Don’t blame it on the family: The myth of family plans and the reproduction of occupational gender segregation

By Erin A. Cech 

Despite growing support for gender parity in the workforce, many occupations still continue to be comprised of mostly men or mostly women. Because women-dominated occupations tend to be accompanied by less pay and prestige, the persistence of occupational gender segregation in the U.S. labor market helps reinforce gender inequality more broadly.

A number of prominent theories in the social sciences have attempted to explain the endurance of this segregation by pointing to the work-family nexus. Many such theories assert that women who plan to have children incorporate anticipated caregiving responsibilities into their initial selection of occupations, tending to choose women-dominated fields assumed to be more flexible than men-dominated fields. Men who anticipate families, on the other hand, choose men-dominated fields assumed to maximize lifetime earnings and be conducive to a provider role.

This “family plans thesis” has traction in public discourse about the “opt-out revolution”, the “planning generation,” and whether women can really “have it all.” Threaded through these arguments are assumptions about men’s and women’s “biological realities” which make such choices appear natural and inevitable.

But, do young men and women who plan to have families actually adjust their occupational decisions to accommodate those plans? And, does this funnel women and men into gender-typical occupations?

Drawing on in-depth interviews with a diverse sample of 100 students (56 women, 44 men) enrolled at three universities, the results are widely inconsistent with the family plans thesis. Although a great majority of students plan to have a family in the future, more than half of women and men dismiss any role of family plans in their choice of college major or occupation and “temporally distance” (i.e., focus on career now and family later) any future difficulties balancing work and family from their current career decisions.

About a quarter of men (and 13% of women) report accommodating a planned provider role in their career choices by seeking financially stable fields. However, the majors in which such students are enrolled are not more men-dominated on average than those of their peers.

Further, only 13% of women and a handful of men note that they chose a particular occupation in part because they believe it will provide the desired flexibility for childrearing. Counter to the family plans thesis, students who seek flexible occupations do not have majors with a higher proportion of women, compared to other students.

These results have implications for gender scholarship and policy. First, they suggest that gendered division of household labor among working adults may be less the outcome of deliberate long-term planning but the consequence of lives unfolding within a complex network of social constraints and expectations. Second, they indicate that these young adults are generally not self-selecting into particular occupations in ways that accommodate their future family plans. This makes workplace flexibility policies and re-entry programs all the more important to retain talented employees.

Given problems of the family plans thesis identified in this research, it may be more appropriate to consider the family plans thesis a cultural schema (a shared cultural model) that draws on popular stereotypes about women’s and men’s preferences and abilities. As a cultural schema, the family plans thesis may help reproduce occupational segregation by coloring how parents encourage their children, how teachers advise students, or how employers think about their employees. By reinforcing the family plans thesis without careful examination of its assumptions, scholars risk lending legitimacy to a cultural schema that blames women for “preferring” lower-paid, lower status occupations because such fields are presumed to accommodate women’s desired caregiving roles.

Erin A. Cech is assistant professor of sociology at Rice University. She was recently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University and earned her Ph.D. in Sociology in 2011 from the University of California, San Diego. Her research examines cultural mechanisms of inequality reproduction–specifically, how inequality is reproduced through processes that are not overtly discriminatory or coercive, but rather those that are built into seemingly innocuous cultural beliefs and practices. Her article Mechanism or Myth? Family Plans and the Reproduction of Occupational Gender Segregation can be found in the April 2016 30 (2) issue of Gender & Society.

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