Mechanism or Myth?: Family Plans and the Reproduction of Occupational Gender Segregation

Gender and Society 30 (2):265-288 (2016)
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Abstract

Occupational gender segregation is an obdurate feature of gender inequality in the United States The “family plans thesis”—the belief that women and men deliberately adjust their early career decisions to accommodate their anticipated family roles—is a common theoretical explanation of this segregation in the social sciences and in popular discourse. But do young men and women actually account for their family plans when making occupational choices? This article investigates the validity of this central mechanism of the family plans thesis. Drawing on in-depth interviews with 100 college students at three universities, I find that most women and men report no deliberate consideration of their family plans in their college major or post-graduation career choices. Only a quarter of men accommodate provider role plans in their choice of occupations, and only 7 of 56 women accommodate caregiving plans. Further, men who anticipate a provider role are not typically enrolled in more men-dominated fields, and women who seek caregiver-friendly occupations are not typically enrolled in more women-dominated fields. These findings question the validity of the family plans thesis and suggest instead that the thesis itself may reproduce segregation as a cultural schema that buttresses essentialist stereotypes about appropriate fields for men and women.

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