Lawyer? Porn star? Pilot? Accountant? Our sex hormones influence every facet of a life, and none more so than our career choices. Our sexualities direct affect the kind of occupations we eventually choose, according to psychologists.
A study out of the psychology department at Penn State suggests that our interest in working with things, as opposed to working with people, is dictated by hormonal influences.
The team of experts investigated people’s interest in occupations the exhibit sex differences in the general population, specifically with regards to STEM careers – that is, science, technology, engineering and mathematics. To ensure a comparable control group, they focused on young adults with congenital adrenal hyperplasia with their siblings who don’t have the condition.
Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) is the exposure to elevated levels of the male sex hormone androgen than is normal in the womb. For example, women with CAH present as female, are genetically female and are treated as female, but their interests are typically more associated with culturally male activities.
The starkest outcome of the study was that women with CAH are significantly more interested in working with ‘things,’ rather then working with people, compared to siblings without CAH. ‘Things,’ in the study, are defined as everything from machinery to numbers – i.e. STEM careers. In other words, women with CAH are far more likely to pursue a career in engineering versus those without CAH, who are more likely to be attracted to teaching or customer service positions, for example. It suggests that these differences occur very early on in someone’s social development.
Interestingly, the same pattern was not observed amongst men, who generally all tended towards professions with things instead of people.
The researchers went on to posit that this biological difference might go someway to explaining the underrepresentation of women in STEM occupations quite aside from the social, political and cultural obstacles women in STEM face. They suggested that STEM jobs that emphasise interpersonal contact need to have their signals amplified to encourage more women to take up positions.
In my personal view, it’s important to have these awkward subjects investigated, and although the pattern is clear, it’s important to maintain a healthy skepticism about these kinds of sweeping studies. There’s a risk involved in blaming hormonal differences for something as intangible and subjective as job selection, and I believe this kind of definitive finding might put women off joining STEM-related industries instead of encouraging them, for fear of being seen as somehow genetically predisposed to a “less female” occupation.
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