Although one gender or the other dominates many professions, it isn't future family planning that steers men and women in those directions, new research suggests.
A study set to be published in the journal Gender & Society dispels the popular belief — referred to as the family plans thesis — that women chose more flexible careers in order to better accommodate their plans to raise children, while men choose "provider-friendly" occupations in order to make more money to support their family.
"Proponents of this perspective see segregation as the outcome of men's and women's deliberate, economically rational decision making to make the best use of their educational investments in light of their family plans," Erin Cech, the study's author and an assistant professor of sociology at Rice University, said in a statement.
However, after interviewing 56 women and 44 men enrolled in a variety of majors at three universities, the researchers found that for most men and women, plans to have a family did not play any part in their choice of a major or career field.
"For many students, such plans are seen as distant in time from their immediate career decisions," Cech said.
Even those who did seem to be taking future family plans into consideration didn't contribute more to gender career segregation than their peers, according to the study. [Erratic Work Schedules Killing Work-Life Balance ]
"Respondents who plan to play a provider role are not more likely to be enrolled in men-dominated academic majors, while students who anticipate a caregiving role are not more likely to be enrolled in women-dominated majors," Cech said.
The study's results bring to light the problem of attributing the fact of occupational segregation to the individual choices that men and women make when they choose a career, Cech said.
"Ironically, the family plans thesis itself may help reproduce occupational segregation by impacting how parents encourage their children, how teachers advise students and how employers think about employees," she said. "By reinforcing the family plans thesis without careful examination of its assumptions, scholars risk contributing to gender segregation by lending legitimacy to popular assumptions that blame women for 'preferring' lower-paid, lower-status occupations because such fields are presumed to accommodate women's desired caregiving roles."
When interviewing the students in the study, Cech asked questions about why they chose their major, what they planned to do after graduation and the variety of factors they considered when making those decisions. In addition, she questioned them on whether they planned to have a family and whether their thoughts about a family influenced their major or post-graduation career choice in any way.
Overall, 61 percent of the men and 52 percent of the women said their plans to have a family did not play any role in their choice of occupations. Of those, 25 percent said that their career decisions came from a "me first, family later" perspective, while others said their careers would help decide the composition of their families, not the other way around.
Just 10 men and seven women made career decisions based on their desire to want to be able to provide financially for their future family, according to the study. Additionally, only 13 women and three men said they picked jobs, in part, because those jobs would provide flexibility for future caregiving responsibilities.
The results should be an indication to employers that they need to work harder to provide flexible work schedules in order to retain their top workers, since most young professionals don't make plans to handle their caregiving responsibilities until after they have a family, Cech said.