been offered as one reason that women’s careers often do not progress as quickly as men’s careers.

A more permanent career interruption is job loss, and gender differences exist here as well. Women are less likely to occupy jobs that are revenue generating, and this makes them somewhat more susceptible to job loss than are men. However, there are few gender differences in individuals’ emotional reactions to job loss (e.g., depression, reduced self-esteem), even though women tend to fare less well than men upon reemployment in terms of both extrinsic (e.g., pay) and intrinsic (e.g., quality of work life, job satisfaction) job characteristics. Women do respond to job loss with different behaviors. They are less likely to use problem-focused coping strategies (e.g., job search, relocation) and more likely to use symptom-focused coping strategies (e.g., talking to friends, getting involved in group activities). The opposite holds for men.

Gender and Occupational Health

Individuals’ career choices and experiences also influence a wide range of occupational health outcomes, and some gender differences are notable here. There is some evidence that professional women report greater overall stress than men and that they have a harder time unwinding from work. There are also consistent gender differences with respect to one specific type of organizational stressor: sexual harassment. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), sexual harassment consists of unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Women are the typical targets of sexual harassment, and those experiencing harassment are more likely to report less favorable work attitudes, greater disengagement from work, lower psychological well-being, and greater physical health symptoms.

Another specific stressor with career implications is work-family conflict. Work-family conflict is a specific form of interrole conflict in which the demands of work and family are mutually incompatible in some way. It affects individuals’ careers because greater work-family conflict is associated with lower job satisfaction, less career satisfaction, stronger intentions to leave one’s organization, and poorer psychological and physical health. Although men and women both experience work-family conflict, there is some evidence that women report higher levels of work-family conflict than do men, presumably due to women’s greater responsibilities for their families. The factors that contribute to work-family conflict differ somewhat among the genders. For instance, there is some evidence that work involvement has a stronger negative effect on work-family conflict for women and that family involvement has a stronger negative effect on work-family conflict for men. Regarding gender differences in outcomes of work-family conflict, there is some evidence that work-family conflict has a more negative effect on overall quality of work life for women and that work-family conflict has a more negative effect on overall quality of family life for men.

Although work-family conflict assumes that individuals have difficulty juggling multiple roles, multiple role membership has potential benefits as well. Membership in life roles can serve to buffer stress, be a source of satisfaction, increase opportunities to experience success, and provide opportunities for enriching interpersonal relationships. This is particularly likely if the roles that one occupies are satisfying (i.e., high role quality). While both men and women can benefit from multiple roles, women tend to occupy more life roles than do men. Furthermore, when imagining how men and women might enhance their role membership, people tend to think about men expanding their participation in the family role and women expanding their participation in the work role.

Gender and Work Attitudes

Gender differences in work attitudes are also important, since how satisfied, involved, committed, and motivated at work one is can influence a wide range of work behaviors, which, in turn, can impact career outcomes. For example, individuals who are more satisfied with their jobs and report greater attachment or loyalty to their organizations (i.e., have higher organizational commitment) are less likely to quit their jobs or be absent from work. Likewise, job involvement (the extent to which one identifies with his or her job) and work motivation are associated with career-related behaviors such as working longer hours and demonstrating stronger commitment to one’s career, both of which can lead to greater career success. Interestingly, few differences have been found between men and women in job satisfaction and job involvement, although men may report higher organizational commitment than do women.

Gender differences in motivation have a long and controversial history. Initial conceptualization of motivation focused on achievement motivation, which is the desire to master tasks, excel and surpass others, and accomplish things as well as possible. Early studies of achievement motivation indicated that achievement motivation in women was distinct from that in men and, more important, that women’s responses did not conform to the way scholars thought about achievement motivation. Thus, women were largely excluded from early research on achievement motivation, and assumptions were made that women do not desire achievement the same way men do. Later research dispelled this idea by finding that women actually have a stronger desire than men to work hard and do a good job, even when they are not likely to be recognized for their efforts, whereas men prefer challenging, competitive tasks that allow for individual recognition of task accomplishment. Although women are just as motivated as men to work hard (and perhaps more so), there are differences in what men and women find rewarding at work. Men value advancement, pay, and status and tend to judge their career success using these standards. In contrast, women have a broader conceptualization of career success by also considering factors such as personal growth, job accomplishments, challenge, and interpersonal relationships. Women are also more likely to define life success in terms of both work and family achievements, whereas men tend to focus more on the work domain.

Another work attitude of interest to understanding individual careers is turnover intentions. This work attitude reflects the extent to which one is thinking about quitting one’s job and is a strong predictor of the actual decision to quit. There is mixed evidence as to whether gender differences exist in turnover intentions, although some research finds that women are more likely than men to leave their organizations. Many of these studies have been conducted on managerial and professional women, and explanations for differential turnover rates often rest on women’s disillusionment with corporate life, perceived barriers to career advancement, and unwillingness to engage in the political behavior often required to advance within the organization. Contrary to popular belief, women do not frequently report leaving their employers for family-related reasons. Furthermore, when one distinguishes between voluntary turnover (i.e., leaving by choice) and involuntary turnover (i.e., being let go), it appears that women tend to report slightly lower voluntary-turnover rates than do men.

Gender and Perceptions

As mentioned previously, men and women have different socialization experiences. Based on gender, they are treated differently and held to different standards by teachers, guidance counselors, parents, and others in their social environments. This, in turn, influences both career decisions and career opportuni­ties. Of particular relevance here is the finding that people often view men and women in stereotypical ways. Generally speaking, women are believed to be more nurturing and sensitive, whereas men are viewed as more assertive and directive. These perceptions can influence perceptions of person-job “fit” in the job selection and promotion process (e.g., women may be viewed as less appropriate choices for male-typed jobs, and vice versa). Moreover, while general attitudes toward women have become more favorable over the years, sexist attitudes persist. Some individu­als hold stereotyped attitudes about women’s “place” in society in general or, more specifically, hold nega­tive attitudes toward women in management posi­tions. As an example, women are typically viewed as being less similar than men to the prototype of a successful manager. Women are also viewed as less appropriate candidates for jobs requiring heavy travel or relocation. These perceptions can influence women’s career opportunities for being selected for transfers and relocation assignments, placement in high-risk internal job assignments, and receiving promotions. Others’ perceptions can also undermine the self-confidence of women in pursuing nontraditional jobs and careers.

Women report greater barriers in how they are viewed and treated by others in organizations. Women are more likely to report being excluded from infor­mal organizational networks, which can restrict career opportunities. They are more likely to feel as though they do not “fit in” with the organization culture, which may lead some women to self-select out of high-level jobs or leave their organizations and pursue work elsewhere. Greater perceived barriers to developing mentoring relationships are also reported by women, as well as less contact and support from managers and peers. Finally, women in nontraditional jobs and occu­pations often experience tokenism at work, and the salience of their gender can encourage sex-based attri­butions for their behavior and result in higher perfor­mance expectations from managers. In addition, women in various family arrangements may face unique barriers resulting from the perceptions of others. For example, managers may believe that women in dual-earner marriages (i.e., where both partners work outside the home) are more likely to subordinate their own careers to their husbands’ careers. This may lead managers not to consider women when making high-level promotion or relocation decisions. Likewise, working mothers may be viewed as less committed to their careers by virtue of their parental status.

Gender and Career Outcomes

A substantial body of literature exists on the role of gender in understanding career outcomes such as pay, promotions, and career satisfaction. As a group, women earn less money than men. This gender gap in earning persists even after considering a wide range of factors that might explain the disparity, such as sex segregation by industry (i.e., men tend to work in higher-paying industries than women); variation in educational experiences; differences in the type and quality of job experiences; unequal family power between the genders (i.e., women tend to contribute less to the family’s income than men, which typically means less decision-making influence within the family); differences in family structure (e.g., married women are more likely to be married to a working spouse than vice versa); and self-selection (e.g., women may be more likely to withdraw from relocation offers or promotions). This discrepancy in earnings is often attributed to the presence of a “glass ceiling” for women, which prevents them from attaining high-level, high-paying positions within organizations. Gender differences in earnings exist, but there is con­flicting evidence as to whether or not there are gender differences in promotion rates. Some research suggests that women managers are promoted more swiftly than men, whereas other studies find no difference or faster promotion rates for men.

Notwithstanding these discrepant findings, men and women appear to take different paths to achieving career success. Men tend to progress within their careers in a traditional, hierarchical manner, whereby they have few gaps in employment and move into positions of increasing authority and status. In contrast, women are more likely to follow a sequential career path, whereby they experience a series of promotions, followed by career interruptions or a reduction in workforce participation, followed by a resumption of their careers. Furthermore, although there are probably more similarities than differences in terms of what predicts career success for men and women, some distinctions exist. Engaging in more training and development, working longer hours, minimizing employment gaps, remaining employed at the same organization, having greater home and family commitments, and displaying independence are more highly related to career success for men than for women. In contrast, obtaining a higher level of education, displaying more masculine personality characteristics, and having fewer home and family commitments appear more important to career success for women.

Self-reported satisfaction with one’s career represents another career outcome of interest. Interestingly, despite differences in objective indicators of career success, such as pay and job stature, men and women do not differ significantly in their self-perceptions of career success. Some argue that this is because women hold lower expectations for success than do men or that women compare themselves to other women when judging career success, rather than making comparisons to their male counterparts.

Gender, Family Structure, and Careers

Family structure influences individuals’ careers, and gender differences are observed here. Family structure characteristics include parental status, marital status (married, single); marital type (single-earner marriage, dual-earner marriage); and combinations of these characteristics. Parents report greater work-family conflict than do non-parents, and parenting can take time and energy away from some work pursuits. Being married also entails additional role responsibil­ities and makes career decision making more compli­cated, since one person’s career decision influences his or her partner as well. For example, one person’s decision to accept a promotion requiring relocation may mean uprooting a stay-at-home spouse from his or her community or lead to job loss for a working spouse. Finally, individuals in dual-earner marriages report higher stress than those in single-earner marriages, as well as unique stressors such as deciding whose career is most important and juggling both household and work-related responsibilities.

The influence of parental status, marital status, and marital type on individuals’ careers varies somewhat between men and women. For women, the timing of parenthood influences the career paths chosen, as well as the extent to which career interruptions are experienced. Parenthood has less effect on men’s career experiences. Furthermore, although men are much more involved in parenthood today than ever before, women are still primarily responsible for dependent care. This can put women at a disadvantage when competing with men for higher-level jobs, since they may have less time to invest in work or believe that they will not be able to successfully balance work and family obligations. Furthermore, significant dependent-care responsibilities can make it difficult for some women to maintain their career momentum. In fact, career-oriented women tend to have fewer children and are less likely to want children. More­over, women in nontraditional occupations are less likely to have children than women in traditionally female occupations. No such differences are found among men.

Marital status and marital type have different effects on men’s and women’s careers. Marriage is associated with greater career success for men, whereas a compa­rable “marriage bonus” does not exist for women. In fact, for women, remaining single is associated with greater educational attainment and greater pursuit of nontraditional occupations. Being single is not associ­ated with educational attainment or occupational choice for men. The typical family arrangement among male and female executives is also striking; executive men are more likely to be married to a stay-at-home spouses and have children, whereas executive women are more likely to be single and without children. In terms of marital type, women in dual-earner marriages are much more likely to be “trailing spouses,” following their husbands in job-related geographic moves. This can have negative career effects, as trailing spouses tend to report that they move into new jobs that offer less salary, benefits, and advancement opportunities than their previous jobs. In addi­tion, dual-earner parenting can place greater stress and strain on women than on men. For instance, dual-earner mothers report greater perceived time pressure than dual-earner fathers. Men and women in dual-earner marriages also handle work-family conflicts differently, with women being more likely than men to restructure their work to accommodate family demands. Given these differences in how family structure relates to career outcomes for men and women, it is not surprising that women engage in more future role planning than men with respect to how they might integrate and balance work and family roles.

Family structure is believed to have different career effects for men and women for several reasons. As noted previously, even in egalitarian marriages, women have greater responsibilities for dependent care and household chores than do men. These addi­tional responsibilities can restrict women’s career opportunities. Another explanation is that as a group, women place greater emphasis on family than on work. If this is the case, it may lead some women to self-select out of jobs and careers that they believe will not allow them to accommodate their family responsibilities. Finally, societal stereotypes likely play a role as well, such that individuals in more “traditional” marriages (e.g., working husband with a stay-at-home wife and children) are viewed more favorably by organizational decision makers than those in other family arrangements (e.g., female parent in a dual-earner marriage).

See also:


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