There’s a popular theory for why so many jobs today remain heavily segregated by gender: Women, the logic goes, seek careers that better accommodate future plans to raise children. Men, on the other hand, pursue fields that allow them to play the breadwinning role in their families. New research from Rice University casts doubt on that familiar line of thought.
In a forthcoming paper in the journal Gender & Society (GENDSOC), Rice Professor Erin Cech tested the popular thesis by asking 100 college students at three universities about their majors and career plans.
“Although a great majority of students plan to have a family in the future, most dismiss any role of family plans in their choice of college major or occupation, temporally distancing any future difficulties balancing work and family from their current career choices,” she concluded.
Only a quarter of men accomodate the so-called “provider role” plan in their choice of occupation, Cech’s research found, while only 13 percent of women interviewed accommodate so-called “caregiving plans.”
Most workers are in jobs dominated by one gender or the other, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Women disproportionately serve as flight attendants, or work in professions such as nursing and human resource management; men dominate fields such as construction, mining and electrical work.
Cech’s paper suggests factors other than family planning are to blame for the country’s deep occupational gender divide. The findings, she wrote, suggest the family planning thesis itself serves to strengthen “essentialist stereotypes about appropriate fields for men and women.”
The research doesn’t explain why occupational gender segregation exists, but it suggests other cultural and structural forces are behind the divide, according to Cech. Women, for instance, may be attracted to certain jobs over others because they better fit their gendered “sense of self.” In other words, a female college student may decide to become a nurse because the job seems more feminine, or feels easier to break into as a woman -- not because it puts the student in a better position for child-rearing.