Do Men and Women Have Different Career Goals?

Initiatives aiming at addressing the under-representation of women in certain domains often include flexible or part-time working arrangements. The idea behind this seems to be that women often find it harder – and more important – to achieve a good work-life-balance, while other career goals such as prestige and a high salary are important to men.This of course makes sense, as women still take over a disproportionate amount of childcare and household work, while men are still seen as being the main earner of the family’s income. But times are changing – so is it really still the case that men’s and women’s career goals are that different?

A study that we conducted with academic staff at the University fo Exeter indicates that this isn’t necessarily the case. We asked them to rate the importance of different career goals on a scale from 1 to 7 and as you can see in the figure below, patterns were pretty similar for men and women. So it seems that it isn’t so much that women and men (at least in our sample) have different goals – but it might still be harder for women to achieve some of them.


The Belief in Meritocracy as an Obstacle for Minorities in STEM/M

The fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine are often constructed as fields in which scientific ability is all that matters for success. Topics such as gender and race are often not discussed despite the fact that the majority of members of those fields are still white men. An interesting interview study by Angela Johnson illustrates how this construction of science as a meritocracy can negatively impact minorities, namely female science students of colour in the US.

The author acknowledges the good intentions of constructing science as a race and gender neutral field – because none of these variables should matter, but she also highlights that this can have negative, unintended consequences as it makes gender and race topics that cannot be openly discussed. She notes: “Belief in the meritocracy of science made the way that some laboratories were divided by race and ethnicity seem like a matter of personal choice (which, in a sense, it probably was). When students felt otherwise (…) there was no room for these suspicions within the race-neutral culture of science.”

This unintended, but also unaddressed, segregation of minority students is especially important in the light of findings that suggest that a lack of fit and belonging in a field has severe negative consequences for motivation and career intentions.

How Do Role Models Work?

We’ve highlighted the importance of role models in general and female role models in particular in a number of quite a few of our past posts. Research suggests that role models serve different functions and lead to different outcomes and that gender is not necessarily important for all of them. However, other studies suggest that gender does matter, especialy in domains in women are under-represented, and one reason why that might be the case is that they can change stereotypes.

STEM/M fields in general and surgery in particular are stereotypically associated with men and maleness. The first person one might imagine when thinking about a surgeon is likely to be a man and when asked to describe a surgeon, stereotypically masculine traits such as “cold” might be used. The so called Stereotype Inoculation Model developed by Nilanjala Dasgupta argues that role models might act as a “social vaccine” and inoculate against these stereotypes which prevent women from entering or staying in STEM/M fields.

She proposes that when exposed to other minority members in one’s domain (e.g. other women in surgery), minority members can identify with this person, which then leads to changes in stereotypes and a stronger identification with the field (e.g. with surgery), but also a more positive attitude towards the field, social belonging in the field, perceived threat and one’s perceptions of one’s own abilities.

Thus, while male role models might be just as effective in some regards (e.g. for learning by emulation), visible female role models in surgery are important – not just for those women already on their path to becoming surgeons, but also for those who might not have made their career choices yet.

Harassment and Career Satisfaction of Female Physicians

Sex-based harassment at work has been a problem since women started entering the workplace. But how much of a problem is it in the medical profession and how detrimental is it for job satisfaction? In a survey with a large and representative sample of female US physicians, Erica Frank and colleagues give an answer to this question.

Quite shockingly – and we sincerely hope that this fact has changed in the 15 years since this study was conducted – almost half of the over 4000 participants report a history of sex-based harassment in a medical setting. Younger physicians were especially likely to report a history of sex-based harassment. Moreover, this was predictive of all three measures of career satisfaction: whether they felt satisfied, whether they would choose to become a physician again and whether they would like to change their specialty.

This shows that sex-based harassment is indeed a problem in the medical profession and the fact that especially younger women reported experiences of sex-based harassment in the workplace suggests that there is not necessarily a decline in sex-based harassment in medicine. The topic therefore needs to be addressed.



Male and Female Role Models in Academic Medicine

The lack of female role models is often cited as one reason of the under-representation of women in various fields – surgery among them – and psychological research shows that role models can indeed be very beneficial. They can teach us how to reach our goals, demonstrate that goals are attainable and inspire us to adopt new goals. However, some women in surgery argue that role models don’t necessarily need to be female and that male role models can be just as effective.

A study by Lori Bakken suggests that it depends. Women and men in different career stages were asked about their own ability beliefs with regards to a number of skills such as scientific writing. They were further asked about who they envisioned as an expert role model while making those assessments as well as a number of questions about this role model. For example, they were asked which important qualities the expert had. Results showed that male and female participants who described a male role model did not differ in what skills they based their role model selection on. “Multiple publications”, “supportiveness” and “scientific knowledge” were most widely reported both by male and female participants. Female participants who had chosen a female expert, however, reported “problem solving abilities” and “communication skills” more frequently in comparison to men who had chosen men.

Thus, it seems that men make just as good role models for women who are looking for similar qualities in a role model as their male counterparts do. However, for those who value other qualities such as problem solving ability or communication skills, female role models might be more important.