Constraints into Preferences: Gender, Status, and Emerging Career Aspirations
When cultural stereotypes portray women as less competent than men on a task, women judge their abilities more harshly, use a higher standard than men, and show less interest in related careers.
Despite the rise of women in the workforce, women and men remain significantly segregated by occupation—a major factor in the wage gap. Although demand for high-wage workers favors men over women, the gender gap is compounded by a dearth of qualified women, whose educational and career choices diverge early on from men’s. In this study, the author advances a new model to explain how culture constrains women’s individual career aspirations. Previous theoretical frameworks have described how cultural beliefs about gender—for instance, stereotypes associating competence with men—can decrease expectations of women’s relative contributions in a group, leading to less opportunities and biased evaluations.
The author extends this theory to consider how those cultural beliefs could also influence a women’s individual performance when relative comparisons still matter (e.g., standardized exams), and where a “stereotype threat” of fulfilling a negative image can produce anxiety and decrease performance. In this case, the woman herself—and not other people in a group—may decrease expectations of her contribution.
The author hypothesizes that women are likely to judge themselves by tougher standards than men, lowering their self-assessments and related career aspirations. The experiment examined self-assessments on an artificial task, after participants were told either that women generally perform less well than men, or that women and men perform equally. The task had no right answers, and all participants received the same scores, to highlight the effects of cultural beliefs about gender on women’s and men’s perceptions and preferences.
When women were told they were less competent than men at a task that actually measured a fictitious ability, they judged their performance more negatively while men judged their own more positively—even though everyone received identical scores.
- When participants were told that women performed less well than men on the task, women rated their overall performance at 41.1, while men rated theirs at 55.3, on a 100-point scale.
- When participants were told that women and men performed equally on the task, women and men rated their overall performance similarly (47.1 for women and 47.2 for men).
Women judged themselves more harshly in part because they used a higher standard than men.
- When participants were told that women performed less well than men on the task, women set the bar for high ability at a score of 88.9%, while men used a benchmark of 79.3%.
- When participants were told that women and men performed equally on the task, women and men judged themselves by similar standards for high ability (82.4% for women and 83.1% for men)
The more harshly women or men judged their own performance, the less interest they expressed in a course, seminar, graduate program, or high-paying job that would require the same skills as the task.
- When participants were told that women performed less well than men on the task, women expressed less career aspirations for opportunities that required competence on the task (score of 5.90 vs. 6.75 on a 12-point scale).
- When participants were told that women and men performed equally on the task, women expressed more career aspirations for opportunities that required competence on the task (score 7.65 vs. 6.70 on a 12-point scale).
- These effects are explained entirely by their self-assessments of competence in each scenario.
These findings support the author’s model, in which cultural beliefs about gender and relative performance produce a gap in self-assessments, personal standards, and career preferences—unless gender is explicitly portrayed as irrelevant. Since women judged themselves by a harsher standard only when exposed to negative gender stereotypes, the implication of the study is that cultural stereotypes around women’s competence, abilities and career aspirations need to change.
80 first-year undergraduate students completed two rounds of the “contrast sensitivity” task, a research tool to measure a fictitious ability. Participants were told the task was developed by a national testing organization, and of interest to graduate schools and Fortune 500 companies. Participants were randomized by gender to a pre-task message about gender and “contrast sensitivity”: either that men perform better than women on the test, or that men and women perform equally.
The task was designed so that it was impossible to perform correctly. All participants received identical mid-range scores for “contrast sensitivity.” After each round, participants assessed their own performance (5 items), rated their own “contrast sensitivity” ability (1 item), and reported the score they would consider a benchmark for high ability. After two rounds, participants assessed their overall performance (1 item) and rated their interest in pursuing a course, seminar, graduate program, or high-paying job requiring high “contrast sensitivity” ability (4 items).