Young people in gender-atypical professions often have above-average school results

20/Aug/2013

In Switzerland, many professions are predominantly male, others are predominantly female. Gender segregation is much more pronounced than in the rest of Europe. Persons who chose gender-atypical professions often achieve above-average school results and show great self-confidence. These are the conclusions of a study which is part of the National Research Programme "Gender Equality" (NRP 60).

​Compared to other European countries, professional gender segregation is particularly pronounced in Switzerland: women predominantly work in female professions while men work in male professions. Gender segregation is problematic for a number of reasons: female professions such as care jobs often carry low prestige, offer few career opportunities and are badly paid. In addition, this segregation also leaves a great potential untapped because people who only choose gender-typical professions may never fully develop their abilities. Less segregation would also strongly benefit gendered professions such as engineering and health care, which suffer from a shortage of qualified personnel.

Educational and professional career paths of 6000 young people

Why is gender segregation so pronounced? What could be done to counteract it? These are the questions addressed by Andrea Maihofer, Manfred Max Bergman and their team from the Center for Gender Studies and the Department of Sociology at Basel University as part of the National Research Programme "Gender Equality" (NRP 60). For their representative longitudinal study, they analysed the educational and professional career paths of 6000 young people and conducted in-depth interviews with 33 adults who left school ten years ago. Gendered professions were defined as occupations in which more than 70% are either men or women; all other professions are considered gender neutral.
The study shows that choosing a gender-atypical education or profession continues to be the exception. Professional gender segregation is therefore not a generational problem which will disappear by itself in the next few years. Of the 6000 young people only 22 women and 20 men aspired to a gender-atypical profession when they were 16 and still work in this profession ten years later. This corresponds to less than one percent. In addition, some of these people work in a gender-typical niche of their profession.

Influential gender stereotypes

There are many reasons for this pronounced gender segregation. In the Swiss education system, young people have to choose a profession at around 15 years of age, which is earlier than in other countries. At this age, they are heavily influenced by gender stereotypes. Most teenagers therefore never think of choosing a gender-atypical profession. In addition, they tend not to alter their gender-typical career path at a later stage because the education system does not encourage such changes.

The desire to start a family is another factor in choosing a traditional career: young women who wish to have children tend to choose female professions which will enable them to take maternity breaks and work part-time. Men who wish to become fathers are inclined to choose a profession promising a good income and career opportunities which will enable them to become the main earner of the family. These decisions early in professional life make it difficult to realise family models beyond the traditional breadwinner-housewife model.

Opening doors to gender-atypical professions

Young men and women who work in a gender-atypical profession – e.g. women as car mechanics, men as carers – tend to have better reading and mathematical skills than their colleagues who work in a gender-typical profession. In addition, their parents reached a higher level of education. The researchers interpret this as an indicator that young people who choose a gender-atypical profession and work in it need special resources and great self-confidence to overcome existing preconceptions. The advantages of choosing a gender-atypical profession vary for young men and women: young men in female professions generally have low-prestige jobs while women often gain in status by choosing a typically male profession.

How can gender-atypical professions become more accessible to young people? The researchers emphasise the importance of encouragement by family members as well as teachers and vocational trainers if a teenager expresses the wish to learn a gender-atypical profession. In addition, they recommend that schools and career counselors should increasingly discuss gender-atypical professions and family models beyond the breadwinner-housewife model. In typically female professions, remuneration levels and career opportunities should be improved; in typically male professions, part-time work and flexible working hours should become more standard.

Contact

Professor Andrea Maihofer
Center of Gender Studies
University of Basel
Phone +41 61 271 35 59
E-mail andrea.maihofer@unibas.ch

Dr Karin Schwiter
Center of Gender Studies
University of Basel
Phone +41 76 442 32 76
E-mail karin.schwiter@unibas.ch

Contact
Communication division
E-mail com@snf.ch