Are gender-based career aspirations genetic?

January 30, 2022

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Are gender-based career aspirations genetic?

A new analysis finds career aspirations from nearly 500,000 adolescents shows consistent sex differences across 80 nations, suggesting biologically-influenced preferences can play a role in gender segregation in the workplace later in life. Surprisingly the researchers also found a tendency for larger differences to appear in gender-equal countries, such as Finland, Norway or Sweden.

What the researchers say: “Sex differences in career choices and outcomes are often blamed on social factors, such as stereotypes and bias,” said the study’s lead author. “Our study shows that many of these differences are universal and larger in equalitarian societies, suggesting there are biological influences on peoples’ occupational preferences.”

This study confirms what the researchers call a “gender-equality paradox,” or where increased levels of gender equality in a country lead to larger sex differences, such as in occupational aspirations.

“The sex differences in interest in things- and people-oriented occupations were not only found throughout the world, but mirror those found in a study done more than 100 years ago,” the researchers noted. “The results are consistent across time and place, in keeping with inherent sex differences that make some activities more attractive to adolescent boys than girls and others more attractive to girls than boys.”

Using data from the 2018 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the analysis showed more boys than girls in each country — about a 4-to-1 ratio — wanted to go into “things-oriented” occupations, such as a carpenter, engineer or mechanic, while more girls than boys — about a 3-to-1 ratio — wanted to go into a “people-oriented” occupation, such as a doctor or teacher.

For example, in the U.S. and U.K., researchers found more than five boys for every girl aspired for a things-oriented occupation. That ratio was even greater in Sweden, where more than seven boys for every Finnish girl aspired to a things-oriented occupation. On the other hand, in countries such as Morocco or the United Arab Emirates, where women experience less empowerment in politics, education, or health, the ratios were typically lower, or around two boys for every girl.

“Teenage boys and girls differ considerably in what they expect to work on at around age 30,” said the co-author. “The effects are largest in the countries where most people would expect the smallest differences. Their choices are likely a reflection of deeply built-in tendencies we see all over the world, but which express them most strongly in countries where adolescents are least constrained by economic limitations.”

So, what? This is a really important study because, if confirmed by other research, means that much of what we believed about occupational preference is wrong.

Personally, as a scientist working in the field, I do not find the results surprising. Males and females in all mammal species are different physically, genetically and neurobiologically. For millions of years, humans and their ancestors had genetically-programmed roles in hunter-gatherer societies.

This does not mean that all hunters were male (in my own observation of H-G bands they are not) or all gatherers female. But the preponderance of hunters were male and gatherers female. The majority of tool-makers were male—which aligned with the findings of this study which finds that males are more likely to go for a “things-orientated” occupation.

The problem is not that fewer women go into some occupations, but that we unequally pay or recognize the ones that they do go into.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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