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.