Are Hormones Responsible for Women’s Non-Traditional Career Choices?

Why do some women prefer careers as nurses or social workers while other women prefer more traditionally masculine careers such as engineers or chemists? The topic of sex differences in certain occupations is a topic of avid debate among both the general public and scientific communities. After all, there is concern that women are underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) sectors – careers that offer more prestige and money than traditional female careers.

Many different individuals and groups surmise as to why this particular disparity exists; for instance, many people blame cultural stereotypes that dictate which careers are acceptable for males and females. Other people believe that certain negative social issues deter women from succeeding in these fields, while there is also the popular argument that women tend to shy away from scientific careers due to socialization. For instance, the career interests of children are directly tied to parental expectations. In fact, studies reveal that the gender-related parental expectations of teenagers positively correlate with their future career choices.

Biology Determines Occupational Choices?

According to psychology researchers at Penn State University, specific sex hormones directly influence people’s general interests. In turn, these specific interests directly affect which careers these individuals choose to pursue.

“Our results provide strong support for hormonal influences on interest in occupations characterized by working with things versus people,” said Adriene M. Beltz, a graduate student in Psychology working directly with Sheri A. Berenbaum, a Professor of Psychology and Pediatrics at Penn State University.

With respect to the study itself, Berenbaum and her associates looked into people’s interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers. More specifically, the researchers studied young adults and teenagers that suffer from a genetic condition called congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) – and their siblings that do not suffer from this condition.

What is Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia?

Congenital adrenal hyperplasia, a rare enzyme deficiency, is a condition that begins in uteri and causes the adrenal glands to over secrete androgens. Androgens, themselves, are steroid hormones – such as androsterone or testosterone – that control both the maintenance and development of masculine characteristics in individuals. In some cases, when a baby is born, there can even be confusion over the gender of that child. However, when there is an issue, females do usually have corrective surgery while they are still infants – and then they are raised as females by their parents.

Research Findings

Previous findings noted that while females with CAH are genetically female, they do tend to display more traditionally male-oriented interests. The current research conducted by Berenbaum and others discovered that females with this condition were more interested in careers that involved “things” instead of careers that involved “people”. Further, the more androgens that these CAH women were exposed to, the more interested they were in careers that involved “things” over “people”.

“We took advantage of a natural experiment,” said Berenbaum. “We’re suggesting that these interests are pretty early developing.”

Conversely, women without CAH displayed less interest than men in careers dealing with “things”. Instead, these women were more interested in more social and more stereotypical female careers such as teachers or nurses. That said, with respect to the males involved in this study, it was discovered that there was no significant difference between males without CAH and males with CAH.

Occupational Interests of CAH Females & Non-CAH Females

Research Study Details

The study, itself, involved asking 125 research participants to rate items in a list of sixty-four occupations as to whether or not they would dislike, like, or were indifferent to doing a particular career-related job. Specifically, forty-six females with CAH, twenty-one non-CAH females, twenty-seven males with CAH, and thirty-one non-CAH males took part in this study. Further, participants came from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. The types of careers involved in the study included social, enterprising, conventional, realistic, artistic, and investigative career types. Since career counselors utilize these categories on a regular basis, this system was a well-established one.

With respect to ratings, investigative and realistic careers were referred to as “thing” related careers, artistic and social careers were noted as being “people” oriented careers while enterprising careers offered more “middle-ground” as these types of careers involved primarily working with both “things” and “people”.
Important Considerations

Berenbaum wanted to stress that choosing a career is a complex process, and there can be a variety of factors that affect people’s career choices. In addition, personal interests are only one contributor when it comes to choosing an occupation.
Moreover, while there may be biological roots, socialization can magnify these once minor differences over time until these differences become larger. Further, just because biology may influence certain behavior, it does not mean that certain behavioral and cognitive skills cannot be learned.

“I would argue that if we know the genes that influence a certain behavior, it might be easier to change them with an environmental intervention because we would know what we’d be targeting,” said Berenbaum.

In addition, due to the findings that career choices have early roots in both biological and early social development processes, Berenbaum suggests that society should emphasize the “people aspect” of scientific careers in order to encourage more women to become involved in these types of occupations.

Overall, the issue of gender and career choice is an extremely controversial – yet important – issue. What are your thoughts on this matter?


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