Wednesday, 4 July 2012

How does availability of men in the environment affect women's career focus?

A recent article argues the ratio of men to women in an environment may influence women's pursuit of lucrative careers. Authored by Kristina Durante and colleagues, it begins by describing a correlational finding: women in US states with proportionately fewer men tend to have fewer babies and have them later, tending instead to be in higher-earning jobs. The rest of the article describes a series of experiments with female university students conducted to explore this.

The first experiment asked 89 participants to examine a set of photographs, ostensibly to test their ability to count frequencies of men and women in scenes from the local environment. Depending on the condition, photographs depicted more men, more women, or an equal sex ratio. Participants then rated items describing the importance of various life goals. The researchers found that participants exposed to a high-female sex ratio prioritised career over family goals to a greater extent than those in the other conditions. Perceptions of sex ratio appeared to shape personal priorities.

There are at least two explanations for why this effect exists. One is that sex ratio shapes the labour market, fewer men entailing more employment opportunities for women. The second is that sex ratio shapes a mating market, making finding a partner harder and thus encouraging a different strategy for life security. To differentiate between these, another experiment replicated the previous one using a similar exposure technique and also asked the 58 participants to rate how difficult it would be to acquire a good job or to find a mate (phrased in terms of marriage and dating prospects). Those participants exposed to a high-female ratio were more likely to see mate-finding as tough, but their expectations for the ease of finding a job were similar to their counterparts. Pulling the data into a model, the researchers demonstrated that putting career first was mediated not by their expectations that good work would be easier to find, but that a good mate would be harder to find.

A final study followed the same design, additionally asking participants to rate their self-perceived value to a mate via items such as "I receive many compliments from members of the opposite sex". Durante's team predicted that those who feel they may struggle finding a mate will be most responsive to these mating-market fluctuations, as they are more likely to end up alone. The analysis bore this out: when the environment was framed as containing many women, only those participants who personally felt they had a lower mate value placed a greater emphasis on career.

This article takes evolutionary research on sex ratios into the study of women's career decisions. It would be fascinating to see the same research pointed towards men, who also have desires to produce children and to advance their careers; does the mating market have a similar influence? The evolutionary argument predicts not, as it is based upon the concept of deep-seated divisions of labour based on biological differences. However, it could be that gender-based pay differentials shape this effect, and I wonder how different it would look in a society that had more equal pay than the US.

ResearchBlogging.orgDurante, Kristina M., Griskevicius, Vladas, Simpson, Jeffry A., CantĂș, Stephanie M., & Tybur, Joshua M. (2012). Sex ratio and women's career choice: Does a scarcity of men lead women to choose briefcase over baby? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103 (1), 121-134 DOI: 10.1037/a0027949

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