An analysis of responses of people from 42 countries on a vocational interest inventory confirmed the well-known finding that women tend to prefer jobs and activities that focus on working with people, much more than men. Men tend to prefer working with things much more than women. Women were also found to have somewhat higher preferences for jobs that involve working with ideas and for more prestigious jobs. The study was published in Sex Roles.
In late 1990s, Terence J. G. Tracey and James Rounds, found that individual differences in vocational preferences can be described through three dimensions of opposite preferences – working with people (e.g., teaching, helping) vs. working with things (machines, tools), working with ideas (e.g, creative writing) vs. working with data (accounting) and prestige (being a CEO or a prominent leader vs being an unqualified laborer). This model of vocational interests became known as the spherical model.
For decades, psychologists have studied the differences in career interests of men and women. When their results are considered from the perspective of the spherical model of vocational interests, research results consistently indicate that women prefer to work with people much more than men. On the other hand, men prefer working with things (e.g., machines, tools, vehicles) much more than women.
This finding was important as it might help explain the gender differences in choosing occupations, such as the one in choosing STEM field occupations (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).
However, most of the studies of gender differences have been done on groups from a single nation and mostly from economically developed and individualistic countries. Cross-national studies, on the other hand, mostly focused on STEM-related interests and on gender equality issues.
Surprisingly, the latter studies tended to show that gender differences appear to be greater in societies with greater gender equality and in which people have greater economic resources. This became known as the “gender equality paradox”
To study gender differences in vocational interests across different world cultures, study author Chun Tao and his colleagues analyzed data from an online survey conducted by Time, an internationally popular English-language news and lifestyle magazine. This survey contained responses of 84,393 respondents from 193 nations, territories and regions on a vocational interests assessment instrument (PGI-Mini).
The researchers included in their analyses only data from countries with at least 30 male and 30 female respondents. This resulted in a final dataset containing 75,908 responses from 42 countries. Scores on dimensions of vocational interests of the spherical model – working with people vs. working with things, working with ideas vs. working with data, and prestige – were calculated for each participant.
The researchers estimated national gender inequality in each country using the United Nations Development Programme’s measure of gender inequality and obtained national cultural dimension values based on Hofstede’s theory of dimensions of cultural differences.
As expected, results showed that the most pronounced differences between genders are in preferences for working with people vs. working with things. Women preferred working with people much more than men. Men preferred working with things much more than women. The size of the difference was not equal across countries – it was the smallest in participants from Georgia and the largest in participants from Venezuela.
When the working with ideas/data dimension was considered, “women tended to be more interested in working with ideas (versus data) than men in all but two countries (the Philippines and Poland),” the authors wrote. Finally, the smallest difference between genders was found on the dimension of prestige. The researchers state that “women tended to be more interested in prestige than men in all but eight countries (Canada, Chile, France, Greece, Malaysia, Pakistan, Republic of Korea, and Singapore).”
Considering gender inequality, the authors report that “in countries of higher gender inequality, women’s stronger preference for working with people versus things compared to men was smaller.” However, this effect disappeared when cultural dimensions were taken into account.
Instead, it was those countries with greater uncertainty avoidance that had larger differences in interests in people/things between men and women. Uncertainty avoidance refers to the degree to which a culture teaches its members to feel unpleasant in situations that are new, not previously known, surprising, or generally just different from usual.
A similar situation was repeated when gender differences in preferences for working with ideas were considered. The only difference was that it was the power distance cultural property that explained the difference. Power distance refers to the degree to which less powerful members of a society accept and expect power in the society to be unequally distributed.
Findings from this study offer important practical implications for career counseling professionals. However, the authors note that it also has certain limitations. Samples from certain countries were very small and the respondents tended to be more educated and financially much better off than the average resident of their countries .
The study, “Are Gender Differences in Vocational Interests Universal?: Moderating Effects of Cultural Dimensions”, was authored by Chun Tao, Alexander Glosenberg, Terence J. G. Tracey, David L. Blustein, and Lori L. Foster.