Theoretical Frame or Approach
Social scientists have suggested a multitude of theories to better explain, and account for, sex segregation in college major choice. “Preferences, Constraints, and the Process of Sex Segregation in college majors: A Choice Analysis” offers the theory of “Gender Essentialism”, which emphasizes the influence of gender stereotypes. Essentialism theory regards college major choice as “an instance where individuals behave in accordance with societal expectations of what constitutes gender-appropriate behavior,” (Ochsenfeld, 119). This theory suggests that we, as a culture, cultivate gender stereotypes and expectations, and instill them in children at a young age which guides their development of interests and self-concept. Gender essentialism claims that “culturally dominant stereotypes learned during childhood and adolescence guide the development of strongly gendered tastes,” based on which women and men form “systematically different” college major preferences and vocational interests” (Ochsenfeld, p119). Gender essentialism attributes gendered college major preferences to societal influences that have reinforced gender stereotypes throughout children’s development, depicting parents and educators as major actors in the influence process. Gender essentialism holds that parents and educators with gender-biased perceptions, direct male and female student’s interests in diverging directions, which influence their self-perception and development of competencies in various subject areas. Male students feel more competent in math, where they are most encouraged by parents and teachers, and therefore gravitate more towards math-intensive subject areas throughout their educational careers. Gender Essentialism views gender segregation in higher education and the labor force as a result of deeply-rooted gender stereotypes, reinforced throughout childhood, that influence the development male and female student’s interest and aptitude in different subject areas.
Another theoretical frame to analyze gender segregation that “Preferences, Constraints, and the Process of Sex Segregation in college majors: A Choice Analysis” provides is the theory of “Separate Spheres”. Separate Spheres explains gender segregation in higher education and the work force “against the backdrop of the fact that men and women have historically assumed different roles in the household,” (Ochsenfeld, p120). The theory of Separate Spheres claims that men and women internalize these gender roles early in their development, and allow them to direct their academic and occupational preferences. For example, because men predominantly adopt the “breadwinner role” in the household, they tend to value material rewards more highly than women do. This would serve as an explanation as to why men pursue occupations based on income-level, more so than women. Male students feel more pressure to pursue majors with higher pay grades and opportunities for career advancement because they feel they need to meet the societal expectation that they one day support a family. In contrast, women, who have historically been in charge of childrearing and keeping up with the household, will gravitate more towards occupational fields that allow for a work-life balance. And women feel more pressure to pursue majors in fields that will accommodate work-life balance, to satisfy their future gender-typical role as a mother and housewife. “Separate Spheres” attributes gender segregation to the influence of historically rooted gender role expectations on the educational and occupational preferences of men and women.