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Gender equality paradox: Does biology explain why men and women choose stereotypical jobs?

Iceland consistently ranks as the most gender-equal nation. It is also the nation where men and women are most likely to pursue sex-typical jobs.
gender equality paradox
Credit: romaset / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • A longstanding body of research has consistently shown that men and women tend to aspire toward different vocations.
  • In general, men tend to prefer jobs dealing with things while women typically prefer jobs dealing with people.
  • The “gender equality paradox” notes that in countries like Iceland, which are highly gender-equal, sex-typical job preferences tend to increase.

Is a teenage boy more likely to grow up working with children as a teacher or with engines as a mechanic? Smart money bets on the latter — and that would still hold true even if you switched up the country or decade throughout the 20th century. But why? What are the factors that tilt the scales toward this seemingly stereotypical outcome?

One persuasive answer lies in differential preferences for things and people. In the early 20th century, psychologists began examining for the first time how young men and women tend to differ in terms of career interests and aspirations. The results of those first studies, along with additional analyses spanning multiple decades later in the century, illuminated a clear pattern: Boys tend to prefer working with things, while girls typically prefer working with people (though, of course, people sometimes prefer sex-atypical jobs). 

You might think that social forces — discrimination, gender roles, etc. — significantly shape these outcomes. After all, the first studies on the topic were conducted around the time when women in the U.S. first gained the right to vote, when only about 25% of U.S. women were in the workforce compared to roughly 57% today. But while those factors likely play some role, the research literature shows that men and women’s occupational aspirations and interests have not changed much over the past century, even as societal norms decidedly have. 

The implication? Biology plays a considerable role in determining the types of jobs to which we are drawn. That was one of the key takeaways of a study recently published in the journal PLOS ONE. The results show that, no matter the country or culture, boys and girls tend to aspire toward jobs dealing with things and people, respectively. And, perhaps counterintuitively, this preference for sex-typical jobs seems to increase as nations experience greater wealth and gender equality — a phenomenon dubbed the “gender-equality paradox.”

People versus things 

The study analyzed survey results from the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment, a study that measures the scholastic performance and interests of 15-year-olds around the world. The researchers focused on how nearly 500,000 students across 80 countries answered the question, “What kind of job do you expect to have when you are about 30 years old?”

The researchers sorted all possible answers into two broad job categories: one in which the focus is generally on people, the other generally on things. 

“Things-oriented occupations are those that involve extensive work with machines, such as computer programming, repairing machines (e.g., cars), or tailoring, whereas people-oriented occupations involve beneficial face-to-face interactions, as in medicine or teaching,” the researchers noted, adding that they excluded jobs that weren’t dominantly centered on either people or things. 

The results showed that:

  • In all countries, the percentage of boys aspiring to a things-oriented occupation was higher than the percentage of girls.
  • In all countries, more adolescent girls than boys aspired to people-oriented occupations.
  • The median percentages of boys and girls aspiring to a things-oriented occupation were 37.4% and 8.7%, respectively.
  • STEM career aspirations were uncommon for girls (even in the more technically developed OECD nations, 2.9% of girls compared to 14.8% of boys).

The gender equality paradox

The findings align with the longstanding body of research on the things-people dimension in research on career aspirations and interests. As previous studies have shown, the results show that men and women tend to pursue sex-typical jobs at greater rates when their country offers more economic and political empowerment for women, described by the “gender equality paradox.”

For example, Iceland consistently has been ranked as the most gender-equal nation by the Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI), which is an annual report on women’s empowerment based on gender ratios in political representation, economic participation, duration of formal education, and health measures. Iceland is also the nation where men and women are most likely to pursue sex-typical jobs. 

The recent study shed light on the gender-equality paradox by highlighting that a nation’s wealth seems to affect its citizens’ career choices, noting that women’s empowerment is associated with relatively high levels of national wealth. With fewer economic worries, greater national wealth might enable more students to pursue jobs to which they are naturally drawn. 

“Individual students in wealthy nations with strong social safety nets might choose more in accordance with biologically influenced occupational interests (along the people things dimension) than in accordance with political ideals — this explains the relatively low engagement in sex-atypical occupations in these nations, despite no lack of awareness of the ideals of gender parity in all sectors of society,” the study stated.

Social factors may indeed play a role in determining which jobs young men and women are interested in, as the researchers noted, but biology seems to be a considerable force driving these outcomes. From a policy perspective, that means that interventions designed to bring more women into fields like STEM might need to be reconfigured to account for biological factors. 

But the researchers suggested it is worth considering whether such interventions are appropriate in the first place. After all, if we want greater national wealth and gender equality, and these two things seem to nudge people toward sex-typical jobs, then why not let the chips fall where they may? The scope of that question was “too broad to discuss” in the recent study, but the researchers noted that what might be good for organizations and businesses is not always the same as what is good for individuals.


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