Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What Are the Best Occupations for Women?

The topic of career advice for women never seems to get stale. I’ve been invited to discuss this topic on a radio broadcast, “Girlfriend We Gotta Talk.” The interview will be broadcast Sunday, August 22nd, after which you can download the recording at the show’s Facebook page.

I’m often asked, “What are the best occupations for women?” This seems like a straightforward question, but most people don’t realize how loaded it is. To accept this as a legitimate question, you have to accept the premise that all women are alike, that what’s good for one woman is good for all women. Nobody working in career development would suggest that one career is good for everybody. Neither is any good for all women.

I am reluctant to rephrase the initial (loaded) question this way: “What occupations are easiest for women to enter?” That’s because ease of entry means more than the simple availability of job openings, the balance between demand for and supply of workers. Ease of entry also is affected by the proportion of women already in the workforce of the occupation. In other words, occupations that are easiest for women to enter tend to be occupations where there are already a large number of women. Recommending these occupations is tantamount to advocating continuation of the status quo.

We have to be careful to realize that “best occupations for women” is not the same as “best occupations with women.”

However, there is one legitimate (although highly limited) way to rephrase the question. We can ask this: “What occupations are best suited to the preferences of women on average? The last two words of this question make clear that the answer will not apply to all women. The answer depends on what women, on average, prefer in their work.

I was part of the team at Educational Testing Service that researched the work-related values of men and women. We found that on average there are differences between the values priorities of men and women. Women on average tend to value “helping others,” and men on average tend to prefer work values associated with achievement, such as “high income,” “prestige,” and “independence.”

The implication of this difference is that women, on average, can get satisfaction from occupations that offer many opportunities for helping others. But it doesn’t follow that the more “helping others” an occupation offers, the more the average woman (if we pretend that there is such a person) will be satisfied by it. That’s because any work involves a mix of satisfactions (and dissatisfactions). An occupation like Home Health Aides offers a great amount of “helping others,” but the low pay may make it unattractive to many women. On the other hand, an occupation like Veterinarians offers both “helping others” and high pay. I should mention that more than half of Veterinarians are now women.

The ETS study probably overlooked some other preferences that characterize women on average. For example, one study by the Pew Research Center found that working mothers with minor children tend to prefer part-time work more than do fathers. Women who share this preference may be attracted to occupations that offer more opportunities for part-time work.

Of course, you have to set averages aside when you give advice to one person. The same ETS study that found the average value priorities of women also found that there is a significant minority of women whose value profile looks very much like the average value profile for men. (The reverse is also true.) Women with an atypical values profile may not be satisfied by Home Health Aides, Veterinarians, or any other occupation largely focused on “helping others.”

So even the question “What occupations are best suited to the preferences of women on average? has very limited usefulness.

As a society, in fact, we have to be careful not to focus too much on averages. Although the majority rules in our republic, we also have a Bill of Rights that safeguards minority rights to speech, religion, and so forth. The same should apply to job opportunity. If we focus too much on what women want on average in their careers, we too easily allow the perpetuation of traditional practices that thwart the career preferences of individual women.

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