Where Does the Gendered Interest in Different Occupations Come From?

While women remain underrepresented in certain areas such as surgery, other occupations struggle to recruit men. There are a number of potential explanations for this phenomenon out there, including the idea that we show greater interest in occupations associated with our gender role (e.g. because we see a lot of women in childcare, we associate childcare with being female), and the idea that we seek out jobs that are in line with our values (e.g. because women have more altruistic values, they are more interested in childcare). It is of course hard to disentangle these two explanations – after all, while it might be the case that women rate altruistic values as higher, this could just as well be the result of seeing women in “altruistic” occupations.

However, Weisgram and colleagues investigated this question in a clever study which used fictional occupations rather than real-life jobs with which everyone has already formed aforementioned associations. They presented children, adolescents and adults with fictional descriptions of new jobs that were described as fulfilling a randomly assigned value and being mainly done by men or women.

They found that, indeed, the sex of the typical worker in the new occupation affected the degree to which participants associated certain values with these occupations. For example, if a job was presented as being mainly done by women, participants believed that these were jobs associated with a better work-life-balance. Interestingly, this was only true for adolescents and adults but not for children. The authors also found that both the sex of the workers and the values influenced participants’ interest in the new job.

With regards to women in surgery this is particularly interesting, as it suggests that it is not enough to point out the “feminine” values in the occupation (e.g. helping others), but that it is most of all necessary to change the image of the male surgeon.

Improvements and Barriers for Women in Medicine

While there has been great progress for women in medicine, there are still obstacles and barriers they face and which need to be addressed. In an interesting short article, Hamel and colleagues reflect on these issues for women in academic medicine in the US.

They also talk about potential interventions to close the gender gap and a need to emulate those that have already proven successful such as making promotion criteria more explicit and assessing the appropriateness for promotion for both men and women once a year.

What Is Better for Gender Equality: Hard or Soft Policy Strategies?

There are different approaches when it comes to achieving gender equality and quotas are a hotly debated issue. But what do women directly affected by hard and soft policy strategies think? To answer this question, Casey, Skibnes and Pringle interviewed women in senior management both in Norway and New Zealand – both of which are countries that rank high in gender equality. However, while New Zealand’s strategy to improve gender equality on company boards is a soft one, meaning that they encourage companies to appoint more women to their boards without any legal consequences, Norway introduced a quota that companies are obliged by law to fulfil.

Interestingly, they found that gender equality was perceived as quite similar by female senior managers both in New Zealand and in Norway. However, while women from Norway were generally in favour of the quota, women from New Zealand had strong objections towards it. The authors conclude that it is hard to say which strategy is better – while the quota has definitely succeeded in drastically changing the gender landscape of management in a short period of time in Norway, it may also result in women being pushed into positions they might not feel comfortable taking and negative evaluations of these women. Soft measures, on the other hand, work much slower or not at all, which results (among other things) in the need for women in senior management to adhere to masculine norms.

We would like to add another thought. First, while quotas certainly increase the quantity of women in management, it might not necessarily mean that their positions are equal in quality to those of their male counterparts. Our research suggests that these women might run the risk of finding themselves on a glass cliff. On the other hand, however, the think-manager-think-male stereotype is only going to change if women are equally represented in leadership positions – which might then very well make quotas unnecessary.

Patients’ Perceptions of Female Doctors

Female doctors, especially those in their early careers, might be worried about being judged as less competent than their male counterparts by colleagues and patients alike. However, research by Shah and Ogden suggests that young female doctors should be more confident in how they are perceived, at least by patients.

In their study they presented patients with one of eight pictures of a doctor who was either young or old, male or female and Asian or White and asked them about their perceptions of and reactions to those doctors, for example how comfortable they would feel with the doctor physically examining them or how good they thought the doctor would be at explaining the cause of their symptoms to them. While Asian and White doctors were perceived quite similarly, young and female doctors were overall evaluated more positively. For example, patients believed that younger doctors were more likely to have a positive personal manner and better technical skills. They also stated that they would have more faith into the younger doctors’ diagnosis. Similarly, female doctors were – maybe not surprisingly – rated as more likely to explore the emotional aspects of health and having a better personal manner. However, contrary to stereotypes, they were also rated as having better technical skills and patients had more faith in their diagnoses.

So can we hope that we are slowly moving away from the stereotype of the old, white, male doctor? Patients certainly seem to do so!