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Motivation

How Gender Stereotypes Influence Career Interests

Differentiating among different dimensions of gender stereotypes

Key points

  • Gender stereotypes inform our perceptions of women and men and the types of careers that they pursue.
  • Measuring general perceptions of women and men may not accurately capture gender differences in different dimensions of gender stereotypes.
  • Perceptions that women lack dominance, in particular, may diminish their interest in science, entrepreneurship, and other historically male jobs.

By Abigail M. Folberg, Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Despite increased interest in promoting gender equality in the wake of #MeToo and #TimesUP, significant gender inequality remains in the U.S. Women account for 24 percent of U.S. Senators, 28.8 percent of U.S. House Representatives, 19 percent of U.S. military officers, and 6.4 percent of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies. Women also make approximately 84 percent of what men make for equivalent work. These disparities in pay and representation tend to be larger among women who are marginalized in other ways, including women of color. Gender inequality is caused, in part, by gender stereotypes, that is beliefs about the types of characteristics women and men tend to—or should—display.

What are Gender Stereotypes and How Do They Impact Career Interest?

Eagly and colleagues’ social role theory suggests that gender stereotypes are informed by our surrounding social contexts. In the U.S., women tend to be overrepresented in caretaking roles, such as being a stay-at-home parent or teacher, and men tend to be overrepresented in leadership or high-status roles, such as being a business leader or scientist.

We, therefore, tend to believe that women have communal qualities, such as being nice, warm, and nurturing, whereas men tend to have agentic qualities, such as being competent, powerful, and independent. We also tend to ascribe ourselves stereotype-consistent traits. In other words, women tend to rate themselves as more communal than men, whereas men tend to rate themselves as more agentic than women.

These stereotypes are harmful because they limit our ideas about the types of roles that are appropriate for women and men and often relegate women to lower-status, lower-paying careers. For example, women who are perceived as overly agentic, powerful, or opinionated may be penalized for behaviors that are expected of men. They may also have more difficulty pursuing careers in science and attaining leadership positions. In contrast, men are often discouraged from being perceived as “feminine,” showing empathy, or engaging in caretaking behaviors. Therefore, they may be discouraged from careers such as nursing, which are more commonly performed by women.

Devaluing “feminine” characteristics and careers also often leads to a devaluation of women’s work more generally. Thus, careers that are more commonly performed by women, such as teaching or nursing, are viewed as less desirable or lower status, despite their clear importance for a healthy, educated society. Similarly, individuals devalue the unpaid care work that women often provide for children and elderly relatives.

People often internalize these societal expectations and develop stereotype-consistent goals. Women tend to adopt more communal goals, such as working with people or caring for others, whereas men tend to adopt more agentic goals, such as power, mastery, and self-direction. Agentic and communal goals are often referred to as goal orientations, because women and men tend to endorse both types of goals but differ in the degree to which they endorse them.

Diekman and colleagues’ work on goal orientations suggests that they influence career interests, including interest and persistence in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers. For example, stronger communal goal endorsement is often associated with lower interest in STEM because STEM is perceived as incompatible with communal qualities that women value.

Importantly, their work suggests that changing how we view and discuss STEM can increase women’s interest and persistence in STEM. People tend to believe that STEM careers require innate brilliance, and that scientists work alone—both aspects of agency. Less often discussed is that science is highly collaborative, and scientists can make the world a better place—aspects of communion. Thus, making structural changes to how we view STEM (e.g., emphasizing the collaborative nature of science) could increase women’s interest and persistence in STEM.

Traditionally, Diekman and colleagues’ work has focused on measuring and manipulating communal goal endorsements and beliefs about the extent to which STEM and other careers may provide opportunities for communal goal fulfillment. Less focus has been put on agentic goals—perhaps because gender differences in agentic goals were inconsistent across studies, and study results that are difficult to interpret often go unpublished.

My colleagues and I hypothesized that perhaps they failed to find consistent effects related to agentic goals because these goals were misspecified. Specifically, we hypothesized that there might be different types, or subdimensions, of agentic goals, and some might be better at predicting career interests than others.

More Precise Measurements of Agency and Communion May Help Us Better Address Gender Inequality

In my research, I often distinguish between global perceptions and subdimensions of stereotypes and goal orientations. Before I describe my work, it is helpful to understand the difference between global perceptions and subdimensions. We can use intelligence as an example.

We can all likely think of someone in our lives who we would describe as being generally intelligent. In this case, “generally intelligent” could be an example of global intelligence. However, that person may not be "smart" in every single area of their life. Maybe you would describe this person as “book smart” but lacking in common sense, or “street smarts.” In this case “book smarts” and “street smarts” would be examples of subdimensions of their overall intelligence. (Note that this example is not referring to IQ and the specific constructs that it measures.)

Perhaps you also think that “book smarts” and “street smarts” are useful for different tasks. For example, perhaps you think “book smarts” are necessary for academic performance but are not as useful when interacting with other people, whereas the opposite may be true of “street smarts.” In other words, you think that some subdimensions may be associated with different outcomes.

The same idea can be applied to stereotypes. Agentic and communal stereotypes (and goal orientations) constitute global measures. We can think of agency as assessing individuals’ or groups’ relative status. We can think of global communion as indicating approachability—whether and how much you might choose to interact with an individual or social group.

Agentic and communal stereotypes each comprise unique subdimensions. Although there is some disagreement on the nature and number of subdimensions, our work suggests that dominance (i.e., power over others), competence (i.e., intelligence/ability), and independence (i.e., empowerment/power over the self) are subdimensions of agency, whereas warmth (e.g., being caring) and morality (e.g. trustworthiness) are subdimensions of communion.

Our forthcoming work in the International Review of Social Psychology suggests that assessing subdimensions is particularly important for perceptions of agentic qualities. We found that women and men may now be perceived, and rate themselves, as similar on the agentic stereotype global dimension. That is, if we only assessed gender stereotypes using global measures of agency, we would conclude that people generally perceive women and men as having roughly equal status, and that women and men rate themselves as having roughly equal status.

However, when we examine subdimensions of agency, we found that men are consistently perceived, and rate themselves, as more dominant than women, whereas women were perceived as more competent than men. Men and women were perceived and rated themselves as similarly independent. Thus, our findings suggest that global measures of agency often obscure perceived and self-rated gender differences in subdimensions of agency. Gender differences in dominance were also larger among individuals who often thought about their gender and viewed it as important to their identity.

We find similar effects—particularly with respect to gender differences in dominance—in our work on goal orientations. Our prior work suggests that women and men tend to similarly endorse agentic goals. However, men tend to endorse dominance goals (e.g., power) more than do women. Gender differences in dominance goals explain gender differences in preferences for organizations with more competitive environments, as well as gender differences in interest in STEM and medical careers.

Implications for Researchers: More Precise Measurement and Predictions

Distinguishing among subdimensions allowed us to better measure gender stereotypes, yielding more precise and accurate findings. Work examining gender stereotypes that uses general perceptions of agency instead of subdimensions may not accurately capture gender differences.

Second, understanding the roles of different subdimensions of agency and agentic goals may provide opportunities for new lines of research. Prior work on goal orientations has primarily concentrated on the role of communal goals in women’s career pursuits, especially women’s interest and persistence in STEM. Our work suggests that measuring and manipulating different dimensions of agentic goals may similarly affect women’s STEM interest and persistence.

Implications for Practitioners: Start Thinking More Systemically

Understanding the factors that influence women's and men’s career interests can help us reduce gender disparities in STEM and other careers. Much of the work on goal orientations suggests that changing the way that we frame STEM can increase women’s interest in STEM. This framework is important because it seeks to change systems instead of changing women. Thus, it is not the case that women need to change to be more confident or self-efficacious; we need to change the societal structures that tell women they do not belong.

We can apply these same principles to dominance goals. For example, our work in progress on entrepreneurship suggests that men are more likely than women to pursue entrepreneurial endeavors, in part, because people tend to believe that entrepreneurs need to exhibit assertiveness and dominance and have few communal qualities. Yet other research suggests that entrepreneurs spend most of their time working with others, and that entrepreneurship provides opportunities for work-life balance and social responsibility, qualities that are consistent with communal goals, such as working with others and serving the community. In other words, reframing entrepreneurship as more communal—and less dominant—may help encourage women entrepreneurs.

Finally, work on gender stereotypes suggests that as women continue to enter fields associated with men, we perceive them as more agentic. Our work poses the question of whether that is true for dominance. For example, individuals often shift their standards to preserve men’s power and status by judging scientific disciplines dominated by men as more rigorous and prestigious that domains with a greater percentage of women. Thus, women may be perceived as increasingly competent, and perhaps self-directed, but may continue to lack social power. Research and advocacy that focuses only on gender similarities in global perceptions of agency fail to capture gender disparities in perceived power and dominance, painting a rosier picture of gender equality than is merited.

Edits by: Ashley M. Votruba, J.D., Ph.D., SPSSI Blog Editor, Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska–Lincoln

References

Folberg, A. M., Zhu, M., He, Y., & Ryan, C. S. (2022). The Primacy of Nurturance and Dominance/Assertiveness: Unidimensional Measures of the Big Two Mask Gender Differences in Subdimensions. International Review of Social Psychology, 35(1), 16. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/irsp.690.

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