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Psychologist Explores the Types of Jobs Women Seek

More Women Gain High-Level Positions in People-Oriented Fields

May 6, 2014

bearded man in purple dress shirt and tie

Richard A. Lippa, Cal State Fullerton professor of psychology

A new article co-authored by Cal State Fullerton psychologist Richard A. Lippa posits that the distribution of women across occupational choices suggests gender differences. The article was published online May 2 in PLOS ONE , an international publication focused on primary research.

Below the researcher discusses his research.

What made you pick this topic?

I have been studying gender-related interests — e.g., occupational preferences — for the past 20 years. My research has shown that there are big differences in men and women's interests. On average, women are more interested in "people-oriented" occupations and hobbies, i.e., those that involve thinking and interacting with people, their thoughts, feelings and motives — occupations like social work, teaching, ministry, psychology.

Men tend to be more interested in "thing-oriented" occupations and hobbies — with mechanical systems, deterministic processes, mathematics and construction. Such occupations include: mechanical engineer, electrician, car mechanic, mathematician, physicist and construction worker.

In the new PLOS ONE study, my colleagues and I studied links between occupations' characteristics (status and people-thing orientation) and women's representation in 60 varied occupations annually from 1972 to 2010 in the U.S. This period is especially interesting because it was marked by dramatic changes in gender roles and dramatic increases in the number of women in the U.S. workforce. If changes in gender roles were a factor in women's job choices, you would expect there to be dramatic changes in the kinds of jobs women worked in from 1972 to 2010.

We found that there were dramatic changes over this period, when women were increasingly entering a variety of high-status jobs, such as physician, lawyer, pharmacist, psychologist, accountant. However, women's low representation in thing-oriented jobs and high representation in people-oriented jobs remained relatively constant for the 38-year period covered by our study.

This suggests that changing gender roles had little impact on women and men's differing preferences for people-oriented and thing-oriented jobs. Social scientists must, therefore, search for different kinds of explanations for why these gender differences exist — why are the occupational choices of women and men so dramatically different, on average?

Why should we care about such matters? What is the value of such scholarship?

On college campuses and in society at large, there has been much debate about why women are strongly underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. CSUF is currently implementing programs to increase the number of college women who enter STEM majors and also to increase the number of STEM faculty members who are women and who can, therefore, serve as role models for college women in STEM fields.

The current study probes some of the factors that may be related to women's low representation in thing-oriented occupations in general and in STEM fields more specifically. The results of our study suggest that women's participation rates in STEM fields, perhaps surprisingly, do not seem related to strong changes in gender roles in the U.S. over the past 40 or so years.

So the question then arises: Why did women's participation in high-status fields increase dramatically, whereas women's participation in thing-oriented fields did not?

There seems to be some fundamental difference in men and women's interests, which is relatively impervious to changes in gender roles. Further research will need to explore the causes of these differences. For example, do they result from gender socialization, biological factors, social stereotypes, or what?

What larger/provocative questions does this study/your research raise?

Many people have framed women and men's different occupational choices in terms of abilities — in other words, men are "better" at math and science than women; women have "better" verbal and "people" skills than men. However, our study reframes this discussion and suggests that women and men's job choices are more about their differing interests than they are about their differing abilities.

As I noted before, there is a big push in public education systems and on college campuses to encourage more girls/women to study science/technology/math and to enter STEM fields. Part of the impetus for this push is that STEM fields are important in advanced technological societies like ours; furthermore, they are in demand in terms of job opportunities and tend to pay well.

One way researchers can help answer whether educational interventions will have their intended effect is to probe the causes and correlates of occupational sex segregation and to explore, as we did in our study, whether women and men's entry into thing-oriented STEM fields seems to be related to changes in gender roles.

Tags:  Academics & Research