Sex Hormones May Affect Some Women's Career Choices

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In a recent study published in the journal Hormones and Behavior, psychologists studying career choices announce that they believe that there is a biological basis for why women choose people-oriented careers over technical-oriented careers. They refer to this job preference as a “people versus things” career decision. Their findings from the published study indicate that women with the genetic condition congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), which exposes them to excessive levels of male-type hormones, prefer career interests geared more toward traditional male occupations such as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) is a genetic condition associated with an insufficiency of the enzyme 21-hydroxylase. Because of the enzyme insufficiency, the adrenal glands over-produce male-type steroid hormones called androgens. During fetal development the adrenal glands are active; therefore, a female fetus with CAH will be exposed to above-normal androgen levels throughout gestation. Sometimes this results in some difficulty in identifying the sex of the newborn due to a resulting enlarged clitoris or other signs of abnormal growth.

In the study, male and female teens and adults with Congenital adrenal hyperplasia, and their siblings without CAH were given a questionnaire focused on 64 occupations. They were then asked to answer whether they would like to have the job, not like to have the job or were indifferent about the job. This questionnaire was based on the type used by vocational counselors for determining career interests.

The 64 occupations were grouped into six categories identified as realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising and conventional. The six categories were then divided into two groups: thing-oriented and people-oriented. Realistic and investigative occupations such as farmer, scientist and engineer fall under the thing-oriented group. Social and artistic occupations such as musician, teacher and artist fall under the people-oriented group. The enterprising and conventional occupations such as realtor, hotel manager and business owner are considered an in-between group.

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What the researchers found was that females with CAH were significantly more interested in pursuing thing-oriented occupations than people-oriented occupations in comparison with women who did not have CAH. Their results also showed that women with CAH who had the highest level exposure to androgens in comparison to women with CAH who had relatively lower levels of exposure to androgens, demonstrated the strongest interest in careers that were thing-oriented.

Female test subjects without Congenital adrenal hyperplasia were more likely to choose occupations that were people-oriented in comparison to male subjects without CAH who demonstrated that they preferred occupations that were thing-oriented. Males with and without CAH showed no difference in preference toward occupations.

According to Adriene M. Beltz, a graduate student in psychology working with Sheri A. Berenbaum, the professor who led the study at Penn State, "We found there is a biological influence on that interest toward things, so maybe women aren't going into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers because what they're interested in—people—isn't consistent with an interest in STEM careers," says Beltz. "Maybe we could show females ways in which an interest in people is compatible with STEM careers."

Source: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0018506X11001292 Gendered occupational interests: Prenatal androgen effects on psychological orientation to Things versus People Hormones and Behavior Volume 60, Issue 4, September 2011, Pages 313-317.

Image credit: morguefile

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