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Doing What You Love Doesn’t Always Pay for Women

Women and men have long sorted into different academic fields and occupations. New research from Yale SOM’s Adriana Germano shows how the seemingly gender-neutral advice to “follow your passions” helps explain the gender gap in lucrative STEM fields.

It’s a clichéd staple of commencement speeches and family dinners: “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” This advice is particularly resonant in a culturally individualistic country such as the U.S., where the idea of “following your passion” guides many young people as they choose their educational path and subsequent career. But new research suggests that this advice could have different consequences for women and men.

A quick glance at workplace data shows widespread occupational segregation in the U.S. Many so-called “HEAL” professions—health, education, administration, and literacy—are female-dominated (think nursing or teaching), while the more lucrative STEM professions—science, technology, engineering, and math—are staffed largely by men. The new study, by Yale SOM’s Adriana Germano and six co-authors, suggests that the follow-your-passion ethos may help explain that gap.

“If you've lived in the United States long enough, the advice to follow your passions is something I think everyone has heard, and that people really abide by,” Germano says. Although the advice “seems genderless and really positive,” she continues, “these big cultural constructs that seem good on the surface can have negative repercussions.”

Germano and her co-authors found that when study participants were primed with advice that emphasized following one’s passions and doing what they loved, women were significantly less likely to choose majors or jobs in STEM fields than men; by contrast, when people were advised to think about future income or job security, the gender gap narrowed.

Germano and her colleagues, who included John Oliver Siy, Laura Vianna, Jovani Azpeitia, Shaoxiong Yan, and Sapna Cheryan of the University of Washington as well as Amanda K. Montoya of UCLA, began by identifying three distinct ideologies in the U.S., which they call the “follow-your-passions,” “resources,” and “communal” ideologies. To understand whether those ideologies varied among demographic groups, they asked 531 undergraduate students from a mix of racial backgrounds how strongly they weighed different types of advice in choosing their academic majors. Those who chose a major that was aligned with their interest, their happiness, or their passion were identified as adhering to the follow-your-passions ideology, while those who prioritized income potential, whether a major was sensible and realistic, and its potential job security were more attuned to the resources ideology. They found no meaningful difference in how frequently women and men from all racial backgrounds embraced the follow-your-passions or the resources ideologies, although women were slightly more likely to follow a communal ideology (described as a job that “will allow you to nurture and emotionally support people”).

Gender differences emerged in a second experiment, in which they asked 41 female and 40 male students about their intention to pursue engineering, the most male-dominated of the STEM fields. The participants, all of whom were White, were told, in different orders, “Imagine you followed the advice to follow your passions and do what you love,” or, “Imagine you followed the advice to do what is practical.” Then they were asked how interested they would be in pursuing a career in engineering based on the advice they’d just received. When they were thinking of their passions, women were less likely to say they would pursue engineering than men were. However, when they’d been influenced by the resources ideology, women’s intentions to pursue engineering increased, narrowing the gender gap.

When the researchers asked about several more STEM majors—computer science, engineering, and physics —they saw that priming undergraduate students with the follow-your-passions advice increased academic gender disparities. “It’s a shocking thing, because that’s a form of advice that you hear everywhere, and you wouldn't expect to have these kinds of results,” Germano says. By contrast, exposing students to the resources ideology had the effect of narrowing the gap—indeed, it reduced the gap between women and men choosing those STEM majors. “We see that gap really shrinks when students are given the advice to follow the resources or breadwinner type of ideology,” Germano observes. Interestingly, the gaps between women and men who were following their passion were very similar to the gaps shown at baseline, before students had been exposed to either ideology, which suggests that the passions ideology functions as something like a default in the U.S.

When you hear the message to follow your passion, it makes you look deeply in yourself and think about, what am I interested in? Who am I? What do I care about? This leads you to draw upon parts of yourself and your experiences that that are typically socialized and gendered.

In follow-up studies with adults, the researchers confirmed that exposure to the follow-your-passions ideology caused a larger occupational gender disparity than when respondents were primed with the resources ideology. In addition, the researchers teased out one reason why. In one experiment, participants were exposed to the follow-your-passions and resources ideologies, and again asked to list a career that would fit each ideology. But this time, they were asked questions that linked the advice either to feminine or masculine aspects of themselves. The responses made it clear that the passions ideology caused women to draw on aspects of themselves that were consistent with their socialized gender.

“When you hear the message to follow your passion, it makes you look deeply in yourself and think about, what am I interested in? Who am I? What do I care about?” Germano explains. “This leads you to draw upon parts of yourself and your experiences that that are typically socialized and gendered. However, when you ask women and men to instead focus on features of the job, like its security or salary, the types of careers women and men think about become more similar.”

The researchers’ findings point towards how exposing young people to the resources ideology can narrow gender gaps in college majors and occupations. But given the cultural prominence of the follow-your-passions ideology, people could likely benefit from other nudges and exposures beginning early in life.

“We wouldn't want to necessarily say that we shouldn't tell people to follow their passions anymore,” Germano says. That ship has probably already sailed, since “it’s so integrated with U.S. culture.” But, she adds, “It's important to think about how individualism might interact with our different gendered life experiences, and with the broader cultural context.” In addition to helping more women enter STEM fields, Germano wonders how, for example, more men could be encouraged to go into fields such as early childhood education or nursing. “It's possible that with more tweaking and more effort, you could help identify what it is that’s making those careers seem less attractive” to men, she says.

She sees opportunities for caregivers of young children to expose them to different types of toys and activities, and help them “try things that maybe they don't know that they like yet.” Similarly, once students are older, mandatory courses in male- and female-dominated areas of study could give everyone a chance to learn about something they might not have ordinarily chosen. Germano herself was advised to follow her passion, which led her to study photography and art history before eventually pivoting to the sciences and becoming a social psychologist. “I think for a lot of people, we can think of roads that we didn't take that maybe would have been really interesting for us to do,” she says. “But because we frequently stick to what we already know we like, we miss out on paths that could be just as exciting.”

Department: Research