White, blue, or pink: gendered job expectations are shaped by assumptions. Robynlou Kavanagh, Flickr CC

Career plans aren’t family plans

Why is there such persistent gender segregation in jobs in the U.S. labor force? One popular explanation is that women choose “family-friendly” occupations in order to serve as the primary caretaker for their children, while men select “provider-friendly” occupations in order to serve as the family breadwinner.

However, a new study in the journal Gender & Society raises serious doubts about that “family planning” thesis. Drawing on in-depth interviews with 100 students, sociologist Erin Cech examined the extent to which young adults deliberately incorporate their family plans into their academic and post-graduation career plans. She finds that most students perceive family planning as “distant in time from their immediate career decisions.” Students who prioritized family planning and who subscribed to more traditionally gendered family roles were no more likely to be enrolled in gender-typical college majors.

Cech concludes that scholars may be unintentionally reinforcing gender segregation by lending legitimacy to the assumption that women are overrepresented in lower-paid, lower-status occupations because of an individual preference for those jobs and a corresponding desire to act as family caregivers. The family planning thesis may contribute to the reproduction of occupational gender segregation not by influencing students “free choices,” but by shaping the gendered expectations of parents, educators, and employers.